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 important is WiFi access as a key facility to influence traveller destination decisions? 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 2016’, shows that 56% of travellers share their experience with pictures on Tripadvisor reviews, 50% on Facebook, and 24% on Instagram.
- As a decision-making influence, a recent ‘Tourism For All’ survey 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 always 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.