The future of luxury safaris

After four decades in hospitality, a safari lodge owner has a message for her peers and safari businesses.

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NOTicky Fitzgerald has just retired from the safari industry after spending 40 years designing, building, operating and marketing 60 luxury properties in sub-Saharan Africa and India. She spent 15 years with the luxury adventure travel company &Beyond. In 2015, she became the founder, CEO and shareholder of the award-winning 60-bed Angama Mara safari lodge in Kenya’s Masai Mara Conservancy. This is Nicky’s first editorial for AFAR.

Last week, I welcomed my last guests after a 40-year vocation in hotels, restaurants and safari lodges across seven countries and two continents. I thank my lucky stars for having had the opportunity to make my way in the best industry of all: hospitality. What could be nicer than making sure clients have the time of their lives under your care?

It all started at the southernmost foot of Africa in a small beach hotel with 11 rooms; followed by a seven-year stay in hotels and restaurants in Cape Town and in the vineyards; and finally, the last 28 years filled with adventures in the safari industry. Looking back on my career, here’s what I learned and what I feel like I left unfinished.

Those who know me know my mantra: people first, always. Working alongside over 4,500 men and women across rural Africa and India has taught me that to do well I must put people at the heart of the business: the staff, the guests, the suppliers , community neighbours, industry colleagues, not to mention investors and bankers. Our guests simply cannot have a great stay if the team looking after them is not seen as the company’s most important asset. It comes before fame, fortune, ego, and certainly before conservation victories.

Little has changed in customer service. It must certainly be one of the oldest professions in the world. Travelers arriving at your doorstep should enjoy a warm welcome, enter a place where they feel pampered and safe, and find delicious little surprises around every corner. This is not rocket science. It’s all about humanity. And I wouldn’t play with that. Keep it simple, authentic, respectful of the place and the people who live there, offer excellent value for money and always believe that “service is love made visible”.

Looking to the future, what would I like to see in our industry, especially in the luxury safari segment? Please excuse me if I sound a bit of a maverick, but this, I am led to believe, is allowed from a certain age.

I believe the time has come for wealthy safari lodge owners and safari companies to tone down the preaching about our mission to save the world. These beautiful wilderness areas where we are fortunate to operate are not ours, not even remotely, not even if we have title deeds indicating as such. We should stop bragging about our luxury lodges, how many thousands of acres we have, how many classrooms we have built and how many rhinos we have translocated.

Let’s go back to where we started: putting people first and simplifying what we offer our customers. Before going any further, I would like to admit that during my career I have contributed to complicating hospitality. But at the end of the day: why do guests come to stay at luxury safari lodges? Basically, they come to discover the wild places of Africa, meet the people who live there and spend their days marveling at the wildlife. This means our job is to keep them safe, give them a warm welcome, send them out each day with a guide who is a master storyteller and pamper them at the lodge. And that being pampered isn’t just the thing, it’s the staff. Yes, the lodges must be lovely, the food delicious, and the pillows plump. But as an industry, we overstate and overlook the heart and soul of any safari experience: the people.

When you read about the launch of a new safari lodge, the story is usually about the owner being told between one beautiful image after another: plunge pools, chandeliers, viewing decks and more sofas than you couldn’t use it in a lifetime. But what is the significant story behind this beautiful place? Who owns the land? Where do the staff come from? What benefits will accrue to the community? What significant impact will this stunning location have on wildlife and habitat?

My ultimate hope for the safari industry is to become a small part of a larger ecosystem. Our role is to share the beauty of the African wilderness with our guests and to treat our neighbors with the respect they deserve. If the communities that live here are supported, the wildlife and habitat thrive. This in turn allows us to be part of this magnificent quest to cherish our planet for all.

“In Africa, there is a concept known as ubuntu – the deep sense that we are only human through the humanity of others; that if we have to accomplish anything in this world, it will be due in equal measure to the work and achievements of others. Nelson Mandela

>> Next: Safaris embrace a more sustainable and diverse future

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