Jonathan Cohen, Director of Tented Adventures, says: “Today’s digitised world is overloaded with information, and people are looking to counteract this by having authentic, transformative experiences. Gone are the days where you could just provide a fantastic lodge. Instead, you have to shift your focus to delivering a five-star experience.”

Tourism Update looks at five ways to package an experiential travel offer.

1.Involve the community

Without exception, industry role players interviewed agreed that involving the local community was essential to ensure an authentic experience. That community could consist of the traditional cultural groups with whom the travellers engage, the onsite staff, or owners of other tourist attractions in the area.

Cameron Murray, Co-founder of Traditional African Homestays South Africa, says involving the traditional leaders from the Makushu/Musholombi village in northern Limpopo was instrumental to the success of its product.

“When we started developing our home-stay product, our first priority was to sit down with the traditional leaders and discuss the concept of inviting visitors to stay in their homes and how this could benefit the community as a whole. Our main focus became training the locals so that they could become guides and interpret the language and traditions of their culture to tourists. We also encouraged them to make use of the ‘tourism multiplier effect’ (an effect in economics where an increase in spending produces an increase in total income and consumption greater than the initial amount spent).

“This provided them with an economic opportunity that stemmed from embracing their culture, rather than having to desert it in favour of Western customs. This is the spark that ignited their passion and laid the foundation for us being able to provide an authentic experience.”

Crystal Van Helsdingen, Marketing Officer at the SAB World of Beer in Johannesburg, says a community approach has worked for them when partnering with other Newtown tourist attractions. “The time where everyone focused solely on their own businesses has passed. We may all have our own targets, but we work together as a community to create packages that will allow the traveller to have an authentic Newtown experience.”

2.The story is key

Once you have involved the community, Cohen says it is important to incorporate storytelling. “All our employees are being trained in the art of authentic storytelling. They will tell stories that are unique to the bush around their site, the food being served, and their personal life experiences.

“We have asked the staff to create traditional artwork on the tents, write blogs, and take pictures of the location that we can share online. We want them to use the storytelling techniques to really share who they are.”

Murray agrees: “When the members of the village engage with travellers they tell traditional myths and legends, as well as stories about their personal experiences and love for their traditions. This is what makes a travel experience transformative. It breaks down social boundaries and allows the traveller to learn about another culture - without the sugar coating.”

3.The importance of flexibility

According to Cohen, flexibility has allowed his company to respond with speed to what the market wants and create customised experiences. “We have been able to adapt to both the wellness and Halal markets by embracing a flexible model. You can’t afford to have a model that is ridged any more, otherwise you will lose out. Particularly in a world of instant feedback – customers expect you to adjust accordingly.”

4.Create Intimacy

Small groups engaging in an experience create an ambience of authenticity and the environment for transformative experiences.

Murray explains that they have a maximum of 25 home stays available, while Cohen says intimacy is created by keeping occupancy to a maximum of 20.

5.Embrace diversity

Diversity of guests to diversity of attractions is essential to an authentic experience.

“Part of what makes our experience memorable is the mix of travellers we have at a given time,” remarks Cohen. “We have communal dinners where there are Swiss, German, South African and Australian guests all sharing their cultures with one another. On another evening we might have a vegan and an American hunter engaged in a debate. We try to foster an atmosphere where everyone wants to learn about everyone else – it enriches the travel experience.”

Christiaan Steyn, Marketing Manager at Drifters Adventours adds: “People are becoming more aware that Southern Africa isn’t just one place – each culture and biodiversity has its own unique flavour. They want to explore and experience more and we need to be cognisant of this when packaging experiential travel.”

Bongani Mthiyane, General Manager of Marketing at KZN Tourism, says its strategy for marketing experiential travel is to target each demographic individually.

 “We won’t just package for the ‘adventure traveller’, for example. We make sure operators package experiences aimed at a specific market within the category. An adventurous person who is French does not behave the same way as an adventurous person who is South African. For example, we know that the French want history and modern art, while the Germans want wildlife and nature- based experiences, and an American wants history and heritage. Other cultures may only be interested in the beach. It is key to individualise your marketing – the more you know about the customer the better – generalisation is a sure-fire way to miss the mark.”