Click here for an interview with Marc Cavaliere of South African Airways
Minutes after arriving, I already knew this was not going to be a typical site inspection. Sun City is South Africa’s premier resort and the location for ASTA’s International Destination Expo (IDE), to be held March 8-11. It’s also the only conference facility I’ve seen with signs that read, "Please do not feed the monkeys."
More than 500 agents and suppliers are signed up to attend this year’s IDE, which is designed to provide agents with educational seminars, destination specialist information, a trade show, fam trips and more. The theme of ASTA’s fourth annual expo is "Strike Gold in South Africa," and it will be the first time the show is held in Africa.
The Palace of the Lost City, at Sun City, is the resort’s grandest hotel.
"Being chosen as the host for the IDE shows how much confidence ASTA has in our destination," said Sthu Zungu, U.S. president of South African Tourism. "As we grow our market in the U.S., travel agents are some of the most important players in the actual conversion and sale of travel to South Africa. So this gives us a huge opportunity to educate agents on a scale that we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise."
A variety of seminars will be offered at IDE, and in particular, all agents attending the expo will receive their official South African specialist designation as graduates of the country’s Fundi program. In addition, officials at ASTA are excited by the interest that the South African tourism industry has shown for the show, and they are anticipating a great turnout by suppliers. Zungu said this can be a major benefit to agents.
"All the travel agents will have the opportunity to talk to real suppliers, real people behind the products, and to make real contacts," she said. "This is important because once you have the name of a real person at a hotel or a lodge, it makes selling those products much easier."
Fortunately for agents, South African Airways (SAA) is a major partner in the IDE and has created affordable air packages for agents coming from the U.S. For example, SAA is offering agents a roundtrip fare of $599 (excluding fees and taxes) from Washington, D.C. (Dulles), or New York City (JFK) for the IDE. This offer is good for travel between Feb. 25 and March 25. Elizabeth Ninomiya, SAA’s director of marketing communications for North America, pointed out that seats are limited.
"We hope agents book before we run out of inventory," she said.
Agents Experience a Legendary Resort
Built by legendary hotelier and tourism visionary Sol Kerzner in 1979, the Sun City resort has come to include a staggering collection of hospitality, entertainment and activity options. The resort includes four hotels; two golf courses; two casinos; a shopping complex; a convention center; a world-class concert and entertainment venue; its own game reserve; "one of the most advanced water parks in the world"; movie theaters, restaurants and nightclubs; and more. And then, of course, there are the monkeys — baboons actually — that walk along the roof lines and sit on top of buildings like they own the place.
It all makes for an unusual environment, to say the least.
The heart of the resort is its accommodations, and the top tier is claimed by the Palace of the Lost City. Before building the hotel, Kerzner imagined an elaborate myth about a lost civilization in the jungle, and the Palace was born out of this vision.
With a Disneyland-meets-Jurassic-Park feel, to say the Palace of the Lost City is grand, is an understatement. Every detail of the resort appeared to have been hand-chosen to reinforce Kerzner’s mythical civilization, and a walk around the hotel continuously revealed new surprises.
While the experience of the Palace of the Lost City is not to be missed, the 338 guestrooms themselves, though spacious and comfortable, are due for a makeover. Hotel management is planning to start a refurbishment in the next year.
The other resort accommodations, particularly The Cascades and The Sun City Hotel, have just completed renovations to their guestrooms. So, while the common areas for these hotels are not as grand or inventive as the Palace of the Lost City, the rooms are light, cheery and contemporary — providing a great value proposition for guests.
Another advantage to these hotels — particularly The Cascades — is their proximity to the convention center. With a resort this size, agents attending the IDE might want to consider distance from the main meetings area before booking.
Most of the IDE’s events will take place in the convention center. In typical Sun City fashion, the center is far from ordinary. With an entrance made to look like the gates to an ancient city, the center appears to be built into the side of a mountain. There’s even a giant stone-carving of an elephant’s head above the entrance way.
Pre- and Post- Fams
Before and after the IDE, agents will have the option of booking package tours that enable them to sample the best South Africa has to offer.
These tours take in seven South African provinces — Gauteng, Kwazulu Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West, Northern Cape and Western Cape — as well as regional trips to Swaziland and other bordering areas. The trips take place March 6-8 and 12-14, and costs have been kept extremely low. Most of the packages run $150 for two nights’ accommodation, land transportation and a tour. For domestic tours that require air, SAA is offering special $75 one-way fares ($100 one-way for the cross-border regional tours) that are in addition to the $150 package cost.
Options include animal viewing in game areas, sampling the urban luxury of Cape Town and other cities, wine tasting and more. These pre- and post-expo fam trips are at the heart of the IDE experience, according to Zungu.
"Travel agents sometimes tell me that South Africa is not an ‘easy’ destination for them to understand — I think because we are a big country and every province offers something different," she said. "But I think it’s important for people to see and touch a destination, and experience firsthand the world-class infrastructure South Africa has. It just increases their confidence and makes the destination easier to sell."
Of course, Zungu is aware of the tough economic times agents face these days, but she suggested that is a good reason to take advantage of the opportunity the IDE presents. She pointed out that, according to the World Tourism Organization, South Africa is a "destination of the future," and that the partnership of ASTA and SAA, along with a good exchange rate for the dollar, makes this an opportunity agents can’t afford to pass up.
"It’s one of those things where you either come down now, or you come on your own later," Zungu said. "And coming down now, with ASTA, is a great opportunity for anyone hoping to invest in their business."