Brett Thomson is the founder of Sun Safaris based in South Africa incorporating Sun Destinations and a number of safari camps, (Africa On Foot, nThambo and Umkumbe). Sun Destinations handles the marketing and reservations for all the camps. As such, it fits perfectly in Brett's vision; a travel agency with a focus on quality of the safari experience, that is based in Africa as close to the camps as one can get, that provides customers with the best safari advice, and with formulas that keep prices in check. Sun Safaris and the Sun Destination camps work tightly together, to create a safari product that's increasingly better and that's perfectly fit for customers from the other hemisphere.
To find out more, visit his website here - www.sunsafaris.com
Brett, you told me there are more camps that will join Sun Destinations soon. But until now you wouldn't give me more details. Can you please provide further info on these camps? Which ones are they? When are they joining? Where are they located? What do they offer?
The two new camps are Haina Kalahari Lodge (www.haina.co.za) and then Ngwesi Houseboat (www.ngwesi.co.za). Haina is located on a private reserve just north of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and then Ngwesi is moored at Shakawe near the top of the Delta. Haina offers a unique safari experience in that guests are exposed to animals like bat eared fox, gemsbok, eland etc – animals that one does not see in the more famous reserves. It has an awesome little waterhole in front of the lodge as well. I could sit there all day just watching a procession of animals coming to drink. Of course there is the Bushmen Experience as well – a lot of guests are looking for cultural experiences these days. Ngwesi is obviously a birders paradise and most of the guests are also looking to fish for Tiger Fish.
How do you see the future for Klaserie and Timbavati, in terms of eco-tourism? Will they become as well known as Sabi Sands?
In my experience, agents that know their business, to them, the Timbavati is just as famous as the Sabi Sand. The Klaserie less so, but it is building and building. When I first got involved in Africa on Foot and subsequently nThambo Tree Camp, the Klaserie was not that well known. But Courteney and Cecilia and I worked hard at letting people know that the Klaserie is just as incredible as its better known cousins. You know Courteney and the Rangers have done an awesome job at habituating the animals on our traverse. It doesn’t just happen overnight and since 2007 the game viewing has just become better and better because of the principled approach of Courteney and the team. Plus the quality of trackers and rangers in the 3 camps in the Klaserie has also helped put Klaserie on the map.
Of course the Sabi Sand has 30 to 50 years of marketing behind it, so I doubt the Klaserie will ever be as famous, but truth be told that’s fine by us – we like the less commercialness!
What about the Mozambique side of Kruger? Will more eco-tourism projects be developed there as well?
I don’t really know, but from what I can see, there is the will to create more eco-tourism there, but in my opinion it is just not accessible enough at this stage.
How do you see the future for Botswana's eco-tourism following the recent decision to ban hunting from 2014?
From the figures I have seen, the benefits of Photographic Tourism far outweigh that of hunting. So it seems that when the leases of the hunting concessions are coming to an end, they are being handed over to Photographic operators. However maybe for disingenuous reasons? Anyway, I think this is going to help more people visit Botswana. At the moment, apart from a few, most of the Botswana camps are too expensive for most people (this is not to say they are not full – as there are a lot of wealthy people out there!). But as more camps come on board I am sure the prices will drop with more competition. I am not sure how this will affect Botswana’s mantra of low volume and high quality however. It will be interesting as I am sure the Concessions will not be inexpensive and running a remote safari camp is not cheap!
nThambo camp - central building & room
Why do you think Sun Safaris became so successful so quickly? To what specific things do you attribute this success, i.e. with so many companies out there, what made you stand out from the crowd?
Well Sun Safaris certainly “did not make it” for a long time. I started the business part time, so for 3 years from 2002 to 2005 I was running it while I had a full time job. It was only in 2005 that things started happening. Being “first to market” was a definite help in terms of SEO – www.sunsafaris.com is a very old domain name, so Google ranks this highly (or at least used to!) so I started getting a lot of organic queries. That certainly helped. But things have changed now, and it is hard work (and expensive work!) generating enquiries. I also think that offering good, honest advice, and genuinely wanting a person to enjoy their safari, visit the right camps at the right time, also helped. It was only me initially I and used to meet the guests at the airports, help them on their way etc, so I think that worked. To this day all the Sun Safaris Consultants are instructed to send guests to the right camps based on their budget, season etc. We don’t try and “upsell”. So at this stage and to address your last question, I think what makes us stand out right now is the quality and experience of our Consultants. In addition, I sold shares to Lance Harcourt in 2007/8 and Lance has complimentary skills to what I have and I think we balance each other out in making decisions.
What 3 tips or advice would you give to anyone thinking of entering the field? In other words, what are the absolute must-haves for this profession?
You have to get enquiries You have to have seen the camps/areas first hand, and you have to be able to communicate with all sorts of different people and nationalities. But quite simply – you need enquiries, ie people walking through your shopfront!
In the saturated Safari market that is South Africa, with so many different options at various price alternatives, what are you offering with your camps that is different?
Africa on Foot was VERY different to anything in the Kruger when it first opened. In my opinion it actually took a while before people started appreciating it for what it is. I think the Kruger safari options became too “lodge” like and “hotel” like, whereas Africa on Foot has always been a camp – as well as nThambo. I feel that there is a difference, and I believe that in conjunction with Umkumbe Safari Lodge we have catered to guests that are coming more for the wildlife, camp fires, drinks by the bar, chats to the rangers and trackers; a more relaxed environment. Remember also that at all the camps, the owners are around all the time, and this also creates a nice atmosphere. In addition at all 3 camps, we have always had excellent rangers and trackers – this always makes a huge difference. Oh yes – and value – I believe the camps offer value.
Africa on Foot: bush walk.
Africa on Foot: what was the inspiration behind this and what has guest feedback been thus far?
Africa on Foot was Courteney & Cecilia Blunden’s brainchild. Cecilia’s family has always owned the farm (Ross) on which Africa on Foot is built (within the Klaserie) and it used to be a place where the family would go for weekends and holidays. Courteney was a ranger and Cecilia was in the lodge business and they decided to open a camp on Ross that would focus on walking safaris. Courteney came up with the fantastic name!
Guest feedback has been superb. Its not everyone’s idea of a safari (and thank heavens we are all different) but over the years it has attracted people that yearn for a comfortable camp, where they can walk in the bush, go on game drives, learn from the rangers and trackers, sit by a campfire under the stars, eat good old hearty meals and help themselves to a beer and glass of wine. Plus there is the Treehouse option, which guests enjoy a lot.
Ngwesi houseboat - dinner time
How important is social media for smaller concerns such as yourself, fairly new and lacking the reputation of the more established players?
Social Media has definitely helped us. We are very active on Facebook and Twitter and the Blogs. It’s not new to us and we have installed wifi at the Klaserie Camps and Haina and guests are sharing their sightings with friends and family stuck at home! It’s great. Social Media is actually an opportunity to “steal a march” on some of the more established players as it is inexpensive to get involved and create the platforms for users to generate content.
How do you see the future of travel marketing, especially with regard to safari tourism? For example, can operators and owners continue to rely upon the tried and tested agent/commission model?
You need everything working for you. The web-based travel agents send a lot of business, the traditional travel world send a lot of business, direct guests come though. You need them all sending you business otherwise you are not going to fill the camps. I don’t think anyone is more important than the other. I think you need to structure your rates to appeal to everyone, and to be fair to everyone. We love agents. We love direct guests. We love them all because they help us stay open and we enjoy having guests visit the camps!
In the event that a client is not satisfied, how do you go about addressing the issue? What is your advice to someone who is not satisfied? When should they raise issues, whilst on safari or having returned, and with whom should they raise concerns? (Generally)
My advice is for guests to raise their issues right there and then at the camp. I think some people, lets say that their toilet seat is broken, seethe and fester that thought in their mind their entire stay, don’t tell anyone and then probably run over their horrendous Tripadvisor report over and over before they finally post their damning review upon their return! When all that it took was an “Excuse me my shower is not working, can you fix it” and everything would be OK! Go straight to the Camp Managers, that’s my advice. I don’t know of any camps that would purposefully not want guests to enjoy themselves/be happy with their stay.
Hmmm... it's quite a novelty to ask a travel agent questions. I am trying to think of some as I am sure there is quite a lot I would like to know. Not easy for me though as I haven't traveled in South Africa. I'm not going to make them up to be polite, but for me the following are actually a bit interesting.
Honestly, why did you agree to be interviewed here? Do you keep up with forums? Which ones? What can a travel agent gain through a presence on forums and do you have any thoughts on why some seem to work with them quite comfortably while others appear to be uncomfortable - even ham-fisted? How do African travel agents view forums do you think? (No need to be shy about the last one, we are all confident that we are the exception! ). I imagine that forums are pretty low on the list of priorities for marketing - is that an accurate perception?
I agreed to be interviewed because I think some Forum users could know that not all agents are the devil personified! When Tripadvisor first came out I used to offer my advice. I soon realized that agents are not viewed in a positive light and there are a lot of opinionated people out there. Especially when they are anonymous! So I lost interest pretty quickly and I don’t really follow the forums – well Tripadvisor and Fodors at least. I come onto SafariTalk to generally catch up and see what people are talking about.
Some agents definitely use the forums as a way of generating business, and why not, from the responses I see them responding with, they actually are offering fantastic advice! So what’s wrong with that? Some agents just can’t help but offer their advice sometimes!
Sun Safaris does not use the forums at all to generate enquiries. I do however think they are great for helping those guests who enjoy arranging everything themselves and direct.
Do you view Trip Advisor reviews as a real opportunity (because e.g. you have near-100% customer satisfaction so you will generally show up very well) or a bit of an unpredictable monster? Do you target it at all? (I don't mean manipulate - I mean the ethical stuff you could do as a marketer, rather than ignoring it.)
I love to hate Tripadvisor! I love it when the review is good and I have a sinking feeling in my stomach when we get the odd bad one! At this stage we are established enough, and learnt our lessons from the bad ones, to be confident that the reviews will generally all be positive. I think it is tougher for safari lodges on Tripadvisor as you cant control the main thing guests are coming for – game viewing! As good as your rangers and trackers can be, they simply cannot ensure that a guest will see a lion and leopard. It affects their experience and their feedback.
Umkumbe - Owner Herman driving his guests around
It's natural for me to see myself as a typical safari consumer, but it is becoming clearer and clearer that I am not. You've set out on a certain path and reading between the lines and seeing what you have done I think it is likely you used to have quite a lot in common with many of the members here in one way or another. My suspicion is that more and more people are coming to Africa for shorter periods as just another place on the bucket list rather than for real adventure and intense experience, but that is probably not really true. What are your thoughts on how the safari market is changing, (if at all,) and what that means for you as, (i), a travel agent and, (ii), a camp operator? (Please go as far outside your own personal experience as you feel comfortable.) Do other travel agents/ camp operators say the same sort of thing?
I don’t really think people are coming for shorter periods. People come on holiday to South Africa for example and they want to see Cape Town and the Kruger, perhaps the Garden Route and then if they have time Victoria Falls. People coming to Botswana want to see the Okavango and Chobe – because that’s what they know and hear about. It’s very difficult to convince them to go somewhere else. So I think that you need to create value. It all comes down to budget, matching their budget with the properties that are suited to their budget and also their comfort expectations.
Also – the safari bug bites some people – both the camps and Sun Safaris have plenty of repeat guests that after their first safari they come back again and again – so they are definitely experiencing something new or adventurous each time they come?
I am not sure if I have answered your questions above?
There seem to be fewer and fewer of the owner-operated camps, or even really independent camps nowadays. Some people say service is better and camps are nicer, and some people say camps are losing their character. Do you have any thoughts on that - either as a camp operator or, (presumably), as a visitor to other camps from time to time? What were your favorite camps 10 years ago and what are your favorite camps now, (excluding your own of course)?
There are still a good few owner operated camps out there – perhaps a lot of them lose that identity because they band together to form a marketing company in order to be more efficient & to get economies of scale in their marketing. But I know what you mean – there are some fantastic camps out there, that I have visited before (about 5-7 years ago) that when I went back, had lost that little something that they had. And you know what, its not necessarily the camps fault, it’s the guests fault! I think they have been threatened so many times with legal stuff that they have had to become politically/legally correct in how they do things. How the camp is built, how the safari is run etc. I hope you know what I mean?!
Anyway – my favourite camps – and this excludes the ones I am involved with(!) – are Tubu Tree in Botswana, Old Mondoro in the Lower Zambezi and Little Makalolo in Hwange. Both 10 years ago and today – they are amazing wildlife areas. I particularly love the Mana Pools and Lower Zambezi.
Do you find safaris themselves less alluring after a time in the business? Does it get old?
Going to the bush never gets old, but going on educationals gets old! But these days the Sun Safaris Consultants go on educationals (as they have to experience the camps/areas first hand) and they love it! Maybe because it gets them away from their desks! When I visit the camps its more the camps I am involved with so am lucky enough to my own thing and go out on drives with just the owners and myself – so the sundowner stop is a little longer than normal!
By going for your own business, rather than working for someone else I take it that you want to be independent and offer something new, such as a good booking service and camp facilities for those who don't have massive wallets and want something much closer to nature : what is this your long term vision?
Honestly, personally, I love working for myself and being my own boss. I was in the Corporate World for a long time and positively did not like the restrictions. So for Sun Safaris, my long term goal is to be able to have it run so efficiently by staff so that I can spend more time in the bush and maybe a bit more involved in wildlife conservation contribution. Plus I want to leave a business for my family/kids and for my retirement – so that I can play golf. Preferably at Fancourt.
Then for Sun Destinations, at this stage we would love to have more camps under the Portfolio, but first things first – get the current camps running at 70% plus occupancies and we will be happy!
Both Jan and Harvey, rangers from Nthambo have backgrounds working at Lion Sands, is this coincidence or by design? What qualities are you looking for when employing new staff?
Courteney used to guide at Lion Sands so he has friends there, and he has been responsible for bringing in all our superb guides and trackers. He doesn’t mess around, so you know they are quality! Also, guides at Africa on Foot generally want to lead trails, so they have to have slightly different qualifications.
In line with Pault's question above, I have no serious interest in travelling to anywhere outside Africa so what does Sun Safaris have to offer me ? Especially as I am not interested in luxury places but those which are more affordable and closer to nature?
There are a lot of superb options in Zimbabwe right now – I would look at places like Kavinga, Changa, Kanga, Vundu, Davissons and then Sango in the Khwai area, Oddballs in the Delta. Old Mondoro in the Lower Zambezi, Busanga Bush Camp in the Kafue, Lufupa in Kafue and Leopard Lodge in Kafue. There are plenty of options out there more interested in the real stuff as opposed to percale cotton sheets and heated towel rails and mini bars. BUT – there is also room for those fancy places – we are all different – each to their own in my opinion. I suppose that’s where a good agent comes in – they can point you in the right direction based on your budget and taste.
What can a Sun Consultant do for my trip planning over and above my own research online and advice from those members of Safaritalk?
Probably offer you a rate slightly under Rack! So less expensive than going direct. Plus some help on the ground should things go wrong. A few little extras because of our relationships, particularly where we send a lot of business. The experience to not book certain flights/routes because we know they never work, will always get delayed, or be cancelled. To check availability, make sure all connections work, ensure all transfers are in order. Take that stress away from you.
What percentage of your clients are repeat visitors?
I don’t have exact figures, but I reckon about 20-30% at this stage each month.
The food was very good at Africa on Foot and Nthambo in 2011 and considerably improved in 2012: are you finding that visitors to your camps are having higher expectations when it comes to cuisine than before?
We really like it when guests leave the camps Fat & Flourishing! Thanks for the nice comments. The food has always been hearty and tasty and local at Africa on Foot, and then when we changed nThambo to a fully inclusive camp we had to up our game somewhat in terms of presentation and maybe a few fancier touches here and there. At Umkumbe we have fantastic boerekos and a new chef, and at Haina I put on 2kg in 2 days – it was delicious and superb! But yes, people do have high expectations, so all the camps work hard at meeting peoples’ expectations on food. There has been a concerted effort from all the camps over the past year so I am glad to hear that you enjoyed it!
The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.