A Luxurious, Boutique, Virtual Travel Experience
Photo: &Beyond Travel, Cheetah at Phinda Private Game Reserve, South Africa
To travel nearly anywhere in the world right now is a feat. Between the gymnastics of getting tested for Covid-19, figuring out which countries are open, their respective travel authorization requirements and quarantine protocols, depending on where you land, is overwhelming. And yet, this does not include the rigmarole of getting to your final destination. Travel, as we know it, has fundamentally changed and in some ways perhaps for the better.
The coronavirus disease pandemic has definitely led us to ask ourselves why we do what we do and consider if new ways of doing things ought to be forged, whether loading airplanes back to front, being more conscious of our personal space or creating more flexibility in trip planning. But it has also introduced the concept of travel without actually traveling, known as virtual tourism.
There are various interpretations of the term “virtual travel,” loosely used to describe exploring places and experiences across television, internet- or VR- (virtual reality) based technologies. Japan’s First Airlines, for example, has created a virtual reality experience that mimics air travel, equipped with a simulated flight, moving aerial scenery and cabin crew, as well as giving you the opportunity to visit choice cities and experiences using a VR headset. It can be described as part theater, part theme-park and part restaurant. A New Jersey-based VR company called Travel World VR has a different approach. Backed by the CEO of Perillo Tours Travel World VR allows traditional travel suppliers to virtualize the tours they would offer their guests with a high production value that can be viewed on all devices, including the Travel World VR apps for iPhone and Android. And then there are more bespoke experiences many travel companies like &Beyond are creating via streaming platforms using video recordings as well as livestreaming both to engage with their customers while physical travel is restricted and to bring their unique and exclusive travel offerings directly to their customers’ living rooms.
Headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa, &Beyond describes itself as “a pioneering experiential travel company that offers forward-thinking, global travelers an exclusive experience of the world as it should be; a world that is in balance with itself.”
Nicole Robinson, Chief Marketing Officer, explains, “&Beyond’s pioneering model of low-impact, high-yield wildlife tourism is based on its core ethic of Care of the Land, Care of the Wildlife, Care of the People. &Beyond operates according to a dynamic sustainability strategy spearheaded by its sustainability team. Through its partnership with the Africa Foundation, &Beyond supports community empowerment in the areas of education, healthcare enterprise development and environment and conservation.”
But like every travel company, they’ve seen a dramatic decrease in visitors, “This is the first time we have had no guests traveling through any of our destinations,” said Robinson. “Caring for our staff, land and wildlife both economically and health-wise, while ensuring that the business has enough of a cash runway to see us through this crisis has been our ultimate challenge and I am sure has been the same for most of the industry.”
Fortunately for them, through a healthy balance sheet, they had enough capital and resources to hold on to a staff of 2,500, maintain their support to Africa Foundation’s core administration costs as well as their support for the Covid-19 water and food security initiatives.
Photo: &Beyond Travel, cheetah (Sabi Sands), elephant (Okavango Delta), waterbuck (Ngala, Timbavati Game Reserve), rhino (Ngorongoro Crater)
Photo: &Beyond Travel, (Clockwise) Lake Manyara Tree Lodge, Tanzania; Mnemba Island, Tanzania; Nxabega Okavango Tented Camp, Botswana; Bateleur Camp, Kenya; Ngala Treehouse, South Africa; Serengeti Under Canvas, Tanzania.
Their traditional business model is simple. They have a team of travel experts who can help guests create the vacation experience of their dreams, including several of the world’s last unspoiled natural places at among 29 &Beyond-owned lodges and camps, as well as partner properties of a similar caliber. Among 22 countries, some of those destinations include Kenya, Mauritius, South Africa and Zanzibar on the African continent; Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka in Asia; and Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru in South America. They offer 24/7 customer service, equipped with guides and on-the-ground logistic teams familiar with living and touring in the wilderness to maximize what each destination has to offer as well as keep you safe. &Beyond receives recognition and acclaim yearly for their properties, travel expertise and commitment to sustainability efforts. Just this month, Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice recognized seven of &Beyond’s resorts and safari camps: five appeared in the “Top 25 Resorts in Africa” and two in the “Top 20 Resorts in South Africa” lists. Given the wide berth of their locations and amenities the cost for their all-inclusive experience that includes lodging, meals, beverages and two daily tours, can vary. A rough range for an average nightly rate per person is $800 – $1,775 U.S. dollars.
In 2015, Mark Goolmeer, 63, of Australia surprised his wife Cheryl, 54, with a cruise and tickets to the Ngala Safari Lodge in South Africa and the Nxabega Okavango Tented Camp in Botswana after they couldn’t get a booking the prior year and was placed on a cancellation list. It was shortly after her mother’s passing.
“It was exactly what we both needed,” said Cheryl. “I had always wanted to travel to Africa, it was a lifelong dream. As a girl in her early 30’s, I’d made plans to trek for gorillas in Uganda with a girlfriend, but life changed, we both met our life partners and never got there. I got a surprise email from Mark asking me ‘if I’d like to go on this dodgy trip?’”
Instead, she described her trip as magical, despite Mark’s chicanery, “We loved every moment, the cruise on the Queen Mary 2 was amazing, Cape Town is great, a lot like our darling harbour in Sydney, but it was landing in Kruger National Park and driving to Ngala when our holiday really started. We flew in private planes to an airstrip where we were greeted by Ngala staff and elephants.”
“Highlights of our visit to Ngala were seeing lions mate on our very first safari drive (It was odd watching lion porn with a Jeep full of strangers); elephants that visited our tent regularly; following a wild dog pack as they hunt for impala; visiting a local school; a special Anzac Day service to commemorate the day we remember our fallen soldiers on the dry bed of the Timbavati River and following four lionesses and their eight cubs.”
Dawn Penning, 53, and her husband, Mike, 60, from Dallas Texas also visited Ngala, as well as Dulini Lodge and Phinda Rock Lodge 10 years ago for 12 nights, “It was the trip of a lifetime but we are going back!” said Dawn. “It is an amazing opportunity to see magnificent animals in their natural environment. I loved the game drives and the information provided by the guides. The other people at the camps were fun to interact with as well—always small groups.”
“From the moment you arrive until you leave,” said Cheryl, “you and your holiday are important to the staff at &Beyond. The staff are amazing, the guides are all so giving of their time and information. You know you’re safe and if you mention you want something they’ll make it for you. If you love the breakfast cereal you can be sure you’ll leave with a pack.“
A similar refrain Dawn shared, who has planned a trip for next year to Tanzania after their first 10 years ago, provided travel is not impacted in 2021, “They supported us every step of the way, including when we had a flight delay in Atlanta, met us at the airport in Johannesburg and took care of every detail. Service at each of the lodges was on point and the food was outstanding. I have received fairly regular email updates from our trip planner over the last ten years.”
Photo: &Beyond Travel, Experiences TV programmings: Food Fundis, My WILDwatch, WILDchild, Food Fundis
“We explored how we travel through our senses and captured curated recipes, music, books, documentaries and videos that bring travel to your armchair through our #andbeyondathome campaign."
As the pandemic has persisted these many months, the folks at &Beyond have had to reimagine how to offer this unique experience to guests who can’t visit in person. To achieve this, they teamed up with WILDearth to use their technology and equipment to offer a livestream feed for nature lovers to show real-time broadcast and updates of the animals and the ecosystem of each magical destination, sort of as if you were living in your very own National Geographic documentary.
“The marketing and field teams at &Beyond looked at ways we could bring our destinations to life virtually,” said Robinson. “We explored how we travel through our senses and captured curated recipes, music, books, documentaries and videos that bring travel to your armchair through our #andbeyondathome campaign. This was achieved by using a group of guides who had volunteered to remain on our reserves during this time to ensure our wildlife monitoring continues as their presence in the field serves an important security function. Subsequently this also grew into us offering a range of virtual paid for experiences.”
Those paid-for experiences include: WILDwatch online an interactive experience with a tour guide who can answer questions about the sightings seen on recorded WILDwatch live drive through the Serangeti, Kruger National Park, the Okavango Delta or the Masai Mara National Reserve; WILDchild offers programming for the young (6-12) and young at heart about useful field skills rangers use in the wild; Protect our Planet teaches viewers about conservation and sustainability measures that preserve the wilderness and help to save our planet; Food Fundis is for food lovers to learn recipes and cooking techniques that right now is only available for Batswana and South American cuisines; and WILDWellness offers health-minded viewers yoga, forest therapy and tango lessons in various languages.
Robinson said, “There has been an overwhelming positive response to our interactive content – the possibility of virtual safaris to provide wildlife access to the world’s audience with a goal to educate and inspire them about how they can leave their world a better place.”
This is supported by the huge growth in user engagement with their free content available on their website and on YouTube. There have since been 2.6 million views, 1.1 million watched hours and 12.5 thousand subscribers between April and August of this year. Their YouTube channel has seen a similar pattern of interest from 268 subscribers in March to 15 thousand currently.
Both Cheryl and Dawn have been consuming the digital content as a way to relive their experience and to stay engaged, as they are planning future trips, “I religiously watch the &Beyond safari drives either live or by catching up twice a day,” said Cheryl. “It’s like being back there, I remember the paths and I wonder if I'm seeing the same animals from five years ago. It’s so generous that they do this, I’m so grateful and I hope it continues long after we’ve finally kicked Covid to the curb.”
“I have watched a bit of some of the game drives which I think are a great tool to allow people to see what it is like,” said Dawn. “Unfortunately my internet is less than stellar so I don’t do it too often.”
Laurel Neme, 55, who is a contributor at National Geographic and author of Animal Investigators, saw a preview of the content on Facebook Live and decided to watch as well, “ A number of places have been doing virtual safaris — and sometimes I’ve popped in to them. It’s always lovely to see the animals. I found the rangers really superior — telling not just facts about the animal or what we were seeing, but insights into how and why it was doing what it was doing. For example, explaining how giraffes will only feed on acacias for short time periods because they release tannins in their leaves, and then emit a gas to warn other trees. While I already knew that, somehow it still felt fresh and interesting.”
“While I have not visited any of their sites personally,” continued Laurel. “I am familiar with how they run things and they are known as doing a lot of good work with conservation. Phinda, in particular, is often held up as an excellent example of rhino protection and management.”
Cheryl offered more insight into &Beyond’s conservation practices based on her experience, “When you’re on Safari they stick to the driving paths so nature isn’t destroyed. They never interfere with the wildlife i.e. if an animal is hungry it must find its own food, if an animal falls prey that’s the way of surviving. They are strict with recycling and litter. After our Anzac celebrations a flag had fallen from the Jeep. We spent 20 minutes searching for that flag, not giving up until we found it because it isn’t something normally found in the jungle and could damage an animal's digestive system. While at Ngala we visited a local school that they support with funding. They source food and supplies locally.”
Experiences TV, &Beyond’s paid virtual experiences, haven't seen the same type of growth, but &Beyond has been fielding an increasing number of requests and inquiries. My WILDwatch tours costs $250 US dollars for an hour’s time with a limited group of six interested parties; WILDchild informational sessions cost $200 for an hour of programming; You can access six links of 1.5 hours of Food Fundis content for $250; and a private group session of yoga tutorial with WILDWellness starts at $120 US dollars. Generally, while the cost for these virtual events could be considered cost-prohibitive for many, they would not be out of the range for the type of clientele who are used to paying extra for luxury.
“We will continue to offer the virtual offerings as long as there is demand,” said Robinson, “but will also prove to be a useful tool when travel does come back to “try before you buy.”
That point is key, as some may consider virtual travel as anti-travel. It’s still too soon to see the impact on bookings with the ability to get a virtual preview, but so far those who are consuming the online content are a mix of new and old customers. In &Beyond’s favor, the 5-star accommodations and experience they afford their customers on their properties is rare and is tailor made for those already accustomed to being pampered, even if they are living at the edge of the wilderness.
As well, the pioneers they are, Robinson and &Beyond are already anticipating additional shakeup in the travel industry after Covid, “There was already movement in the tourism value chain that will be accelerated. It will be interesting to see how choice changes in the tourism space and how luxury is defined and redefined. It will also be interesting to see the virtual tourism ecosystem grow and whether it has commercial legs post Covid. The strongest parties in the tourism chain are those with beds or those with relationships with the traveler – the parties in the middle will need to reinvent the ways they add value to survive. I think the role of travel advisor has been elevated and we may see a different way that tailor-made tours are priced including a service fee for the travel service.”
However things shape up, there’s ample and a diversity of luxe virtual experiences for the viewer to enjoy, and once their properties open fully, a richer one in 2021 and beyond.
Written and edited by Wesley Wade, Freshfruit CEO and Freshfruit contributor. Follow Wesley @twodoubleyoos (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter),
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