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.