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Safari report

Safari, Kruger National Park, South Africa. Image: GettyKruger National Park, South Africa. Image: Getty

The safari market may offer higher returns for agents but specialist knowledge and firsthand experience is crucial, reports Maria Lenhart

Whether it’s flying over wildebeest marching across the Serengeti or coming face to face with a rare white rhino in Kruger National Park, few travel experiences are higher on bucket lists than an African safari. It’s a rewarding market, and not just for travelers themselves but the agents who make it all happen.

“Watch all the documentaries you want, but nothing can compare with a safari in Africa,” says safari specialist Steve Powers, owner of Hidden Treasure Tours in Long Beach, Calif. “They don’t come cheap, so agents can benefit from higher returns than with many domestic products.”

Despite misconceptions among consumers about the Ebola virus (confined to West Africa and nowhere near safari destinations), agents say safaris are a strong market. Safari specialists surveyed by Zicasso reported increases in bookings of 21-40% during the first nine months of 2014. Although taking a dip in the fall when Ebola made headlines, safari inquiries surged back up in December, according to Zicasso.

Conversely, new stories about the threat to African wildlife by poachers have helped safari travel to grow, says Elias Garcia, marketing specialist for Global Basecamps in Encinitas, Calif. “There’s the thought that these species have a limited time on this earth, and the rarest species, such as the rhino, will not be there much longer.”

On a more positive note, safaris also fit right into important consumer trends, particularly increased interest in experiential travel. Along with that, they have appeal that cuts across generational lines, says Margie Jordan, owner of Jordan Executive Travel Service in Jacksonville, Fl., who’s long focused on the safari market.

“Baby Boomers are into experiential travel, but so are Millennials,” says Jordan. “For Boomers, many of whom are retiring, safaris are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As for Millennials, safaris reflect the way they always travel — they want adventures.”

Increasingly, Jordan and others are seeing safaris drawing strong interest among clients who want a multi-generational family vacation. “Other than for very young children, there might not be a better option in the world for multi-generational trips,” says Garcia. “The excitement of seeing a wild lion or elephant doesn’t change for any age group.”

Another reason safaris are a promising niche for agents is they’re a complex form of travel not easily booked online, even by internet-savvy Millennials. Their complexity requires guidance and expertise. However, that also means agents need to put time and effort into training as well forming effective partnerships with suppliers.

Global Basecamps vehicle, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

Global Basecamps vehicle, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

Knowledge, experience & contacts

Specialist destination training, FAM trips and making connections at trade shows have all helped Lois Howes, travel consultant at Superior Travel in Freeport, N.Y., and a former president of ASTA’s Long Island Chapter, develop safaris into a rewarding niche.

“The contacts I’ve made at conferences such as ASTA’s Destination Expo (ADE) in South Africa a few years ago, have been really helpful,” says Howes. “You want to form strong partnerships with operators who really know Africa.”

In developing business, Howes uses Facebook to get the word out that safaris are a specialty. She also finds social media a useful method for getting updates from suppliers and colleagues on the wildlife situation at the various camps. “Through my contacts on Facebook I can learn where the animals are moving, about poaching situations and other information that’s useful in determining where to send clients,” she says.

Agents serious about selling Africa also need to experience it for themselves, according to Howes, who’s taken her grandson to South Africa, an experience that’s helped her in planning multi-generational vacations there for clients.

“It’s also essential for agents to really learn about the geography of Africa and be able to address concerns,” she says. “Clients will say ‘I can’t go to Africa — there’s Ebola.’ The reality is it’s thousands of miles from where they’ll be.”

While once primarily limited to East Africa, safari customers have a wide range of destinations to choose from. In the two decades he’s handled safari travel, Steve Powers has seen interest expand from Kenya and Tanzania to South Africa and, more recently, to Botswana and Namibia. For clients with an adventurous streak, he recommends steering them toward some of the expanding array of options available.

“Botswana is one of my favorite places, and I encourage clients to combine it with South Africa,” he says. “A fun safari option is a self-drive — I did it myself a few years ago and loved the independence and flexibility.”

The growing number of safari destinations also means agents need to learn how to match the right one with their client. “If your clients have never been to Africa, they may expect it to look like scenes from Out of Africa,” says Cathy Holler, vice president, business development and product innovation for Travcoa. “But that’s East Africa. Botswana and Namibia will look totally different. You need to really drill down and find out what they’re picturing and what they expect.”

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