WiFi at Sa­fari Lodges: A Key In­flu­encer?

A Big Five sa­fari is all about the sight­ings and ex­pe­ri­ences. Shar­ing the thrill of th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences with friends and fam­ily on so­cial me­dia is what trav­ellers do. But in­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity at game re­serves can be spo­radic, if avail­able at all. So how im

Tourism Tattler - - EDITORIAL - By Des Langk­ilde

In days gone by, record­ing th­ese sight­ings and ex­pe­ri­ences on film or video en­abled the sa­fari goer to re-live the sa­fari again and again. The cost of pho­to­graphic equip­ment usu­ally meant one cam­era per cou­ple or fam­ily. The rel­a­tively re­cent de­vel­op­ments in dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy and so­cial me­dia chan­nels have made ev­ery sa­fari-goer a pho­tog­ra­pher, of­ten with mul­ti­ple de­vices be­ing able to photograph and record ev­ery as­pect of the sa­fari. Shar­ing the thrill of th­ese sa­fari ex­pe­ri­ences with friends and fam­ily on so­cial me­dia chan­nels has be­come the norm.

But in­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity at game re­serves can be spo­radic, of­ten with poor band­width, which makes for frus­trat­ing ex­pe­ri­ences when tech-savvy sa­fari go­ers want to en­gage with the out­side world.

One would think that the whole point of an African sa­fari is to get away from it all - to get back to na­ture, and leave tech­nol­ogy be­hind! So just how im­por­tant is WiFi ac­cess? Is it a fac­tor when trav­ellers make their des­ti­na­tion de­ci­sions? Do prop­er­ties with great con­nec­tiv­ity ben­e­fit more than those with poor or no con­nec­tiv­ity? Look­ing at trav­eller book­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence-shar­ing be­havioural pat­terns, con­nec­tiv­ity does seem to be im­por­tant:

• TripAd­vi­sor’s ‘TripBarom­e­ter 20161’, shows that 56% of trav­ellers share their ex­pe­ri­ence with pic­tures on Tripad­vi­sor re­views, 50% on Face­book, and 24% on In­sta­gram.

• As a de­ci­sion-mak­ing in­flu­encer, a re­cent ‘Tourism For All’ sur­vey2 con­ducted by SA Tourism shows that 53% of trav­ellers get their in­spi­ra­tion from travel web­sites and blogs.

Given th­ese stats, it’s clear that in­ter­net ac­cess is im­por­tant to trav­ellers. In South Africa, most 4-5 star lodges of­fer WiFi in rooms or in com­mu­nal lodge ar­eas, ei­ther com­pli­men­tary or for a small charge.

Look­ing for specifics, I turned to Ver­non Wait, Mar­ket­ing Di­rec­tor of Lal­i­bela Pri­vate Game Re­serve in South Africa’s malaria-free Eastern Cape prov­ince.

“Meet­ing the needs of guests is a pri­or­ity at Lal­i­bela. To this end, we have re­cently sig­nif­i­cantly up­graded the band­width of our WiFi ser­vice in the lodges (Lentaba Lodge, Tree Tops and Mark’s Camp). And whilst we never did charge guests for WiFi, they used to have to en­ter a WiFi code in or­der to ac­cess the in­ter­net. We have done away with this so guests’ de­vices now au­to­mat­i­cally con­nect to our high-speed in­ter­net as soon as they ar­rive at their lodge.

“Ob­vi­ously, the WiFi range does not ex­tend across the en­tire 10,255 hectares (over 25,000 acres) of the re­serve, so guests may not be able to con­nect to the in­ter­net while on a game drive, but then one would hope that they are more en­grossed in tak­ing pic­tures of the Big Five, which they then up­load to their so­cial me­dia plat­forms after re­turn­ing to the lodge.” says Wait.

Talk­ing about so­cial in­ter­ac­tion, does pro­vid­ing com­pli­men­tary in­ter­net ac­cess af­fect the nat­u­ral am­bi­ence of the lodge? I asked Rob Grad­well, Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor of Lal­i­bela.

For ex­am­ple, while re­view­ing a lodge in Kenya re­cently I no­ticed a fam­ily of four sit­ting in the main lodge area with their at­ten­tion glued to their re­spec­tive smart­phones and tablets. For over an hour, not a word was ut­tered be­tween them.

“How guests choose to spend their leisure time is ob­vi­ously not for me to com­ment on, but we do try to en­cour­age guest in­ter­ac­tion as we be­lieve this forms part of the over­all sa­fari ex­pe­ri­ence. There is a bal­ance that needs to be main­tained – the need for guests to con­nect when they want to and the need for guests to re­lax and to be able to get away from it all.

“Some peo­ple’s idea of re­lax­ing is to sit on the in­ter­net and in­ter­act on so­cial me­dia whereas others have cho­sen a sa­fari in the bush to get away from that! The din­ing rooms at each lodge, for ex­am­ple, have large ta­bles where guests dine to­gether rather than at sep­a­rate ta­bles, which does en­cour­age con­ver­sa­tion among guests. It would de­tract from the am­bi­ence were some guests to sit at the din­ing ta­ble and remove them­selves from the group by be­ing on their phones or tablets.

“We be­lieve that pro­vid­ing broad­band WiFi ac­cess has be­come an es­sen­tial hos­pi­tal­ity fa­cil­ity,” says Grad­well. “The jury is out at Lal­i­bela – we have cur­rently de­cided to only have in­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity in our lodges and not in the rooms, but should it be the other way round? Should it be only in the rooms and not in the lodges? What about hav­ing it in both? There is no right or wrong an­swer and I would ask the travel trade to please en­gage with us with their thoughts as we pon­der this co­nun­drum.”

So there you have it – straight from the horse’s mouth (or should that be ze­bra’s mouth?), and backed up by re­search – WiFi ac­cess has be­come an es­sen­tial hos­pi­tal­ity fa­cil­ity, and does in­flu­ence trav­eller des­ti­na­tion de­ci­sions, specif­i­cally when com­bined with in­ter­ac­tive mar­ket­ing ini­tia­tives to en­cour­age guests to share their images on so­cial me­dia, such as the #lal­i­belasa­fari prop.

But the co­nun­drum faced by Grad­well is one that I’m sure many game re­serve ex­ec­u­tives are pon­der­ing.

What are your thoughts on the sub­ject?

https://d2bx­pc4a­jzxry0.cloud­front.net/ TripAd­vi­sorIn­sights/sites/de­fault/files/down­loads/2750/ trip­barom­e­ter_2016_­ful­l_re­port_-_04_oc­t_2016_-_st12. com­pressed.pdf

http://wel­come.southafrica.net/up­loads/files/ Touris­mForAl­l_In­fo­graphic.pdf

An in­no­va­tive idea launched at Lal­i­bela Pri­vate Game Re­serve en­cour­ages guests to share their images on so­cial me­dia with a hash­tag. Caught in ac­tion at Lal­i­bela are the Tay­lor-Smiths from the UK who stayed at Lentaba Sa­fari Lodge, the #lal­i­belasa­fari fra

The Hartwells from the USA pose with field guide Siya Mand­a­bana prior to a game drive.

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