Welcome to this fourth post in my Face to Face series of interviews with people who travel or provide travel-related services. My guest this time is Amie Larsen from Safari365. She was instrumental in customizing the itinerary for our wonderful South Africa trip in December 2019. Amie and I did this interview in the fall of 2020. However, due to many reasons on my end, I could not publish this interview until today. For that, I owe Amie a huge apology.
The South Africa trip was the first time we relied on someone else to build an entire itinerary. Initially, it was a bit nerve-racking for us. But after hours poring over websites and being overwhelmed by the enormity of the choices for a single safari, having someone else plan a trip was a God-send. Amie did a terrific job creating an itinerary covering our must-dos on the trip. After an initial phone call, Amie and I chatted on Whatsapp and exchanged more detailed information via email. While we didn’t meet her in person, Amie remained easily available throughout our trip for questions and concerns.
Scroll down to read our interview (lightly edited for clarity) and enjoy!
JJ: What is the best time to visit South Africa?
AL: The real answer: any time of the year! However, this can be different depending on a person’s personal preferences – for example, I prefer warm weather, so I would always prefer to travel from October to February. Alternatively, the May – July months fit well with the European holiday season, which suits others more.
JJ: What percentage of the South African economy does tourism form? How has coronavirus affected the industry?
AL: According to the latest statistics, tourism counts for +- 2.8% of the gross product (GDP). Industry predictions were for the trajectory to grow to +- R145 billion for 2019. Due to COVID-19, this will definitely have been impacted! Unfortunately, our industry has been hit hard during this pandemic. The most wonderful thing about SA is the way everyone has come together to support each other. “Local is lekker” has definitely become everyone’s main focus, and it has actually been so amazing to experience the local places that we may have overlooked had this pandemic not happened. We are so looking forward to being able to support our country again, as soon as possible!
JJ; Can you tell me about the origin story of Safari365?
AL: Safari365 was started in 2006 by Marcus Brain, Cape Town-born and bred, and exceptionally enthusiastic about African travel and sharing Africa with the world. He has weathered Safari365 through every storm to grow his business into what it is today. Safari365 began as a small, humble company, which remains true today, but with global recognition and consultants based throughout the globe.
JJ: How long have you worked with Safari365? When did you move to South Africa?
AL: I started working for Safari365 on July 2nd, 2018, and moved to Cape Town just four days before my first day! It was nerve-racking moving to a new country and starting a new job, all within a week of each other, but I wouldn’t have done it any differently. Tourism is truly a passion of mine, and I am so fortunate to be part of the team at Safari365. (Amie is from Zimbabwe and moved to South Africa, where she now resides.)
JJ: What got you into this business, and specifically, this travel consultant job?
AL: I love Africa. It is my home, in my blood, and my absolute passion! Nothing makes me happier than knowing that I’m part of an industry that contributes so much and allows internationals to experience the places I am fortunate enough to call home. Africa is breath-taking, but it’s so difficult to put into words the things that make it so, so when a client can come and experience it for themselves, it makes it so worth it!
JJ: Where do most of your customers originate from? (which continent or country)
AL: Personally, my clients are predominately based in the US, the UK, and Australia. Some of my colleagues have Singaporean clients, and others have Brazilian-based clients. I love my client demographic! We also have clients from Hong Kong, India, and Europe.
JJ: How do they find Safari365?
AL: An almost 50/50 combination of marketing and Google searches, and repeat and referrals
JJ: How big is your team in South Africa? How do you all get paid?
AL: Following the pandemic, we have all become remote consultants, so we are no longer based within one office. Outside of South Africa, we have consultants in the UK, Australia, Mauritius, and Brazil. Our schemes are split – some of us are on a commission and basic salary, others are purely commission-based.
JJ: Outside of South Africa, what other countries do you plan itineraries for?
AL: We create itineraries for Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, Namibia, Mozambique, East Africa, Seychelles, Mauritius – we are looking at branching out to other countries in the future.
JJ: What happens once an itinerary is nailed down?
AL: The excitement really begins! From my side, I confirm all of the accommodations and activities and ensure that everything is in place. Closer to travel time, I will ensure that everything is in order, confirmed, and perfect for the trip!
JJ: What do you enjoy the most about your job?
AL: This is a two-part answer, as I can’t choose!
First, I absolutely love planning itineraries and putting together exciting holidays! South Africa, or Africa in general, has so much to offer and really can cater to all different personality types. I love using my knowledge of this stunning continent to ensure that guests have the most incredible experience!
The second is my team. I love my colleagues, and we really are a tight-knit family.
JJ: What is the most difficult aspect of your job?
AL: Availability! It may seem like a sales tactic when a consultant tells you to book in advance or as soon as possible, but hotels, lodges, and the like book out far in advance, particularly in Peak Season or when specials are involved.
JJ: Tell me what a day in your life looks like.
AL: A day always starts with emails (okay, after coffee!). I check for new inquiries that have come through and start working on them. Thereafter, I look at my to-do sheet and work on itineraries – this could either be selecting accommodations and activities for a brand new client or amending ones in progress. As I work purely with tailor-made itineraries, it often happens that clients would like to change a thing or two now and again to really make their trip exceptional!
In between all of this, I have a foster-fail dog, Luca, who gets all of my attention when I’m not focusing on clients and work!
JJ: Are you tethered to your phone all days of the week? What happens to your clients if it’s your day off? Is someone on call all the time to take care of emergencies that come up?
AL: Since the introduction of business via WhatsApp, I definitely do use my phone more often. I have had to learn to “switch off” when I take time off (although I don’t necessarily count weekends as “time off” so I still check). We do have an emergency phone run by our Sales Support team in the event that clients can’t get hold of us immediately.
JJ: Do you have to first travel to different sites, game reserves or hotels to get a feel for what you recommend?
AL: Yes! We do go on educational and site inspections to get a feel for the logistics and ensure the quality of the lodges. It is such a rewarding element to my job, but it also is incredibly beneficial to us in knowing our product.
JJ. What has been a favorite trip you’ve planned? Why?
AL: I love any of the itineraries that combine city, safari, and beach! It really does allow for the guests to experience all sides of Southern Africa. An alternative would be city, safari, and Victoria Falls. Being from Zimbabwe myself, having the platform to send guests to Zimbabwe is exceptionally rewarding for me, as it really is a stunning country!
JJ. What are some of your best travel tips for anyone planning a trip to South Africa?
AL: Use a consultant! Okay, but aside from the bias of me being one, South Africa, as I mentioned earlier, really does have an abundance of options – from day tours to road trips, the different types of Game Reserves, the beach destinations, and so on. It can be tricky to know what to do, when to do it, and how best to make the most of your time here.
Start planning in advance (the availability issue) to ensure that you are able to have the first prize with your accommodation and activity choices.
If you can, be specific with your travel consultant (if you choose to work with one). Let them know your budget, what you like (definitely what you dislike!). We know these destinations inside out, so the more we know about you, the more we can create the absolute once-in-a-lifetime experience for you!
JJ. If you had to recommend 3 places to visit in South Africa, where would you choose and why?
AL: Cape Town, our Mother City. There aren’t many places where you can experience mountains, oceans, cosmopolitan bars, yachts, adventure, and adrenaline activities, and much more in one area! It really lives up to the title of being the most beautiful city in the world, and it is a must for any South Africa itinerary!
Winelands – Franschhoek, Stellenbosch, and Paarl are some of the most beautiful locations in the Western Cape. The Greater Kruger National Park. Honestly, this one seems like such an obvious choice, but it’s with good reason! I am an absolute bushbaby; nothing beats walking up (or going to sleep) with the sound of the African bush in the background. For me, there is no other place like it.
(The Garden Route was a close 4th!)
JJ: How do you contact and communicate efficiently with your clients so they have the best trip possible?
AL: Getting to know what the client wants out of their trip is the most important task! Usually, a phone conversation gets us well acquainted, which builds a foundation for working on. It is important for clients to stipulate their likes and dislikes and ask any questions they have! WhatsApp is really popular too, as it is a quick way of conveying information back and forth.
JJ: For anyone interested in the tourism industry, what is a piece of advice you have?
AL: Love what you do! It sounds simple, but it makes all the difference! There are tough months in the industry, and you can have some difficult clients (as with any industry), but putting together that dream holiday is an incredible feeling, and you really can make an impact on someone’s life, just by loving what you do and loving the destination you sell!
JJ: How is Safari365 managing through this time?
AL: Thankfully, we are hanging in there and making it work – we are fortunate enough to be one of the only companies still standing strong. Safari365 has been operating for 15 years and has faced many challenges along the way (such as Ebola, the Cape Town drought), and so COVID will be another challenge that we face and persevere through. We have rebranded entirely, and we focus on the happiness that comes with travel. Safaris with a smile are our motto, and our approach is as below:
We’re international and well-travelled,
but we’re still the girl/guy next door.
We’re humble, modest, and unpretentious,
but still damn good at what we do.
We’re kind, empathetic, and trustworthy,
but still driven, focussed, and organised.
We don’t take ourselves too seriously,
but we’re no fools.
Due to our globalised presence, we have wonderful clientele, and we cannot wait to get back to creating itineraries and doing what we do best and what we love! We are hopeful that things will start to turn around as people look to travel again. Our international borders are slowly opening, and we are starting to put together itineraries for new clients, which is so encouraging!
All photos are courtesy of Amie Larsen.
Many thanks to Amie for helping me put together this post. The JJ family had a carefree experience in South Africa thanks to Amie’s efforts. If you have Africa on your travel list in the near future, be sure to give Amie Larsen a call! You won’t be disappointed!
Connect with Amie!
WhatsApp: +27 84 425 4055