Exclusive-use safari camps and villas, private air charters and even island buyouts have always been in demand for the high-end, affluent traveler seeking ultimate luxury. The Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced that demand from a much wider demographic of travelers and is opening unique opportunities for the travel trade.
"The concept of exclusive-use accommodation has always been a great concept. These types of holidays have always been popular for the ultrawealthy and even celebrity market, but the trend was definitely accelerated by Covid," said Luca Franco, founder and CEO of Luxury Frontiers.
There has, for example, been a growing trend toward longer stays where guests work while on vacation or use nature locations as a classroom, according to Wayne Nupen, AndBeyond regional touring director. Exclusive-use properties are the ideal answer to this new trend.
A need for families to spend time with the people they love and care about has influenced people's buying behaviors and the way they want to consume travel, said Karl Parkinson of African Bush Camps. This has been the driving force behind the uptick in requests for exclusive-use properties.
Marcelo Novais, general manager for North America at Ker & Downey Africa, said he has also experienced a noticeable increase in demand from small groups of friends who are seeking remote destinations that offer space, privacy and distance from other travelers.
Novais explained there are several distinct advantages that exclusive-use accommodations offer travelers. From a Covid-safety perspective, most exclusive-use lodges and villas offer clients dedicated staff who will quarantine before their arrival to ensure the health and safety of guests.
Maija de Rijk-Uys, managing director at Go2Africa, agreed, saying that as a travel agent, she's more proactively offering private-use accommodations as a safer option, helping assuage client concerns about traveling during a pandemic by enabling them to stay in their own "safe" bubble.
But there's so much more than just the element of social distancing that plays a part in the popularity of exclusive-use properties or buyouts. On the safari front, these accommodations are not only socially distanced by design but allow for a highly personalized experience, Novais said.
"Ground operators share unique insights into each client's preferences with the properties prior to travel so that their experience can be tailor-made," Novais said. "This level of personalization can range from what unique experiences are included in their day-to-day itinerary, what type of cuisine is prepared by the villa's private chefs and even what type of wine and gin needs to be sourced prior to the guests' arrival.
"Clients can also enjoy the flexibility of a private safari vehicle, guide and tracker who will work hand in hand with them to tailor-make their safari based on what wildlife they want to see," he added.
A guided walking tour with Jabali Ridge, a stylish camp from Asilia Africa in Tanzania's Ruaha National Park.
According to Kristen Korey Pike, founder and CEO of KK Travels Worldwide (a Virtuoso advisor), this high level of personalization requires a hands-on and flexible approach.
"The ability of our safari lodge partners to cater to the most specific of requests continues to amaze me. With enough advanced notice, we can have the precise brand of Greek yogurt requested by the guest available at breakfast in the middle of the bush!" she said.
This expectation of high-level personalization and flexibility is likely to last long after the virus has been conquered, according to a number of Africa specialists. And this offers a unique opportunity for the travel trade to collaborate more closely to create experiences that can't be duplicated.
"Personalization is essential," said Sherwin Banda, president of African Travel. He said research shows that guests will spend more when experiences are customized exactly to their needs.
"Luxury travel presents the strongest opportunity for revenue growth. Travelers are looking for experiences they couldn't book themselves if they haven't booked with an advisor," he said.
De Rijk-Uys said this "new world" has meant properties and travel service providers have had to become more dynamic and flexible to stay in the game.
"There are a lot of people adventurous enough to travel and make their own experiences, so if your offering is standard there's not a lot to set you apart from your competitors," she added.
Suzanne Bayly-Coupe, founder of Classic Portfolio, agreed, saying that now is the time for travel advisors to show their creativity.
"Craft itineraries to achieve balance and moments of immersion," she advised. "Do not be afraid to add in something unusual in an itinerary that may be the wild card and in most cases becomes the highlight of a journey."
Prior to the pandemic, there was already a host of established exclusive-use properties throughout the African continent. However, several exclusive-use properties have launched amid the pandemic with more following suit in 2021.
The right communication and collaboration between ground operators in Africa and travel experts in the U.S. could also open up incredible opportunities for travelers who might have thought an exclusive-use property was out of their reach.
Charter flights are often the "cheaper" option for groups of friends traveling together compared with scheduled flights. Meanwhile, smaller boutique hotels are often open to negotiate exclusive use of their property for large groups. "We need to work together on bookings and help each other," said Nicky Coenen, group general manager of Last Word Intimate Hotels & Safari Camps, during a webinar at WTM Africa recently.
Gordie Owles, commercial director at Asilia Africa, agreed.
"Exclusive use doesn't have to mean just private jets and lavish villas that sleep 14. Simple mobile camps also offer exclusivity, and many exclusive-use houses, if filled, can offer better value for money than booking individual tents in a camp. On that basis, off the back of sensible commercial partnerships, most levels of the market should have this opportunity if they wish."
Dave van Smeerdijk, co-founder of Natural Selection, added that even in prime safari locations, there are affordable options. "At Natural Selection we pride ourselves on offering different price points in the wild places where we operate. Safarihouse in Etosha Heights Private Reserve [in Namibia] is a great example of a good value exclusive-use property in a prime game area," he said.
Experts agree that the trend for exclusive-use properties is here to stay, as travelers increasingly seek to connect with each other in a meaningful manner.
Pike said most people have now become accustomed to a greater level of personal space.
"I don't see today's luxury traveler seeking crowded destinations or accommodation options where there are alternatives," she said, adding that it will be on the travel advisor to collaborate with their clients in order to provide local partners with as much detail as possible to exceed client expectations.