What’s Next for Luxury Safaris?

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

What’s Next for Luxury Safaris?

Nicky Fitzgerald with staff members of Angama Mara.

Photo by Andrew Andrawes

Nicky Fitzgerald has just retired from the safari industry after spending 40 years conceptualizing, building, operating, and marketing 60 luxury properties across sub-Saharan Africa and India. She spent 15 years at the luxury adventure travel company &Beyond. In 2015, she became the founder, CEO, and shareholder of the award-winning 60-bed safari lodge Angama Mara, in the Masai Mara Conservancy in Kenya. This is Nicky’s first op-ed 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 that I have had the opportunity to wing my way in the best industry of all: hospitality. What could possibly be more pleasurable than ensuring guests have the best time ever while in your care?

It all started at the southernmost foot of Africa at a little 11-room beach hotel; followed by a seven-year stint in hotels and restaurants in Cape Town and the winelands; and finally, the past 28 adventure-filled years in the safari industry. As I look back at my career, this is what I have learned—and what I feel I have left unfinished.

Those who know me know my mantra: people first, always. Working alongside more than 4,500 men and women across rural Africa and India taught me that to do well, I need to place people at the heart of the business: staff, guests, suppliers, community neighbors, industry colleagues, not forgetting investors and bankers. Our guests simply cannot have a great stay if the team looking after them is not deemed as the most important asset of the business. This comes before fame, fortune, ego, and certainly before conservation victories.

Not much has changed in looking after guests. Surely this must be one of the oldest professions in the world. Travelers arriving at your door must be afforded a warm welcome, enter a place where they feel cared for and safe, and find delightful small surprises around every corner. This is not rocket science. This is just about humanity. And I wouldn’t mess with it. Keep it simple, authentic, respectful of the place and the people who call it home, offer great value, and always believe that “service is love made visible.”

A group of tourists at the Angama Mara observe a family of elephants.

A group of tourists at the Angama Mara observe a family of elephants.

Photo by Paris Brummer

Looking forward, what would I like to see in our industry, particularly in the luxury safari segment? Please forgive me if I come across as somewhat of a maverick but this, I am led to believe, is allowed when reaching a certain age.

I believe the time has come for wealthy safari lodge owners and safari companies to tone down preaching about our mission to save the world. These beautiful tracts of wilderness where we are so lucky to operate are not ours, not even remotely, not even if we have title deeds stating as such. We should cease endlessly bragging about our fancy lodges, how many thousands of hectares we have, how many classrooms we have built, and how many rhinos we have translocated.

Let’s go back to where we began—by putting people first and simplifying what we offer our guests. Before I go any further, I would like to admit that during my career I played my part in over-complicating hospitality. But when it comes down to it: Why do guests come and stay with luxury safari lodges? Fundamentally, they come to experience Africa’s wild places, meet the people who live there, and spend their days marveling at wildlife. That means that our job is to keep them safe, offer them a warm welcome, send them off each day with a guide who is a master storyteller, and pamper them back at the lodge. And that pampering is not just the stuff—it’s the staff. Yes, the lodges must be lovely, the food delicious, and the pillows puffed. But as an industry, we are overdoing the stuff and neglecting 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 told between one beautiful image after another: plunge pools, chandeliers, sweeping decks, and more sofas than you could use in a lifetime. But what is the meaningful narrative behind this lovely place? Who owns the land? Where do the staff come from? What benefits will flow back to the community? What meaningful impact will this gorgeous place have on the wildlife and habitat?

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

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

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