Seasonality has long been a thorn in the side of the tourism sector. In high season the abundance of tourists ensures that business is lucrative; and the opposite is true in low season, where businesses are in ‘survival mode’.

Tourism Update explored the trends and impact of seasonality.

In the Kenyan safari sector, seasonality remains a major issue impacting on the communities, environment and conservation initiatives, not to mention tourism business themselves, says Nicky Fitzgerald, CEO of Angama Mara.

“This is driven by two things. Firstly, misinformation about what the industry means when it refers to ‘long rains’ and ‘short rains’ has led some to believe that they may end up spending days indoors instead of exploring the Masai Mara,” she says. “It is rare for rain to settle in; instead it usually arrives in dramatic, late afternoon thunderstorms and the sun reappears after an hour. In fact, the name ‘long rains’ refers to the length of the season, which runs from six to eight weeks, while the ‘short rains’ usually last just four weeks.”

The second issue is that when it comes to marketing the Masai Mara, the industry has a habit of placing too great an emphasis on the migration. “This has created the misperception that when the migration leaves the Mara, it takes every animal all the way down to the tortoises back to the Serengeti with it, which of course couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Furthmore, the seasonality issue is exacerbated by the industry’s low and high season pricing (or what they refer to as standard and peak season), which leads travellers to believe that there must be something lacking in terms of the experience provided during the ‘low’ season to account for the vast disparity in pricing.

In South Africa, says Chris Anagnostellis, CEO of An African Anthology, seasonality traditionally played a major role in the safari sector, however, over the years a dramatic increase in support from certain source markets has contributed significantly to the ‘low season’ period.

“This has resulted in a lot of properties common-rating their rates – traditionally we had high- and low-season rates, which are still in existence, however with the increase in business over traditionally low periods, properties have opted to take advantage of this. In Botswana as an example, the stigma of a low and high season still exists significantly, which is really puzzling, considering that the seasons are similar to those of South Africa,” he says.

According to Sally Kernick of Lukimbi Safari Lodge, that is exactly what they did. “We stopped having a high summer season and a low winter season some years ago. Now we have one rate throughout the year, apart from December 16 until January 4. This has worked very well for us and everyone understands this high season.”

Nik Lloyd-Roberts, Commercial Manager at Federal Airlines, agrees and says in order to maintain simplicity when booking, seasonal rates have not been implemented at Federal Airlines. “Rates are fixed for a year, however capacity and aircraft gauge are changed throughout the year in order to meet changes in demand,” he says.

Understanding seasonality

When it comes to safaris, seasonality is important in terms of weather, game-viewing conditions and pricing, says Africa Albida Tourism CEO, Ross Kennedy. “Low season rates can be as much as 40% to 50% lower than high season in key safari areas such as Chobe.”

It is a balancing act, says Lloyd-Roberts, as there is often too little capacity in the high season and too much in the low season. “The idea is to operate at an efficient level with the right mix of assets year round, offering uncompromised customer service.”

He says shuttle flights tend to be in demand throughout the year, however private charter flights booked to different destinations tend be in the busier periods of the year. “Seasonality does present challenges within the sector, however with certain markets travelling at certain times of the year, these challenges can be overcome,” he says.

For Anagnostellis, to effectively deal with seasonality, tourism businesses need to be innovative. “It is not always about discounting rates to attract business, although this is certainly prevalent – the reality is that if people are travelling they will pay. Demand on the destination at that time will also determine the outcome of a low season,” he says.

High versus low

Seasonality is complex. One just has to look at the examples of South Africa and Botswana to see this. The high season in South Africa is the low season in Botswana and conversely the same is true. “What is interesting is that although we are seeing a shortening of the low season period in South Africa with a strong US market travelling over the same period (and they are also going to Botswana, which is high season then), we do not see a shortening of the low season in Botswana,” says Anagnostellis.

In Kenya, the peak season is between June 1 and September 30, says Fitzgerald, advising agents to book at least six months in advance. “Also, the peak period over Christmas and New Year requires booking at least nine months prior to travel. For the standard season, agencies can possibly afford to wait in order to pick up great offers.”

In Chobe, says Kennedy, the busiest months are June to October followed by April, May and November while the quietest months are December through to March. Rates vary accordingly across the season. “To secure high-season dates in this region, booking nine to 12 months ahead is required,” he says.

In South Africa the low season is more or less May through to September, and the high season is October through to March.

According to Lloyd-Roberts high season in their business is usually January, March, April, July, August, October and December with the remaining months being quiet. “Another consideration is the change in Easter as this will have a direct result on the booking patterns,” he says.

According to Sean Kritzinger, Executive Chairman at Giltedge Africa, the off-peak season offers travellers the opportunity to book affordable luxury safari experiences. “In South Africa this is usually between June and September when hotels and lodges offer competitive rates.”

And, he says, going in the low season does not mean one will not see any game as many properties in the region offer year-round game viewing. “During the high season in the Mara travellers may see the migration, which means possible river crossings too,” says Fitzgerald. “In the low season guests can expect to have the Mara to themselves, see fantastic game, benefit from great value and, if they are fortunate, experience some dramatic late afternoon thundershowers.”

Regardless of season, says Anagnostellis, traveller expectations are similar all year round from a service and hosting point of view.

But, says Fitzgerald, it is essential that the industry overcomes the deeply entrenched misconceptions that the low season offers less of a quality safari. “We need to re-engineer the mindset of the global travel trade so that when they sell the Mara, and indeed the rest of Kenya, they promote it as a 12-month destination.”