Interview with Hills of Africa Travel

What separates Hills of Africa Travel from other leading tour companies?

Our mission is changing lives one journey at a time…every time. Probably the single greatest thing that separates us from other leading tour operators is our size.  We are small – and proud of it.  We have no intention of being “big.”  Being small gives us many luxuries that benefit the client.  For one, we are able to custom design every single itinerary for our clients.  The order of events is 1) client comes to us, interested in traveling to Africa; 2) we design their itinerary and NOT the other way around, which is how the bigger tour operators work with about 80% of their clients.  I love the fact that as a small tour operator, we don’t have to worry about volume discounts with specific properties and then push clients to those properties in order to keep the volume.  No, we are able to listen to our clients, incorporate everything they desire, and then present them with an itinerary that perfectly fits their budget, timeframe, and travel tastes.  This could mean something as specific as organizing a soccer match between the traveling family and a local village, volunteering for a day to paint a daycare center or organizing a shopping trip to a fine, respected jeweler to pick out an engagement or anniversary ring.  Another fantastic luxury of being small, is that our clients work with the OWNERs of the company.  Sandy and Meredith have a long term view in mind and are most concerned with the long term relationship with the client, not a short term gain.  We are passionate about Africa, but we are just as passionate about the client experience.  When we design our clients’ itineraries, we want to expose them to the Magic of Africa and keep their needs in mind.

The final thing I want to mention is that our mission is to change lives, one journey at a time…every time. We know that when we apply our passion to creating our clients’ itineraries, we definitely change their lives when they travel.  The amazing thing is that there is another side to the mission.  We intend to change the lives of the locals in Africa too.  By choosing travel providers that make a difference, we do this with each itinerary.

Is there any one particular request from a client that is especially memorable? If so, were you able to accommodate them?

I will give you two examples – The first was a request by a lovely lady who was 87 years old.  She wanted to take her son to Kenya and visit some of the most difficult to reach safari camps.  Her mobility was extremely limited.  In fact, one of the camps she wanted to visit includes crossing a river by canoe to get there.  She didn’t think she would be able to get down into the canoe and get out again and said she would be fine going the long way round.  But we said “No, you must go by canoe.”  We organized for a private guide to escort the two of them on the entire journey and with the assistance of 3 staff members, made it in and out of the canoe for the river crossing.

Then there was the client who left his leather jacket in the car of our Johannesburg based tour guide.  When our Johannesburg guide noticed the leather jacket, he quickly parked the car.  Ran at a full pace through Johannesburg airport….somehow talked his way through security….found the gate from where the client’s flight was departing….talked his way through the gate attendant and onto the actual aircraft – and delivered the leather jacket to our client.

What kind of resources do you have available to clients? How do you select the partners that are on location?

Our resources for our clients begin from the moment they call us.  First, we schedule a consultation to discuss their travel patterns, tastes and needs.  At this time, they are able to ask us all the questions they have.  We will work on the itinerary until the client is satisfied.  Once they book, we send them very helpful pre-travel information.  We want to make sure they are prepared for their journey and realize that there will be lots of questions and possibly some anxiety.  We send them a long document that contains the most frequently asked questions and their answers….but we deliver this information again, in small doses, as we get much closer to their travel date.  Beginning eight weeks prior to travel, our clients receive weekly e-mails, only about 1-page in length, discussing pertinent travel information to help them prepare.

I have saved the best for last – our team based in Africa.  We have locations in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Victoria Falls and contacts all over southern and East Africa.  From the moment our clients touch African soil, they are met with a member of our team and treated as if they are family coming to visit.  All of our transfer agents are also professional tour guides and dress in professional attire driving new, clean, safe vehicles.  So, when our clients are being met at the airport and transferred to a hotel, they can discuss with the guide all the fantastic things to do and restaurant recommendations, etc.  Our clients are met at their first point of entry by a tour guide who sits down with the client, with a cup of coffee or tea, delivers any needed vouchers for their journey, runs through the entire itinerary, offers to answer any questions and then gives them a business card of the person in our Cape Town office who can be reached 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, if there is anything they need whilst in Africa.

Where does your passion for Africa stem from? What is it about Africa that you love?

Meredith – Ironically, my first trip to Africa was not by choice.  As a self-proclaimed travel snob, Africa was not on my radar screen.  I assumed Africa was dark, dangerous, dusty, full of poverty and couldn’t possibly offer the luxury travel experiences I desired.  But I was invited to a wedding and it was an opportunity to meet my boyfriend’s family.  So, I swallowed my travel snobbery and off I went.

What I found was the most perfect travel experience EVER.  There was scenery so incredible it made me want to cry.  It was as if the colors were brighter, the smells stronger and the sounds more beautiful.  There was the wildlife – so magnetic, powerful.  I could sit, for hours, in complete silence, just watching – never had an experience like it.  There were the safari camps and other resorts.  I was blown away by the level of sophistication, the awesome and novel décor, the amazing food and the warm and charming sense of personalities.  Then there were the people.  From the moment I arrived, I was welcome with open arms, big smiles and an element of warm hospitality I have not found anywhere else in the world.  This is the Africa I know today.

What I love most about Africa, however, – is something that is beyond the five senses.  Ever since my first trip there – I have been drawn to something, but not really sure what it is.  Our clients identify this too.  So many of them return saying “What is it about Africa?”  You may have heard the saying “Once you get Africa in the blood, you can never get it out.”  I finally discovered the answer – it’s the energy.  The energy in Africa, especially in the bush, is pure, clean and contains no negativity.  It is food for our soul.  It is an amazing, magnetic and peaceful experience.  I always return from my trips there with a newfound energy and zest for life.

Sandy – I was brought up in one of the most beautiful places on earth, Zimbabwe.  Zimbabwe is a small country located in southern Africa, next door to South Africa.  As a young child, I was fortunate to travel to many places in the southern part of the continent and enjoyed every moment of it with my family.  I am now, happily, an American citizen, but I do miss Africa.  I miss the smell of the first rains, the taste of dirt as I step off the tiny airplane that has just landed on a dirt runway.  I miss the beautiful sunsets, its’ magic, its’ people.  So I figured, the next best thing to living in Africa is helping people plan their travel there.  In 2002, I joined Hills of Africa Travel as a partner/co-owner with my sister-in-law, Meredith Hill.  (Guess who’s wedding it was that stimulated Meredith’s first trip to Africa?  – Mine and my maiden name is Hill – together, we are the Hills of Africa)  I am now able to share the magic of Africa with everyone I know.  I love working with my clients on their itineraries and showing them how to have the most amazing and transformational journey of their lives.

Do you think it takes a special kind of person to want to travel to Africa? Generally speaking, what demographic do your clients fall into?

I actually think it takes a special kind of person to NOT want to travel to Africa – but they just to know it.  Ever since my first trip there, I have felt that the American public is missing out on the best travel experience of their lives, and Africa is the best kept secret in travel.  As Americans, we are drowned in negativity about Africa by the media.  It’s no surprise that my original judgments of Africa were that it is dark and dangerous. But if Americans were to know the full story and were exposed to the Magic of Africa, it would be on the radar screen of so many more travelers.  When Apartheid ended in South Africa in 1992, a whole new travel experience opened up for the world.  The tourism industry has grown by leaps and bounds in both southern and East Africa and the level of sophistication combined with the amount of diversity makes it so appealing.  What most people don’t realize is the outstanding variety in travel experiences.  There are so many awesome things to see and do that Africa appeals to a huge spectrum of travel tastes.

Generally speaking, our clients are either affluent honeymooners in their 30s and 40s, or affluent baby boomers who have traveled to most other parts of the world.

Can you describe the process of planning a custom-tailored itinerary?

  1. We receive an inquiry by phone, e-mail or from the website
  2. We send a questionnaire to the client which gives us a picture of what “does it” for them in terms of travel.  We want to know where they have traveled in the past, their favorite travel memories, resorts and destinations.  We want to know what is drawing them to Africa, etc.  This will help us shape their itinerary.
  3. We schedule a phone consultation and the questionnaire needs to be completed by the time of our discussion.  We go into further detail about what they are looking for.
  4. We begin preparing an itinerary and within a few days, will send a quote with a few options
  5. We revise the itinerary based upon feedback from the client
  6. When the client is fully satisfied, we confirm the itinerary by taking a 25% deposit
  7. We send a Welcome e-mail to the client which introduces the Hills of Africa Travel team that will be greeting the client in Africa and informs the client of the next steps in the process – so they know when to expect to hear from us again.
  8. One day after confirmation, we send an e-mail containing our Frequently Asked Questions, with their answers.  This covers the most popular questions like required vaccinations (there are none), visa and passport requirements, to the less popular, but still pertinent questions like how to rent a cell phone and a list of reading recommendations.
  9. At 90 days prior to travel, we process the final payment
  10. Once we have received final payment, we prepare and send a full set of travel documents that contains their itinerary, contact details to leave behind with loved ones, brochures for the properties where they are staying, details of their tours, restaurant recommendations if they are doing more than just a safari, and lots of other pertinent information
  11. Beginning 8 weeks prior to travel, we send a weekly e-mail, about 1 page in length, that contains the information from the FAQ, but split up into small doses at a time.
  12. A week before the client departs, we send an e-mail wishing bon voyage and offering to answer anymore questions.
  13. A week after the client returns home we call to discuss the journey and find out the good, the bad and the ugly.

What seems to be the most popular destination?

For safari – that would be a toss up between the Okavango Delta in Botswana and Kruger National Park in South Africa.  For non-safari destinations – that would be a toss up between Victoria Falls and Cape Town.

Are there any special safety precautions that must be taken before traveling to Africa?

Our clients are usually so surprised at how safe Africa is, after all they hear and learn from the media.  Just like you wouldn’t send a foreigner to the projects in Harlem  or on the south side of Chicago, we take similar precautions.  This is why we have a professional tour guide meet our clients at every transition point in the itinerary.  That way, they never feel alone in a foreign country.  We really hold their hand the entire way.  As always, we recommend the same safety tips you would recommend to anyone traveling to a foreign country – don’t carry excess cash if you don’t need it, lock up your passport in a safe if there is one, don’t wear excessive jewelry if it’s not needed, etc.

How much can one expect to pay for a safari package?

It totally depends upon the length of travel and the destinations.  Our itineraries begin at about $5,000 per person for a 10 to 12 night journey.  This does not include the cost of international flights, but it does include almost everything else, including transportation once there.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I encourage you to put Africa at the top of their travel priority list (if you haven’t already done so.)  Youwill be so happy to have found the best kept secret in travel.

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