Perspectives and optimism from South Africa and Zimbabwe

Ordinarily tourists flock to Sub-Saharan Africa to find solace in its wide open spaces, connect with its authentic stories and access its one of a kind nature experiences. Over the past year though, brands here have felt the impact of the halt in international tourism acutely.

We have the pleasure of working closely with some world leaders on the continent. We spoke with some of our treasured network to understand how things have changed over the past year and what we should expect over the coming months.

Huge thanks to Lee Kelsall, CEO of the Ker & Downey® Africa; Lisa Nel, Head of Product and Marketing at Ker & Downey® Africa; Hayley Walls, Sales and Marketing Director for Matetsi River Lodge Victoria Falls; Gaby Palmer, Head of Public Relations, Belmond Africa and Janalyn Theodosiou, Founder of SAND Travel PR for your contribution

It is important for the world to understand how important tourism is for these countries, the recovery of which will be absolutely essential for our economies and in turn communities to survive.

How have brands had to adapt to the new requirements? Who would you highlight for their positive response to the situation?

Hayley Walls: Innovative and proactive strategies have been key to how brands have navigated the pandemic. Many luxury brands that have historically relied on the global traveller for business have had to adapt to target their local domestic traveller. This has impacted all marketing channels from the tone of voice a brand uses, to the look and feel of the marketing message.

Home-grown travel has gained a more substantial platform and at Matetsi Victoria Falls we have loved nurturing and developing this - we have had great success in attracting our local market. We are very grateful for the support that we continue to receive and we intend to keep a local Zimbabwean resident rate in place (season and availability dependent) and to welcome our local market to enjoy what is on their doorstep.

Lisa Nel: As a luxury travel company, we have worked to offer as much flexibility and support to our clients as possible. In order to instil confidence and security we launched Flexi Travel, our travel terms that allow clients to postpone their trips without additional charge, as well as benefit from reduced deposits, deferred payment dates and up to 100% free cancellations due to COVID-19 restrictions* on a case by case basis.

More recently, we are arranging our clients’ itineraries according to PCR test requirements. This involves booking clients into lodges that accept or offer fly-in doctors that can conduct the PCR test or ending trips near destinations that offer testing. We also recommend booking only one country per trip to avoid the complications of PCR testing of multi-destination trips.

What is the feeling on the ground from the hospitality sector? Are business owners optimistic for the future?

Hayley Walls: Having just come out of a virtual trade show with agents from different continents and countries globally, there appear to be mixed feelings from different markets. Some EU countries are less optimistic about the recovery in 2021, while it seems that those with clients in the USA are ready to travel as soon as possible.

We as a business are definitely optimistic about the future. Matetsi Private Game Reserve spans 55,000 hectares with exclusive traversing rights for the guests staying at Matetsi Victoria Falls. Africa seems to be growing in popularity as travellers seek unlimited freedom of time and space. As a response to demand, agents who may not have worked in the destination before are now adding it to their preferred list. We anticipate that the greatest challenge will be limited availability at some lodges as we look ahead to 2022 and 2023.

Lisa Nel: Although the unprecedented events of 2020 have caused a host of challenges, we feel confident that safaris offer the perfect tonic to the current climate in terms of the remote nature of our product and its emphasis on reconnecting and giving back to the environment, wildlife and local communities.

Where do you see the focus for the next 6 - 12 months? What are the areas of opportunity following the pandemic? What is going to be particularly challenging?

Hayley Walls: We are still largely focusing on our local domestic market for Q2 & Q3 of 2021. We have consistently kept in contact with our international clients and continue to do virtual training as we believe that remaining relevant throughout this time will be key to our recovery in the long term.

We believe areas of opportunity lie in the introduction of new products - we have launched exclusive use buyouts of the lodge. This can work for both large multi-generational families or for high end corporate clients that are looking to re-ignite their EXCO teams by taking them away to an isolated location for strategising about the future.

Additionally we have noticed that HNWI are looking to be more involved in conservation and community projects in countries that do not necessarily have the financial support that others around the world do, like Zimbabwe. This will be a key target market for us.

The current challenge is to overcome the negative press that Southern Africa has received around the variants and ensure that the narrative around this changes. It is important for the world to understand how important tourism is for these countries, the recovery of which will be absolutely essential for our economies and in turn communities to survive.

Lisa Nel: One of the biggest challenges we are currently facing is the lack of flights, specifically direct flights, to Africa from the USA. Having more frequent flights will play an integral role in encouraging travellers to return to Africa.

How has the media landscape changed during this time? How can brands work together with their local press?

Gaby Palmer: Our immediate strategy is the same as many upmarket South African properties - stronger focus on marketing to the SADC region with enticing special offers; focus on our extensive gardens and al fresco dining options. We’ve witnessed the sad demise of many excellent glossy print publications locally however we believe new niched publications will emerge. We have a much stronger focus on performance marketing/digital paid advertising through social media channels and a stronger focus on forming stronger relationships with on-brand content creators.

Any other learnings from the pandemic?

Hayley Walls: We are constantly rethinking the meaning of travel as we enter a post-covid era. Purpose is becoming the new luxury. Purpose-driven travel doesn’t just mean token giving back, but rather trips that leave the traveller – and the people they meet along the way – genuinely enhanced. After over a year of being told to stay at home, travellers are desperate to increase the substance in their lives in a more meaningful way. That means travel experiences, accommodation and interactions that are rewarding not just on a surface level but in a more personal, long-lasting way.

The time is right to lean into the conversation around creating a sustainable future for travel to Africa.

We are excited to be launching new experiences tailored to this, whether a conservation-led helicopter journey from Matetsi or an exciting ‘Chef’s Table’ where guests are able to meet local suppliers and producers and have a hands-on cookery class with our Executive Chefs.

Lee Kelsall: We feel that this past year has been a pivotal one for the conversation around sustainability in the global travel industry and that now, as the world begins its monumental vaccination programme, the time is right to lean into that conversation around creating a sustainable future for travel to Africa.

In the midst of the disruption and devastation caused by COVID-19, many of us have had a chance to reflect on what our underlying purpose is as travel professionals. As Simon Sinek would say, our “why”. I think many of us have (if we hadn’t already) come to realise that our ultimate goal is to ensure the preservation and protection of the biodiversity and cultures of the destinations and regions we serve.

As a tour operator, our hope is that guests will approach travel from a more sustainable perspective and will consider the environmental and social impact of their holidays, and as a result will want to work with travel partners who will help guide them towards businesses that are using the economic benefits of tourism for the greater good.

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