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The future of luxury safaris

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

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northNicky Fitzgerald has just retired from the safari industry after spending 40 years conceptualizing, building, operating and marketing 60 luxury properties in sub-Saharan Africa and India. He 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, at the Masai Mara Conservancy in Kenya. This is Nicky’s first opinion piece for AFAR.

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Last week, I welcomed my latest guests after a 40-year vocation in hotels, restaurants and safari lodges in seven countries and two continents. I thank my lucky stars that I have had the opportunity to make my way in the best industry of all: hospitality. What could be more enjoyable than making sure guests have the most fun while in your care?

It all started on the southern tip of Africa in a small 11-room beach hotel; followed by a seven-year stint in hotels and restaurants in Cape Town and the vineyards; and finally, the last 28 adventurous years in the safari industry. As I look back on 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 in rural Africa and India taught me that to do it well, I need to put people at the center of the business: staff, guests, vendors, neighbors in the community, colleagues from industry, not forgetting investors and bankers. Our guests simply cannot have a great stay if the team serving them is not considered the most important asset in the business. This comes before fame, fortune, ego, and certainly before conservation victories.

Not much has changed in the care of guests. Surely this must be one of the oldest professions in the world. Travelers arriving at your door should be greeted warmly, entered into a place where they feel cared for and safe, and find pleasant little surprises around every corner. This is not rocket science. This is just about humanity. And I wouldn’t mess with that. 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.”

Looking ahead, what would I like to see in our industry, particularly in the luxury safari segment? Please forgive me if I sound a bit of a maverick, but this, I am led to believe, is allowed once you reach a certain age.

I think the time has come for wealthy safari lodge owners and safari companies to tone down their sermons about our mission to save the world. These beautiful stretches of desert where we are lucky enough to operate are not our, not even remotely, not even though we have property titles that indicate it. We should stop endlessly bragging about our luxurious accommodations, how many thousands of acres we have, how many classrooms we have built and how many rhinos we have moved.

Let’s go back to where we started, putting people first and simplifying what we offer our guests. Before I continue, I’d like to admit that throughout my career I’ve played my part in overcomplicating hospitality. But when it comes down to it: Why do guests come and stay in luxurious safari lodges? Basically, they come to experience the wild places of Africa, meet the people who live there, and spend their days marveling at the wildlife. That means our job is to keep them safe, offer 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 pampering isn’t just the things, it’s the staff. Yes, the hostels must be lovely, the food delicious and the pillows puffy. But as an industry, we are hyping 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 often about the owner told in one beautiful image after another: plunge pools, chandeliers, expansive decks, and more sofas than you could ever use. But what is the significant narrative behind this beautiful place? Who is the owner of the land? Where does the staff come from? What benefits will flow back to the community? What significant impact will this beautiful place 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 will flourish. 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 going to achieve something in this world, in equal measure it will be due to the work and achievements of others.”— Nelson Mandela

>> Next: Safaris are embracing a more sustainable and diverse future

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