By Ilse de Vries
You couldn’t be in an easier business if a hard sell is not your thing – humans are instinctively drawn to mystical elephant silhouettes and fiery sunsets. Chuck in crisp pink cocktails, rugged safari vehicles and lantern-lit bomas, and your safari seats practically book themselves.
Naturally, you’re all too aware of the not-so-easy parts of owning a luxury safari lodge: it takes true managerial craft and vision to balance out these multi-facetted operations, and until recently, the government has not done the industry any favours in easing complicated visa processes and safety concerns.
And then of course, there’s the chock-full online safari lodge listings – most of them persuasively fliting with perfect 5-star ratings. With all these tempting options, would-be safari-goers want to read about more than just guaranteed Big 5-spottings and mammoth buffets.
What then, are the true ‘Big 5’ your visitors crave when they check out? Read on to see how you and your team stack up. We’ve also asked Liezel Jonkheid, a customer experience specialist and owner of the Consumer Psychology Lab, to share ways that you can capture these trophies in your safari lodge experience.
The buffalo: Value for money
Nothing leaves a sour taste quite like the feeling of being short-changed on a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience – which a luxury safari is for many visitors, if they are not exceptionally well off. Economies are squeezing holidays everywhere, which means your buffet-loving guest from Frankfurt and the birdwatcher from Vryburg have at least one thing in common: they want to feel that the budgeting, borrowing and bartering of the last few years have paid off.
Your job is not just to make sure this happens, but to convince them that this ‘once in a lifetime’ experience should be done again (at your lodge of course).
“Ultimately, we are here for the game drives” is a common sentiment in online reviews, usually following a lack-lustre description of the catering and the bat droppings in the room. It goes without saying that the game drives are the actual drawing card and should be a well-oiled machine with a charismatic, engaging, highly knowledgeable guide (essentially, superman or woman). However, it does not mean that the rest should be less than sensational. Bringing all your lodge offerings to the same, spectacular level is a sure-fire way to stand out from your competitors.
The tricky part is knowing what ‘value for money’ looks like when you have guests from multiple generations, nationalities and value systems. Aside from those very one-dimensional customer service surveys, how do really know how you rank for ‘value for money’?
Liezel recommends: “Create a Voice of the Customer Programme for your guests. Let them tell you about their experiences to identify where you miss the value mark and the opportunity to do some damage control or add elements to your value offer.”
Also read: The read value of customer recommendation
The elephant: A human connection
“The rooms, food and game drive experience are of such a high standard. But as always, it’s the staff that make it so special.”
Sounds familiar? The role of human connection in the traveller experience cannot be underestimated. Getting a full score here seems effortless because luxury safaris are already highly idealized romantic getaways or family adventures, and most guests arrive starry-eyed and ready to engage. But when a relationship starts on such a high, the risk of later disappointment seems inevitable. This often manifest in small things, as this review shows: “Upon returning to the lodge after this scary incident, there was no one there to greet us, unlike every other night. No one checked on us.”
When you fail to make your visitors feel appreciated, comparisons are inevitable: “At a previous lodge, every member of management knew our names, our likes and dislikes, and were genuinely engaging. This was not the case here. It lacked the warmth and genuine friendliness of the management team which was extremely disappointing.”
This can be a serious blind spot for luxury safari lodge owners and managers – they often assume that their own passion pulls through across the team. On the flip side, they are also unaware of how their own negativity, lack of brand direction or stress-levels affect the lodge’s group spirit (and also each individual staff member’s willingness to go that extra mile).
Make sure every human interaction sparks enchantment: from the receptionist’s genuine smile, to the game ranger’s tailored stories, to the cleaner keeping an eye on the kids in the hallway while dad looks for his hat. Then you are assured comments like this: “The gem of the place is hands down the staff, who clearly love their jobs and care about their guests. Thank you, guys! You made our stay magical.”
Liezel recommends: “Get your entire team to love and believe in your dreams with a designed employee engagement programme. Your team will be empowered with knowledge and skills with the added benefit to awaken their passion and purpose within themselves.”
The leopard: The Personal Touch
People want to feel that they matter on an individual level, that they are being seen, and that their bush experience is different from everyone else’s. Most importantly, it needs to be different from their own expectations – in the best way possible of course.
How do you craft these personalized moments? Inspire your entire team to be genuinely interested, train them to pay attention, and empower them to act on spontaneous opportunities to wow. Remember our Vryburg birdwatcher? Like most avian aficionados – he’s just not that into early morning lion chase that has the rest of your guests gaga. But did your receptionist remember his email about that bird that is unique to your landscape? “I have asked to guide to take you, if you are interested, on a walking trip,” she smiles. “We often see our Narina Trogons there.”
Did you (and everyone else in the lodge) hear the late-night crying of the Dutch family’s youngest? In your friendly, non-invasive conversation with the droopy-eyed mom the next morning, find out if the little girl is perhaps sick (“We can arrange for any medicines to be picked up from the closest town while you are on your game drive.”) And mom might also need to be reminded of the bush spa’s decadently name ‘Majestic Awakening’ massage…
The lion: The Wow-factor
Bolster your guests’ ability to tell rich, surprising stories when they arrive home. Dazzling events also influence the story they tell themselves about their trip: this powerfully shapes their memories and the way they recommend your lodge. The only reason people passionately share things, is when it deeply affects them –make sure that you do this is a positive, and not in a disappointing way.
Is there a formula to these expectation-smashing moments on and off the actual safari vehicle? Absolutely: immaculate planning and preparation, with a splash of good luck. While you can’t predict the last part (wouldn’t that be epic?), you can make sure you’re always at the right ‘place’ when it happens.
“Wouldn’t it be lovely to play pétanque here– it’s perfect!” A waiter picked up this off-hand comment from a French guest, who was admiring the soft, sandy area next to their table. Without skipping a beat, he turned around and said, “Can I get the set out for you, sir?” You can imagine the visitor’s face – and his stories back home.
Only a switched-on staff member would have made the connection – the equipment to this popular ball game is kept on site as they have many European visitors. And only a very committed manager would have ensured that the entire team has the right information about every aspect of the lodge’s offerings, should the perfect opportunity present itself.
Liezel recommends: “Get an excellently designed employee engagement training programme in place to ignite your team’s passion, service know-how and can-do attitude to take your lodge experience to the next level.”
Also read: Do the right things in an extraordinary way
The rhino: Hidden magic everywhere
An out-of-this-world safari lodge experience doesn’t just happen by mistake – it is carefully designed and strung together with well-thought out actions, e.g. “we were given small delicious snacks during the day”, “they sang to my twins for their birthday”. Your guests are also attuned enough to notice missed opportunities: “during Christmas there was nothing, but really nothing special, just the Christmas tracks during the braai.”
In contrast, the lodge this guest stayed at clearly had their customer journey well mapped out: “Nearing the end of our successful, but chilly, game drive – my steaming, pre-bed bubble bath was firmly in eyesight. ‘We’re 5 minutes out,’ I heard our game ranger over the radio. Wonder what that was for? Instead of dropping us near our rooms, the game truck stopped right in front of the romantically lit dinner boma. A smiling staff member offered us warm water and Charlotte Rhys soap for our chilly hands, then sherry, whilst drumbeats sounded in the background. Smart, I thought as we were seated – our early night long forgotten.”
Another visitor tells of a sudden drizzle during a game drive. “Look under your seats, guys,” smiled the game ranger. Delighted by the high-quality poncho with soft, fuzzy inner layer, the guests cozied back in their seats for the rest of the sightseeing.
Think of everything, even the things people do not think they notice, i.e. subtle smells, background noises, and non-verbal ques (our sub-conscious powerfully affects our beliefs, experiences and memories).
Pay specific attention to the beginning and end of their visitor-relationship with you: when they arrived, were there rooms ready (even when they arrive early?), and when they left, had any arising issues been resolved? This is also a great time to ask: “Did you enjoy your stay? What advice do you have to improve the experience here?” When they are given the chance to verbalize their joy here, they are more likely to repeat it later.
The true sign of success here is when the visitor had such a seamless, all-round spectacular end-to-end journey, that this is the only review heading possible: “This is a place that defines perfection.” These ‘perfect’ memories will stick for decades to come (during which they might have visited you again another 10 times).
Liezel recommends: “Craft your customers’ journey so that it speaks directly to your guest’s unique needs and pain points – designing this with your entire staff will give everyone a powerful roadmap to follow when delivering service.”
YOUR NEXT LUXURY SAFARI READ: 7 luxury safari horror reviews that will kill your business – and how to turn them into fairy tales