Africa Travel Week
African Luxury Travel

COVID-19 and the Luxury Traveller

In December 2019, the global luxury travel market was worth an estimated $1.54trn, according to ILTM, enough to place it in the top fifteen economies in the world. It employed 62 million people and supported many millions of small businesses, communities and families around the world.

COVID-19’s shut down of travel and tourism was immediate, comprehensive and devasting.

No different in South Africa, whose luxury safari lodges have seen their peak game viewing season (July, August and September) pass by completely – with far-reaching implications for the communities it supports.

South Africa’s travel and tourism industry is in crisis, and calls are mounting for the South African government to reopen the country’s borders as a matter of urgency. But are we starting to see the first signs of travel’s return? And will luxury travel be the first sector to bounce back?

It’s a resounding yes from US travel consultant Anthony Berklich, who hosted Africa Travel Week’s first virtual masterclass, ‘Better Understand the Luxury Traveller’.

The first in a series of Meetings & Masterclasses, the webinar took a closer look at the luxury travel market and talked to delegates about how they can adapt their product to meet the needs and desires of the post-COVID luxury traveller.

Berklich, who just returned to New York from Kenya, addressed luxury travel in Africa and, in particular, how one can market their lodge, product or offering in a unique way – and improve their guest experience in what are very strange times.

Here are just a few things to keep in mind:

Luxury is an experience

Berklich believes that people often conflate or confuse luxury with cost. Rather than the ‘expense’ involved, luxury is all about the experience. The luxury traveller is looking for a highly personalised, tailormade experience far from the madding crowd – and this has never been truer than now.

Establishments that offer new, fresh and tailormade experiences will be well-placed to attract visitors once our borders open. Putting Africa, with its natural beauty, unparallel game viewing opportunities and cultural experiences, at a distinct advantage. 

For Berklich, the ‘luxury experience’ extends to the new health and safety protocols. His recent stay at a safari lodge in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy included handwashing basins and beautiful bottles of hand sanitiser. Each guest received a small satchel made from traditional Kenyan fabric, which held a fabric mask and disinfecting wipes. 

“Make it a luxury experience,” says Berklich, “So it doesn’t feel threatening – and it doesn’t feel like an imposition for guests.”

Importantly, none of these ‘touches’ should be underplayed says Berklich, “All of these are messages to travellers that ‘you get it’, that you are taking the situation seriously and that their health is of the highest priority.”  

Normalise COVID travel

It also goes a long way to normalising post-COVID travel.

Natalia Rosa, MD of the travel, communications and content agency Big Ambitions, agrees:  “We need to communicate the readiness of our travel product so that we can reduce the fear of travel and drive demand by showing that it is safe and indeed normal to travel.”

Berklich encourages operators and establishments to ‘take the lead’ in the response to COVID, saying, “your government may not always be there for you in the way that you want – we can’t always rely on others to tell us how to handle this appropriately. It is an opportunity for any brand on the African continent, any hotel, any tour operator, to do the legwork themselves and allow their guests to feel safe in their environment.”

Go the extra mile

In fact, Berklich believes that health and safety protocols are perhaps the easiest problem to address. The most challenging? Air access and air routes. Berklich believes that most travellers (luxury or otherwise) are going to find navigating air travel at the moment, including transit destinations and requirements, quite daunting:

“Even transiting through certain areas is a worry. We rely on the big international carriers to bring guests from overseas, and then on the smaller carriers to bring people to more remote, rural areas. Working hand-in-hand with the airlines and anticipating any problems – and offering solutions – it’s just another way of letting the luxury traveller know they are in good hands, and that you are their advocate on the ground.”

Going the extra mile is more important than ever. If your guest needs a COVID test before they leave (as a requirement of their next destination), make sure you can arrange a nurse or medical practitioner to come to your lodge to administer a test.

According to Berklich, people are willing to pay for great service. They’re willing to pay for support at the airport; for someone to meet them on the ground and help them navigate the arrivals process – or for private COVID tests. It can never seem like an imposition – focus on providing a seamless, unforgettable guest journey.   

Communicate with empathy – and authority

Potential visitors are active on social media, and expect warm, informed and responsive communication. Berklich encourages operators and establishments to communicate with their audience on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Instagram – even Twitter.

Share the latest news and information about travel to your country, establish yourself as an expert – and let potential guests know that they are in safe hands. Once they are booked and on their way, keep in touch every step of the journey. “Be of service and be kind,” says Berklich, “People aren’t afraid, they just want to know they are being looked after.”

It’s also a great time to communicate your new terms and conditions (book now, cancel at any time), as well encouraging people to visit now while it is still so quiet: “The message should be ‘come now!’,” explains Berklich, “It’s the perfect time to see things you might not typically see in the height of season.”

Peter Dros, Sales & Marketing Director of Fancourt in George, agrees: “The Manor House, our five-star boutique hotel on the Fancourt estate, reopens on 24 September. Our first visitors will have an incredibly special stay on the Garden Route. Not only has spring arrived in all its glory, but our world-class golf courses are in phenomenal condition, neighbouring game reserves have Big 5 game drives on offer, and we can put together anything from private wine tastings to hot air balloon adventures. The opportunities, rates and experiences are endless. Grab them.”    

Never underestimate your domestic traveller

While our borders are still closed – and even once they reopen – Berklich cautioned delegates not to ignore or underestimate their domestic traveller:

“I know interprovincial travel has reopened in South Africa, and it is similar in Kenya and Rwanda, where they are encouraging people to see what’s at home, and to see what’s already there. They were offering special rates for locals, so they could experience the wildlife or the hotel for the weekend. Never underestimate the importance of this.”

Think out of the box

Although COVID-19 has hit the sector hard, the luxury traveller still has money. Berklich believes operators can afford to push the boat out a little when it comes to their offerings. Design bespoke experiences with private guides, for example, or consider renting out the entire lodge for a truly exclusive group package. Raise the bar – and people will bite!  

The message? Our borders will open, hopefully sooner than anticipated. Start planning now.

ATW’s Meetings & Masterclasses, which coincide with Tourism Month in South Africa, aims to bring travel operators, lodge owners, media and travel marketers together in an effort to keep the industry engaged and connected during the build-up to Africa Travel Week, which takes place at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC) from 07 – 09 April 2021.

To take part in one of the upcoming Meetings & Masterclasses during September or October click here.

DISCOUNT: For the duration of Tourism Month this September, Anthony Berklich is currently offering a 25% discount on his consulting services. For more info, contact him here:

Linsey Schluter

Linsey is a Content Writer for Big Ambitions. After a rewarding stint as a Communications Specialist for a South African NGO, she followed her love for travel, writing and content creation straight in the travel and tourism industry. Never far from a cup of coffee, Linsey is either subbing travel articles, updating her bucket list or entering adventure marathons she’ll probably never run.