Custom Travel: 4 Trends We Love, Trip planning has changed a lot over the last 40 years when EJ co-founder Marcia Gordon first started working in the industry. The game-changer, of course, is technology, which shifted just about every industry in almost every country—and travel is no exception.
When Marcia became involved with planning special programs for Park East Tours in Kenya after serving in the Peace Corps in Uganda, custom safaris were very rare. With the exception of hunting safaris and a few private mobile safaris, clients simply selected a set departure from a catalog. Until the early 80s, there was actually little point in making a custom safari because you would pretty much have to stay in the large camps with all the groups. For the intrepid who were willing to put in the work, the safaris were planned via phone and typewritten letters. Marcia was thrilled that they could send abbreviated messages between the African and NY offices using the teletype machine and get an answer the next day, but most planning took months. In the late 80s, more small tented camps and boutique properties came on the scene, particularly in Botswana and Kenya and the world of travel to Africa changed.
Since then, technology’s capabilities have exceeded what most people thought possible, giving way to the biggest safari travel trend of the moment: customization. Personalizing each traveler’s schedule and communicating each detail to far-flung camps at a moment’s notice? Consider it done.
With communication and customization easier than ever, experts at EJ are increasingly able to offer more tailor-made safari experiences, and travelers are increasingly asking for them. And that’s not the only industry trend changing how we safari. Here are a few other smart trends to watch.
1. Boutique properties are king.
You can also thank the World Wide Web for giving small-scale properties a chance to shine. Years passed, you learned about safaris through a brochure with limited space. But now, thanks to Google, you can discover hundreds of boutique properties, like Governors’ Camp in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, which was one of the first of its kind to compete with hotel chains.
Some other favorites include Sirikoi and Ol Malo Lodge & House, family-owned and -run properties in Laikipia, Kenya that fuse upscale amenities with informal relaxation. We also love Richard’s River Camp in Kenya’s Maasai Mara area and Ant’s Hill & Nest in South Africa, both of which treat guests less like travelers and more like old friends welcomed into a private home.
“There’s a strong feeling of belonging in smaller, boutique properties like these,” Marcia says. “People go once, and they return year after year. It really is like coming home.”
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2. Travelers want to feel like part of the community.
Guests today feel much more embedded in the fabric of where they are. The exclusivity and personalization of these small properties make all the difference. “We’re thrilled to tailor specialized journeys where your personal experience is the top priority,” Marcia says. “You just couldn’t genuinely connect to people in the same way when part of a large group.”
3. Sustainability matters more than ever.
When you care about the community, you (hopefully!) care about the environment. The camps and lodges we use embrace serious conservation, land stewardship, and community responsibility. You’re never just paying for the accommodation or experience only. You’re also paying for a better life for local communities and good land management. For instance, Little Governors’ Camp completely runs on solar power and has won awards for its sustainable practices. It’s Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge in Rwanda has earned over $3,250,000 for the community.
4. Yes, appearance matters—and with good reason.
“Beauty is a big deal for properties,” says Marcia. “They need to look good online, and they need to offer amenities that show people in a more concrete way what they’re paying for. Today’s traveler expects a level of luxury unheard of 50 years ago.” In other words, while we all love feeling good about environmental and socially-positive choices, we also like to see, touch, taste, and smell what we’re paying wherever we go—then post about ’em on Facebook or Instagram. Your favorite memories and free word-of-mouth marketing then exist infinitely online, which may inspire others to visit and you to return.
At the end of the day, each one of these safari travel trends ensure you—and the community—get the most out of your time in Africa.