Ndutu Lodge IN; Crater Lodge OUT

Ndutu Lodge IN; Crater Lodge OUT

Which to choose for the same price: a week in the left bed or 1 night in the right bed?!!
Reliability and Substance over Fluff ‘n Fantasy. That’s the read from the surge in new travelers to East Africa.

‘Reliability over Fluff’ – This is one of the important redefinitions of the post-recession market in East Africa. It’s the reason that places like Ndutu Lodge will do well, and why places like Crater Lodge will now see a decline.

(Tomorrow, I’ll discuss the emergence of’ Substance over Fantasy.’ Why so-called luxury, mobile camping in East Africa is on its way out.)

The end of a recession is an exciting time for any industry, but particularly so for travel. The surge in bookings is the side-liners coming to the fore, the people who had planned to go but pulled back when the recession hit. We’re feeling that surge right now.

This burst of new travel was building continually throughout the recession. The fear that the recession wasn’t ending was the dam on the logjam. It kept building with people ready to go but who pulled back, afraid that the recession might continue. They waited until there was certainty things were getting better.

That’s happened, worldwide, and the net result is a bubble of healthy travelers bursting out at us. This group has a lot in common besides their financial endurance.

They are now redefining the next business cycle’s important parameters of price brackets and style.

It was the end of the 1973-75 recession that opened the gates of travel to East Africa. There wasn’t much to redefine, because there hadn’t been much before, but in the last half of the 1970’s decade travel to East Africa quadrupled from America.

Hardly ten years later, the end of the 1981-82 recession resulted in a massive redefinition of the American market to East Africa. That was when the first boutique safari camps appeared. The preceding decade had been one mainly of mass tourism, large groups staying in large lodges. The end of this recession marked the beginning of “style” (read: ‘luxury’) as an important component of American safaris.

It’s interesting to note that the single largest group of travelers to East Africa, the French, never really bought into this. French still remain the single largest nationality traveling on safari, but they never abandoned the big mass tourism lodges for the luxury lodges the way the Americans did.

That 1980s recession also redefined how people traveled, including the French. Suddenly there was a surge in couples and small groups, what the industry calls “FIT”s (Foreign Independent Travel). That was nearly unheard of only a few years preceding. That led to all sorts of revolutionary changes, like a whole bunch of new local airlines flying daily services to all the game parks.

While we had a recession in the 1990s, it was mild (GDP fell less than 2%) and didn’t cause any significant redefinition of that second big recession of 1980s. That may explain why there is going to be such a big realignment, now. This 2007 recession is only the third one since travel really took off to East Africa in the 1970s large enough (GDP falling more than 3%) to redefine the markets.

So for nearly twenty years we’ve had a linear growth in market parameters: mostly in style getting more and more lavish.

This time it looks pretty clear to me: out are the expensive and outlandish Fluff ‘n Fancy of places like Crater Lodge and so-called “luxury camping,” and in are reliable locations and services of places like Ndutu Lodge and Sanctuary camps.

This isn’t just a reflection of price. It’s also a reflection of the “New Efficiency” of the American traveler.

I think the American is becoming more European. I chuckle to myself now when I recall the many tourism conventions I’ve attended when around the bar we Americans would chastise our European counterparts for not “splurging” on the new styles available.

The irony, of course, is that at home the European lives a much more lavish lifestyle than the American. Our huge unused living spaces, poorly decorated reading rooms and bathrooms without bidets cast us with an unrelenting cowboy legacy.

American luxury and splurging is now going to be reserved — like with the European — for the backyard pond, the second home or refurbished kitchen. Home is going to be the focal point for luxury, not travel. A vacation – a safari – will have preeminent goals unique to its destination.

Like finding animals.

And it matters less and less that after finding the animals you fall into a feather bed. A nicely made up spring mattress will be just fine.

The depth, surprise and lasting impact of this latest recession will not fade from memory, soon. If you want to think of this “New Efficiency” dynamic as more related to the fear of another recession than just a maturation of where luxury is meaningful, be my guest. The net result is the same.

And here’s the beautiful ironic twist. Future safari travelers might even spend more than before, but it will be to lengthen their vacation rather than upgrade their accommodation. There will be new scrutiny of services. It won’t matter a hoot that you have sherry by a personal fireplace if there aren’t enough porters to get your bag into your room at the same time you arrive.

My personal experience in this last safari season traveling with this burst of new travelers really bears this out.

All properties have cut back. Chains and independents alike have reduced staff and overall services. But it was at Crater Lodge that we noticed it most. Crater Lodge had been the most talked about property in East Africa, an &Beyond extravaganza that guests fondly called funky. It’s lavish, and lavishly priced, currently $1500 per person per night in its highest season.

When you’re forking out that amount of money, even the tiniest decline in services stings. Of the four nights I spent there in the last six weeks, two nights experienced long periods of no electricity. Wake-up calls were routinely a half hour late. Dinner portions were smaller and smaller. Askari or “guards” were often found asleep rather than ready to escort guests.

I’m sure that the surge of new travelers will refresh Crater Lodge’s revenue stream enough to remedy these failings. But their effects are more long-lasting.

We realized that if there weren’t 12-foot high ceilings with an 8-foot dropping rheostatic chandelier over the clawfoot bathtub set in a nearly 200 sq. foot room that maybe not so much electricity would have to be used in the first place! That if we just used our own alarm clocks, we wouldn’t have to be waken up by an underpaid, under slept porter.

What the travelers realized is that they had paid for Fluff. And what they really wanted was not to miss the dawn game drive.

In contrast, little Ndutu Lodge, retailing in its highest season at $170 per person per night ran as it always did like an efficient time piece. Since the generator has always gone off at 11:30p, no one missed it in the middle of the night. The food was as ordinary and generous as ever, and wake-up calls came right on the dot.

Both Crater Lodge and Ndutu Lodge share an important component of success: their location. Crater Lodge is perfectly placed on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater. Ndutu Lodge is in the southwest Serengeti, seasonally perfect for the great migration. On that, neither of them can err.

But since you can stay for more than a week at Ndutu Lodge for the cost of a single night at Crater Lodge, the contrast has just grown too stark. There are three other lodges on the crater rim, and Crater Lodge can no longer compete with them economically.

And the staff at Ndutu Lodge was much better than at Crater Lodge. Ndutu employees are loyal, courteous and know what they’re doing. That could be because Ndutu retains its workforce much better than Crater Lodge does. The rooms were really nice, the beds wonderfully comfortable, the bathrooms fully functional.

A night’s rest at Ndutu Lodge is less stressful and now more enduring than at Crater Lodge.

There was a time just a short while ago when the rose petals lining your bathroom floor to your hot clawfoot bath garnered your every dime. Just won’t any more. Reliability over Fluff.