Zephné Weston talks Asante Travel and connecting the high-end traveller with Africa

Who is Zephne and what inspires your personality and life ambitions?

I had very humble beginnings on a farm in South Africa, situated in the Karoo, a semi-desert area in the central part of the country. Ever since I can remember, the idea of travelling was a magical concept. As soon as I could read, I loved getting lost in travelling stories and books about countries all over the world. Always a nature lover, time spent outside amongst animals was one of my favourite pastimes.

It was a teacher that truly inspired my desire for seeing the world through my own eyes. She would often go on international trips and we would hang onto her every word as she recounted stories of the incredible sights she experienced in the world’s most famous cities.

My yearning for embarking on my own adventure just grew stronger as time went by and I longed to be free and to discover the world on my own terms. It was this overwhelming passion to travel that motivated me to get a job during school holidays to earn some money. As soon as I completed high school, I had enough money (and courage) saved up to buy a one-way ticket to London, a 2-year working Visa, a backpack, with GBP 43 remaining.

My mother’s wisdom stayed with me. As an 18-year old, I worked extra hard, always went beyond what was expected of me and never compromised on quality and service. By the time I was 19, I managed a team of 30 staff at a well-known establishment. I needed to work 80-hour weeks to prove myself, but I knew if I made the sacrifices early, I would reap the rewards.

I managed to travel across Europe and parts of the United States until my two-year working visa expired and I had to return to South Africa. Luckily, fortune favors the brave and I was given the opportunity to move to Cancun, Mexico where I worked in the hotel industry and later as Mexico Manager and Product Contracting Manager for The Mark Travel Corporation (now part of Apple Vacations). Living in Mexico was sometimes quite hard, given how young I was and in a fairly important role. I often had to deal with prejudice due to my age and being a young woman, but this just pushed me to work harder so I could make my mark an become indispensable.

When did the journey into running your business in luxury travel begin for you?

I returned to Africa in 2006, as I desperately missed the continent of my birth with its wonderful culture, natural beauty, variety, and unique people. Most of all, I realised that the people I met along the way in the USA and Mexico would probably never experience the Africa that I knew and loved and so I was determined to show them its beauty and diversity.

All the experience I gained during my time in the USA and Mexico, all the people I met and travelled with gave me great insight into the lifestyle and expectations of the high-end traveler.

The luxury traveler has high expectations. Looking for authentic experiences, making a difference and finding a deeper experience is important. It is typically someone who works really hard and when they take a vacation, they want to immerse themselves in it. Truly switch off and connect with their families, friends, and surroundings.

Returning to South Africa, I realised that all my accumulated experiences to date had taught me that this is more of a niche market than it seems on the surface. Just because you call something luxury or bespoke, does not mean that you truly understand this type of traveller!

It’s about making sure that the finer details are taken care of. That all the simple luxuries are a given and that truly unbelievable experiences are created, underpinned by the best service.

Very soon after my return to South Africa, some of my Mexican and American friends asked me to arrange trips for them to Africa. They loved the level of detail and care that went into their vacation planning and were overwhelmed by their trips – the beauty they saw and the unique places they visited. They, in turn, referred their friends to me, some of them have been booking their annual African trips through me for the past 14 years – every time to a different destination!

Over the years I have worked with different companies where these clients followed me. In 2019 I decided that it was time for me to do it on my own terms. And so, Asante Travel was born. I thrive on excellence. I don’t compromise on quality and I absolutely love what I do!

Asante Travel - what makes your business and the experiences you offer different, given the competitive nature of the global tourism landscape?

Every aspect is personal to me. Each itinerary is designed from scratch, based on the client’s specific requirements, goals and budget. Firstly, I do a very thorough analysis of a client’s expectations before we even start the planning process. An important aspect is putting myself in their shoes and I plan every trip as if it is for myself or my family.

A lot of care and attention goes into each itinerary! I love research and ensure that I completely understand every detail of the itinerary and that it makes complete sense before sending it to a client. Each itinerary is tailor-made to suit each client’s specific requirements.

Therefore, the most important part of the work takes place before the client receives the first proposal. Where possible, I try to suggest areas, safari lodges and experiences that I have experienced first-hand. I ensure that I stay up to date with any changes and new projects happening in the area I recommend. I will never propose an itinerary for something I would not absolutely love to do myself.

Further to that, once clients are travelling and if I am not travelling with them (which I do with my VIP clients in request), they have access to me 24/7 via WhatsApp. We are constantly in communication and their trip is monitored. Behind the scenes we are also in constant contact with the lodges and hotels where the clients are staying to make sure everything is going perfectly.

A vital aspect of my itineraries is that I only use suppliers who have the same high standards as I have. It’s important that my suppliers can be relied upon and who remain in communication with me. You need a partner who lets you know when things go differently than planned and who will pull out all the stops to rectify any situation that may occur, this can then be turned into a positive adventure without it impacting the client in a negative way.

My clients become my friends and together, we strive to create experiences that are life changing. Trips that remain part of people’s lives forever and impact the way they look at Africa, nature, and the environment.

You've worked all over the world, enjoying an illustrious career in the Americas, yet you still found yourself coming back home to South Africa and focusing on growing your business from here? Why Africa and why now? Why was it so important for you to venture into luxury travel as opposed to other niche segments within the industry?

Africa is real. I love travelling and seeing the world, but this is home. This is where I feel centered. Here, I can be close to nature and it is where I feel closest to my authentic self. I want everyone to experience this beautiful continent in a meaningful and authentic way. To take care of the environment. To understand the circle of life. In Africa, time can stand still. Here, you can connect with nature, yourself, your loved ones, your children in a way I feel you are not able to do anywhere else. Here, is where man and planet can become one and be grateful to each other, protect each other and teach us the most beautiful lessons. Africa changes us and I feel that when you come to Africa, you take a part of it back with you and once you’ve tasted it, you always want to come back here.

Changes are happening all over the world and it is becoming harder to escape from social media, corporate pressure, and expectations of society. On safari, you have the opportunity to remove yourself from that and just be one with nature. I’ve found that a lot of my clients get to reconnect with their soul and their loved ones. They get to create new relationships and friendships that often last a lifetime. For me, it’s about seeing how living simply can be beautiful and how the relationship between man and planet can change the course of the future. And we need to do this now, before we get swallowed up in the crazy rat race.

I ventured into the luxury travel sector because I thrive on creating trips that I would love to embark on myself. I enjoy luxury travel that is unique and intimate. I want to create and have experiences that are exceptional and truly different. I appreciate the fact that the average luxury traveller travels with a consciousness that we need to take care of our planet and have the means to make a change by either contributing to social projects or by creating awareness in their respective networks.

Asante [ah-san-teh] means thank you or gratitude in Swahili and the name is such a huge part of my amazing journey in the travel industry. Asante Travel wants to take our clients on this journey with us and welcoming travelers to the wondrous, pulsating and colourful continent of Africa.

What's your take on the importance of guest experience in building a sustainable business in travel and tourism?

The guest experience is everything. You can stay in the most exquisite accommodation, but unless there is authenticity and a truly immersive experience, it could just get lost between other travel memories - there won’t be any real impact. To create a truly extraordinary experience, there must be soul, and human interaction.

It is vital to understand your client well enough to create experiences that they have not dreamed possible or create journeys and even encounters they never knew they needed.

This is not something an online booking site can provide. Why embark on an experience if it’s not extraordinary?

Being a boutique operator allows us to do this. We only work with a few selected clients at a time who are completely blown away by our service and their trip, rather than appealing to the mass market.

What are Asante Travel's best-selling packages? What do you think your clients are looking for when they make their bookings for a luxury trip to Africa?

Safaris are one of the main reasons people want to visit Africa. One of our key focus clientele is the multi-generational family.

I have children myself and love to travel with my husband and kids. It’s amazing how you connect with one another when removed from your everyday life, from technology and e-mails. Seeing how your children connect with nature, their family and with themselves in Africa is a great sight. How they remember their African safari years after they have been here, is the goal. If children can learn here about the environment and taking care of nature, it will have a substantial and lasting impact on them.

Romantic trips are also a favourite - whether its honeymooners, couples celebrating anniversaries or couples travelling together. It’s incredible seeing couples experience these amazing things together, how they connect on a different level than when they are at home.

Our best-selling packages includes Southern Africa, with countries like South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Often these countries get combined, depending on how much time the clients have. I always recommend that they carve out at least 2 weeks. If they have more time available, it is always wonderful to end the trip with a beach experience, which can include Mozambique or the Indian Ocean Islands.

Another popular choice is East Africa. Kenya and Tanzania offer some incredible safari options and they are easily combined with gorilla trekking experiences in Uganda or Rwanda. A lovely way to end your East African safari is to spend a few days on the Kenyan Coast, or the Seychelles due to the direct flights from Nairobi or even one of the Tanzanian islands like Zanzibar, Pemba, Mafia Island, etc.

Let's talk a little bit about your favourites. Which are your favourite hotel/lodge/bush camps to work with in delivering bespoke packages to your clientele and why?

Africa is a huge continent with so many different offerings! To single out any specific properties would not be fair, as each person has a unique taste. Instead, I prefer to focus on boutique experiences. Smaller, more intimate hotels and lodges are my preference. Many of the luxury safari lodges are very small and intimate with only between 3 to 10 rooms, which makes it very personal.

With a group of friends or family of between 6 to 10 people travelling together, it is very easy to exclusively book a boutique safari lodge. What a wonderful vacation if everything at the lodge - all activities and meals is catered around your requirements. No need to fit into other people’s agendas or get up early to be on a shared safari vehicle. You can get up when you are ready, eat when you want to and do what you want, and all the activities are planned around your specific requirements. What’s even more luxurious is that the entire staff are there for you.

Private luxury villas are another fantastic option. These villas vary in size and can accommodate anything from 2 to 25 people. They are fully staffed and reserved exclusively. The level of luxury and service, attention to detail and dedication to create intimate and unique experiences inspires clients to return time and time again.

Bespoke is all about exclusivity, not having to stick to a rigid schedule. You are part of a family, you are home and visiting loved ones in a foreign, exotic country! This can be achieved if we reserve accommodation exclusively.

If you were putting together experiences for a group of millennials, which top three spots would you recommend and why?

In 2020, millennials are classified as being between the ages of 23 and 39 years old. We do not focus on student groups, creating crazy party atmospheres, but instead on real and authentic experiences.

We usually have over 30’s booking with us, and younger of they are part of a multi-generational trip with their parents.

My suggestion would be – a combination of Cape Town and Cape Winelands, followed by a safari in the Kruger National Park, followed by adventure at Victoria Falls; a Tanzanian safari, starting in a mobile camp where you follow the wildebeest in the great migration, followed by a few days in a luxury camp before finishing off on a beach in Zanzibar. A third option would be Gorilla Trekking in Uganda, a few days in the Masai Mara and finishing with feeding the giraffes breakfast in Nairobi. Regardless of which experience one would pick, they are sure to head back home having enjoyed plenty to create eternal memories.

Who inspires you to keep striving for growth in all areas of your life - personally, professionally and as an entrepreneur?

My years spent in the USA and Mexico included meeting and working with incredible mentors in the travel industry who I look up to and hold in high regards. At a young age, I was taught of the importance of not compromising on service and that integrity, authenticity, relationships, and service orientation are the things to be valued most of all.

I have various mentors in the industry, a group of remarkable female entrepreneurs who support each other, amazing staff who share my values and an absolute passion for travel in Africa. Above all, I have the most incredible supportive family with a kind husband who allows me to work all hours, to travel regularly to see new products, visit trade shows or accompany my VIP clients on their vacations. Without the support of my husband, I would not be able to immerse myself in doing what I love.

The world is reeling from a global pandemic, yet individuals and organisations alike are looking ahead to ascertain what they need to do to adjust to the new reality. What advice do you have for men and women working in your industry, who have been impacted hugely by COVID-19?

First, operational expenses and overheads had to be cut to as low as possible. Without income, you cannot sustain your expenses.

To keep your brand and your reputation relevant, you must continue to keep people informed about what they can do in a positive way. If you have changed your booking policies for anyone booked for now and moved the dates, then use this as a positive reminder. If you get any enquiry, act quickly.

With fewer leads for the future, it is vital to increase conversion and pursue every lead with reassurance and understanding.

Also, you need to remove reasons not to book. Clients will be worried about reserving a vacation now in case they need to cancel their holiday because of travel restrictions caused by COVID-19 regulations. It’s important to make sure that they have full travel insurance for this purpose, especially if they are booking directly. Revise your terms and conditions and let them know.

Communication is going to be key to maintain business relationships with overseas tour operators, as well as direct bookings. You must have open communication with everyone. Reply to questions as quickly as you would normally and keep them updated as to what is happening in your country or destination. Keep them informed so they are reassured that their travel plans are in good hands.

Travel will return and staying positive during these times is critical. It is important to stay relevant and remember that we are in this industry because we understand the value of excellence and service. Continue to be authentic and provide value to your clients. You need to show your strengths and your understanding of your clients’ fears. Ensure that you are up to date with all safety protocols and adhere to this at all times.

I love this quote: “I always liked the unknown. Ironically, I familiarized myself with the uncertainty of life. Life can change in any minute of the day. God can turn anything around in a speck of a moment. I know for a fact that everything changes. Nothing stays the same. This too shall pass.”

― Happy Positivity

To book your Asante-Travel adventure, contact Zephné Weston

WEBSITE: www.asante-travel.com

EMAIL: info@asante-travel.com

Phone / WhatsApp: +27 82 682 4343

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