Our Own African Crisis

African Safaris (cheap and cheesy or well-planned and extravagant)

As the US struggles with its own budget shortfalls and the “Obama buck” plummets further against international currency, many people are being faced with the same choices the government is needing to make.  Unfortunately for us, the travel industry, is often an indicator species for the global economy.

Our industry has been in flux since the early problems evolved in the stock market.  Like the Bear Stearns collapse, the travel sector led the way for North America as travel, surprisingly to me, is one of the first things people cut back on.  At the same time and for different reasons, the Internet has commoditized the travel market to a certain degree.  Itineraries, at a glance, look similar and it becomes challenging to differentiate one’s offering.

African Crisis

Never has this been more apparent to me as I received a barrage of email offers last week from a reputable travel outfitter offering a Zambezi trip for almost half the price of ROAM’s adventure.  Imagine my surprise when I see a company touting a trip to Africa on the same river for $2555 just weeks after I paired down our Zambezi trip from $5995 to $4700!  Wow what a deal… at first…

Lets look at the facts:

Trip length
Upon closer examination I see they are doing an 8 day trip, not 11 days.  Always read the itineraries carefully to see what IS and IS NOT included.

Who are these people?

There are many different rafting companies operating on the Zambezi.  When I first scouted the Zambezi, I went with a price-point outfitter and found out later (the hard way, sort of) they were re-filling water bottles from the river because they ran out of bottled water and did not carry an “expensive” filter.  It was a great weight loss experience for me and I learned firsthand what they mean when from the old quote “there’s sick, then there’s Africa sick”.  An experience yes, but not something I recommend.

ROAM uses classic colonial places like the Victoria Falls Hotel and Stanley Livingstone.  You can also go even further upscale to places like the Royal Livingstone.  Consolidators or wholesalers offering lower priced trips (or promoting those who pay the highest commission), will often cut corners by using mediocre and less expensive properties (well away from the falls).  These packages are geared for partiers and backpackers looking for the down and dirty experience.  Been there, done that, decades ago.

Now, it is my philosophy that you traveled half way across the world to experience Africa so you should visit properties which represent the best value for money, not necessarily the cheapest.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with lesser-quality hotels when crashing near an airport but when you have traveled all that way, it seems sensible to get a nicer experience.   
Make sure your trip will have a tour host who has been there before.  If they have not, this is what we call “a familiarization trip”  – something we do at ROAM before taking clients.  At ROAM we do offer a few first descents (and we let people know this upfront) but we never send a client on a trip we have not scouted ourselves.  In fact, that is my favorite part of owning the company 🙂

Safari Lodges
Lastly, not all “safari experiences” are the same.  The ROAM Zambezi trip flies into remote safari camps like Makalolo or Somalisa, complete with luxurious tents, gourmet food, world-class guides for a totally intimate experience.  Others travel by vehicle to Botswana to stay in cheap public campsites and label it as “being on safari”.  These are significantly different experiences.  

Yes, we at ROAM understand the world economy is in the tank but we hope that we can continue to offer unique and well-planned experiences that won’t break your bank account but never will get commoditized.  As some one recently told me, “the foundation of a democracy is that the electorate get what they deserve”.

I will let you be the judge for your travel experiences but at ROAM, we think you deserve the best.

Family Travel is Not a Dirty Word

No rant needed from me this week as I think this letter from one of our guests speaks volumes about why families should travel and in particular with us 🙂

Dear Brian

We have been back for a few weeks and we’ve been re-living all the great moments.  Unfortunately, we only have 2000 photos so we have to go by memory for some things!  Now that life is finally settling back down, I’ve had a chance to get the photos organized and pull this package together for you.  Where to start…

First – Thanks for organizing the trip, arranging Ashley to be our guide (and allowing us to become like a volunteer marketing team for ROAM)

Second- Prior to this trip, if we asked our kids for their idea of a perfect vacation the answer would always involve some combination of Mickey Mouse and a Mexican beach (with a swim up bar).  Now they want adventures!  This is excellent.

Third – You have created a great family-friendly program for us.  If you are not marketing this aggressively, I’d say you should be.  For sure, you are more than welcome to use any or all of our pictures on your website, in brochures…whatever you like.  We had a series of experiences that kept surprising us.  The trip truly exceeded all expectations.  At the start of each day, we’d say that we didn’t know how we’d be able to top the amazing things we saw and did the day before.  Then over dinner each night, we were honestly able to say we had indeed raised the bar again.

Fourth – How are we supposed to improve on swimming with sea lions, hiking in Vulcan Chico, soaking in hotsprings in the Andes, rafting the headwaters of the Amazon, snorkeling with sharks, rays and turtles, watching dolphins dancing on our bow wake in the moonlight, looking for bugs on night hikes, seeing marine iguanas on the beach where we were building sand castles, riding horses amongst volcanoes and glaciers, seeing giant tortoises, watching boobies dive all around the boat, standing on the equator, seeing a baby hammerhead swim circles around the boat, staying in haciendas and jungle lodges, and sleeping on deck so sea lions could wake us up.  We’ve been ruined!

Fifth – What a treat to meet your crew, Ashley, Juan Fernando and Arturo as they are all EXCELLENT – great people and great fun.  You were right that we would love Ashley.  She was perfect in everyway and went way beyond the call of duty to be sure the kids and adults were having a wonderful time.

Sixth – Visiting the Ecuadorian mainland is totally under-rated experience.  It should be on the world’s top ten list.  The people are spectacular, the scenery is unbelieveable, the food was great, the price was right and its not touristy.  We were so focused on the Galapagos that we had not spent much time anticipating the second part of our amazing trip.  It was fantastic.

Seventh – It woudln’t have been an adventure if Harry hadn’t fallen off a horse, Catharine hadn’t fallen off a bike, Elizabeth Anne hadn’t been bitten by a dog and I had not broken a toe (I think) as it is not as straight as it used to be.  Those were some of the memorable moments.  Very cool to say ” I fell off a horse in Ecuador”

Eighth – It was fun to see places that we remembered from the website and your daughter’s photo album.  It was not hard to imagine you and the girls chilling out on the beach at Isabela.  In fact, it wouldn’t be hard to relocate to Isabela!  But Beto’s margaritas (especially the second one) should come with a warning label.

Ninth – we appreciated all your help and intimate knowledge about the areas.  It was great to get advice from a parent’s perspective as well as your naturally adventurous side

Tenth – We are looking forward to planning our next ROAM Vacation

The Armstrong Clan
Bob, Elizabeth-Anne, Harry, Alison and Cookie