“Don’t panic, everything will be okay”

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The life and times of a safari travel consultant

How to choose the right tour operator to help you plan and book your safari, and how to get the best from them? To find out, we sought the views of Illona Cross, a travel consultant at Steppes Travel, where she has worked for 20 years. Prior to that she had 10 years’ experience in southern and East Africa, in conservation, guiding, lodge management and, as she puts it, “misadventure”.

How has organising safaris changed over the years?
We used to spend an extraordinarily long time chatting to people on the phone; now we need to use all kinds of media to get ahead of the game and to influence [prospective] clients. Twenty years ago there were really only a handful of operators and expertise in Africa was unique, now everyone is an ‘expert’ and there are many competitors out there. It is very difficult for travellers to identify the gems.

How do travellers find ‘the gems’?
Often clients don’t ask enough questions of their tour operator. They should interview us. However, I feel it’s the people who make the difference. The best way to know how good an operator is is to engage and ask for information or a quote. The quality of the operation will be clear after the initial phone call and the quote.

What attributes make an exceptional travel consultant?

  • Speed: to catch a client’s attention you have to be quick off the mark, respond the same day – within an hour, if you can – usually by phone but at least by email. The key is: make contact.
  • Knowledge: you need to really know the place, and not just from having visited for three months: have you been there for work, do you speak the language, have you grown up there, been there more than once, or lived there? Also knowing what’s new is important.
  • Skill: you can know a lot, but unless you have been trained to listen, ask the right questions, use your system, be organised and informed, you can’t be exceptional.
  • Empathy and character: it does help if you are a bit older, but there is an art to conversation that builds the relationship and trust.

How do you plan an itinerary?
Every client is different, with his or her unique reasons for travel and holiday requirements. Being independently-owned, we try to tailor each holiday to suit each person exactly. I think in the 20 years I have been at Steppes I have offered the same itinerary only twice.

Every proposal we create is individual. If someone comes to us and wants to stay in a particular hotel, we can book it. If matching a holiday expectation means we need to find a hut on a deserted island beach, we can do that. The main objective is to meet and exceed expectations.

To understand a client’s expectations, though, requires a thorough conversation, some expert questioning and a good helping of personality and empathy. If you ask all the right questions during the first conversation, then there is a good chance that you will offer exactly what they are looking for.

This doesn’t mean that they will book the first itinerary you send. However, it will put both of you on the same track. It takes a lot of trust for a client to book a holiday and building that starts with the first conversation.

Do people try and pack too much into a trip? If so, how do you advise them?
We are often asked for advice on this. We have the conversation and then we give our best opinion, based on our extensive first-hand experience. Frequently that advice is questioned and we have to explain why we have suggested it. Sometimes we then embark on a longer journey, whereby we explore many options and alternatives – but it usually transpires that the original idea is the one that is booked.

Many people who travel with us need to be reassured that their precious time and fellow travellers are well taken care of. There is nothing more disappointing than a holiday that doesn’t match expectations, so every client is perfectly right to question us – and so they should.

What would you recommend for a first-time traveller to Africa?
Imagine what you want, paint a picture of it and see yourself there. Then explain what you see to your travel consultant.

South Africa is a popular first-time destination because of easy transfers, no visa requirements, diversity of activities and accommodation – and it’s fantastic value for money.

Do you find people have safety (or other) concerns and, if so, how do you address these?
Even the most seasoned traveller has safety concerns. Conversation is the start, to find the root of the concern and then allay it with honest information, which is sourced from personal experience, fantastic local connections and good research.

What are your top tips for travel?

  • Buy your insurance when you book the holiday, not just before you travel;
  • Pack light, manage your own luggage and don’t let it distract you from enjoying yourself;
  • Before you go, halve your clothes and double your money;
  • Make a resolution when you travel, note it and try to stick to it at home;
  • Drink more water than you think you should, preferably from a non-disposable bottle;
  • Be curious – drink the local coffee, eat the local food;
  • Keep a diary;
  • Allow yourself to relax.

Why is Africa so special as a tourist destination?
An abundance of big, hairy and feathered wildlife differentiates Africa from other continents. Mix in its diverse culture, a huge range of activities, a stunning coastline, some Western luxuries, cosmopolitan cities, uninhabited wild spaces and a touch of mystery – and it becomes the ultimate tourist destination.

What is your favourite place in Africa and why?
An unfair question! So, I will have to say: anywhere I can smell the dew on the grass in the morning, see the smoke from the night before in the air and hear the call of an ibis.

What has been your best experience in Africa?
Again, a hard one to answer… so I will list a few:

  • Coming across a journey of 90 giraffe running across the plains of Grumeti in the Serengeti;
  • Chatting with a local coffee-maker and sharing his delicious coffee at the side of the road while waiting for a ferry in Meroe, Sudan;
  • Watching a white rhino graze up to my feet while seated downwind on a termite mound;
  • Sleeping under the stars on an uninhabited island in the Dahlek archipelago, Eritrea;
  • Walking among the rutting seals on the Skeleton Coast, Namibia;
  • Catching crocodiles for research purposes in the St Lucia Estuary, South Africa;
  • Finding aestivating crocodiles in holes on the banks of the Salamat River in Zakouma National Park, Chad;
  • Walking up to lions feasting on a kill in the South Luangwa. The lions were full — they saw us coming, some kept eating, some moved off. With lions you are okay if you are in a group, show respect and don’t get too close. However, it does get the blood pumping.

Finally, what have you learned from your years in the travel business?
Don’t panic – everything will be okay.

Illona Cross is an African specialist travel consultant at Steppes Travel www.steppestravel.com

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“Don’t panic, everything will be okay”

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