According to “The Future 100: Trends for 2017” published by the J. Walter Thompson Intelligence’ Innovation Group, the technological revolution has produced two simultaneous trends that are both increasing, yet pulling in opposite directions: On the one hand, a desire to disconnect from the constant stream of information bombarding us through all our devices and find authentic mindfulness and quietude, and yet on the other, seamless and reliable connection wherever we go.
These two trends come into conflict with each other at various touch points – and the hospitality industry is one of them. For example, Generation Z is coming of age. This generation has grown up with technology at its fingertips and has come to expect the same wherever it goes. Hotels, muses JWT, would do well to remember this if they want these travellers in their beds.
Then there’s a growing demand for reconnecting with Nature and self. For example, “The latest hospitality experience opens the doors (and walls) to guests desiring a closer connection with Mother Nature. … The popularity of Null Stern Hotel’s open-air concept has shown that consumers are demanding new and novel ways of disconnecting and being fully immersed in nature.” (Trend #25)
There’s even one for parents: “Wi-Fi disruptors” disguised as pepper shakers on the dining table to block the omnipresent distraction so that families can have more together time!
At Wilderness Safaris, we’ve noticed both trends equally. One of the most common expectations of guests is that there is connectivity wherever they go, allowing them to rely on it to let their families know when they get safely into camp. Businesspeople rely on being able to catch up on some emails while out in the bush.
On the other hand, the idea of authentic “wild and remote” experience, of literally leaving the beaten track is an immense and unique selling point for a large number of our guests.
So Wilderness has tried to balance on an increasingly complex tightrope. Because while the trends tell us who may or may not come to our wild areas, we also hold fast to our belief in the value of wilderness as a balm for humankind. So we very much feel the pull of the one trend while not denying the needs of the other.
In October 2015, we took a decision to make a stand. We released a statement titled “Disconnect to Reconnect with Wilderness Safaris:”
Wilderness Safaris is proud to announce the creation of a network of camps that include those with a Wi-Fi connection and those that are ‘off the grid’ and unequivocally disconnected. This will allow its guests the opportunity to genuinely “get away from it all” and truly enjoy their holiday and the natural space around them.
We felt that by having both ‘kinds’ of camps, we could allow people to choose for themselves which type of experience they would like by choosing a “black hole” camp (no techno-connectivity) or one with Wi-Fi. That, we felt, would help to find that elusive balance between the two. We at no time felt that we could put Wi-Fi/connectivity into all our camps, as that would be going against a fundamental aspect of our vision:
Our reasoning was that the idea of disconnecting in order to reconnect has always been a part of Wilderness Safaris’ promise to guests – offering space, intact ecosystems and the opportunity to connect with nature, family and friends and indeed the self.
The results? So far, it’s been a mixed bag, which we believe points to the trends themselves being in flux and conflict.
On the one hand, there have been some comments when guests have arrived at a camp to find they cannot connect with the “outside world.” This though, is perhaps more about the fact that they had not known that this was the case and not necessarily because they wanted the connection.
Another interesting response has been: “I’m an adult. Why don’t you have all the facilities and allow me to make the decision whether to use the Wi-Fi or not? I don’t need you to decide for me.”
Finally, the concern of safety also has to be taken into account. For many of our guests, knowing that there will be a way of connecting when stepping into “deepest Africa” allays their concerns with regards to safety and security.
On the other hand, after our public statement, we found many of our guests hugely appreciative of us taking this step – almost an audible sigh of relief from those who want a true wilderness experience.
In the end, for all ecotourism companies, perhaps it will come down to choosing which trend we believe will succeed, or perhaps simply, what we believe in. For Wilderness it has always been part of our conviction:
“We regard this as an important part of what we stand for and encourage … in other words, a world where natural ecosystems are valued and appreciated, with some resistance applied to the inexorable advance of man and technology. It is our strong belief that we simply have to contribute to keeping some areas of the planet wild and remote.” (Chris Roche, Chief Marketing Officer)