Dorine Reinstein
Dorine Reinstein

Travelers are increasingly looking for undiscovered destinations, hidden gems and truly authentic experiences, and it can be a real challenge for travel advisors to find these exceptional experiences for their clients.

Some of Africa's top suppliers -- who were reluctant to share their hidden gems for fear of their secrets getting out -- said it all comes down to having good contacts on the continent.

"Many of the most interesting and unique properties and experiences do not have the budget to promote in the [U.S.], so many people would have no way of knowing about them," said Elizabeth Gordon of Extraordinary Journeys. "When we do discover things on the ground, most of the time we'll find things on the way to somewhere else, or by word of mouth and talking to our partners on the ground or other industry colleagues."

Requests from clients is a good way to find 'hidden gems,' according to Ryan Brown, head of marketing at Go2Africa. "We keep close tabs on the inquiries we receive, and if certain places are starting to pop, we'll start investigating and vetting. And then lots and lots of research: our marketing and product teams are constantly reading and researching and discovering potential new destinations for us to add to our portfolio," he said.

Byron Thomas, an expert travel designer and "Head of Africa" for Jacada Travel, said it's all about listening to people on the ground and keeping abreast of what's going on. He explained the team is in contact with their friends in Africa who tell the team what's new and amazing.

According to Jenny Mikkelson, vice president of Travel Beyond, African travel trade shows like PURE and We Are Africa are a great resource for finding new properties and experiences. "When I attend, I always seek out properties and companies that I do not know much about so that I can learn about new hidden gems," she said. "Upon return, I can share these newly discovered properties with my colleagues and my clients, which adds great value for our company and our clients."

Indaba is another great platform for the travel trade to discover hidden gems, according to Nomvuselelo Songelwa, CEO of the National Tourism Visitor Information System (NTVIS). She said that last year, the hidden gems pavilion at the annual Indaba trade show saw 135 small and midsize enterprises promoting their businesses to international travel buyers. "These [enterprises] often go unnoticed but have so much to offer international travelers in terms of real and authentic experiences in our country," she said.

Abercrombie & Kent's Suzanne Teng, product manager for Africa, said a big challenge to offering hidden gems involves the concept of authenticity. "Many times a locally authentic experience isn't entirely suitable for the luxury traveler, so we curate the experience," she said. "For example, we offer a banana beer sampling during our tuk-tuk ride in Tanzania's Mto Wa Mbu village. The authentic way to partake is to share a communal cup, which we'll demonstrate to our guests, but then provide them their own cup so they can feel comfortable drinking it. It's a fine balance to maintain the authenticity of the experiences, which only comes from years of experience."

Thomas said it's great that tour operators want to package authentic experiences. Usually, these are managed in ways that are much kinder to the local communities, money is invested back in the right places and travelers experience things in an honest way.

The biggest challenge, according to Mikkelson, is to visit these undiscovered places and establishments. "Personal travel or having a consultant at our company visit these undiscovered attractions is the best way for us to ensure that the establishments are up to our company's standards. However, sometimes it might not be possible for us to visit right away, so this is where we lean on our strong relationships with trusted partners on the ground in our specialty destinations," she said.

Mikkelson added that the farther a person has to travel for an experience, the more authentic it feels. "It usually means that the property or experience is farther 'off the grid' and other travelers won't take the time to visit. For example, there are a handful of places in Africa that clients need to either take a private plane to or drive a longer distance to encounter a unique experience. Often, the distance translates into a very authentic cultural experience that is off the normal tourism circuit," she said.

Gordon agreed and said the areas that offer more authentic experiences are often rural or just not as accustomed to tourism as other more developed areas in Africa.

"Accommodation and service aren't always perfect, so clients have to learn to appreciate the quirkiness and getting out of their comfort zone to some extent. Also, because many of these properties are remote, it can be difficult for us to get in touch about availability or other questions in a timely manner. Additionally, remote locations require extra attention to detail when arranging transfers," she said.

Cost is another important factor. Said Mefi Pishori Alapat, safari designer for JourneyToAfrica.com: "Venturing away from the beaten path means taking flights to remote areas and because lodges are in remote areas -- the logistics are mind-boggling -- you can expect the prices of 'luxury' places to be higher but oh so worth it for the experience."
Another challenge, according to Thomas, is that people often think they want an authentic experience, but their idea of authentic is usually not what's actually authentic. "They want this version of Africa that's a fairytale... and that's not always how it works. So it's just about managing expectations," he said.

Safety comes first, even when  or especially when -- it comes to unique and authentic experiences. "Undiscovered attractions aren't necessarily defined as being in unsafe areas; if they are in unsafe areas, even if they are authentic, no tour operator would promote them," said Jim Holden, president of Holden Safaris, who added that some of the few mountain gorillas left in the world are in unsafe areas. Sadly, no one visits these gorillas due to the risk. Undiscovered attractions in safe areas just haven't been promoted."

There is incredible potential to provide a platform for market access to the small and midsize tourism enterprises in South Africa,  said Songelwa of the NTVIS. "We have a wealth of hidden gems in townships and rural outskirts of our country mostly managed by capable black women, but these small entrepreneurs often lack the knowledge to promote their businesses internationally. There is a great opportunity for South Africa to put these establishments on the map and highlight what they have to offer for international travelers, tour operators and travel agents who want to discover the authentic experiences of South Africa."

Tour operators all agree that an online presence is essential for any tourism establishment that wants to draw international attention.

"Everything is online today. If you're not online you don't exist," said Holden.

Mikkelson added that travelers are very interested in seeing accurate photos and videos of properties during the proposal process.   "While I can paint a nice [mental] photo about the property and experience -- how to get there, what to expect and more -- it's nice to have photos from the property to show the clients, as well. There's one lodge in Africa that does not have a website, which makes it tough for me to offer it, as clients tend to often consider another property that has a website."

"Quality images are extremely important to our clients," Extraordinary Journeys' Gordon added. "A nice website reassures the client of where they are going. Websites do not need to be overly sophisticated, but we feel strongly they need good visuals and tell an authentic story.

"An online presence can help establish trust and legitimacy, and these days, it's hard to sell a lodge in Africa without an online presence. People like to check places out online before they stay in them. It not only helps paint a picture, but it also goes a long way towards building excitement before a trip," said Jacada Travels' Thomas.

Alapat of JourneyToAfrica agreed, saying some sort of presence is important so guests feel secure in their decision. She says: "If I mentioned Katavi National Park, a not very well-known Tanzanian National Park, a guest would like to see some mention of Katavi online to verify. I am sure safety has some part to play as well in their research."

She added that sometimes travelers completely trust their travel advisor and go wherever they suggest. "This usually happens with repeat guests who have been on multiple safaris. I love planning such Safaris, as I have free reign to get them to new destinations," Alapat said.

Sherwin Banda, president of African Travel Inc., agreed that a good balance is needed. "Working with a tour operator, travelers can depend on expertise of a true destination expert. Online presence certainly creates awareness and interest in a destination, but a working destination expert offers invaluable knowledge and guidance when creating a client's dream experience."

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