UPDATE, 5 June 2018: Virunga National Park won’t open before 2019, therefore we are slowing down our integration of Congo into the Gorilla Highlands region. More here.
It was a bold and delicate move, so we asked for advice, and then took some quality time to reflect on it. … And here we are with the results!
Unlike the previous years, there were Congolese competitors and representatives at Gorilla Highlands Silverchef 2018, a step towards including the third country in our informal cooperative. With the addition of lowland gorillas, primate sanctuaries, an extraordinarily pretty town and an active volcano, the Gorilla Highlands region would become even more tantalising. Rwanda, western Uganda and eastern DR Congo together — that truly is a travel destination par excellence.
But that comes with a major caveat: the Democratic Republic of Congo is the least stable country in the neighbourhood, bracing itself for critical elections on 23 December 2018. Virunga National Park is currently closed for tourism, potentially reopening on 4 June — or staying out of bounds indefinitely if they can’t guarantee security. Betting on 2019 to bring something radically different would be optimistic, to say the least.
The question therefore is: how to include Congo in our region without its security issues negatively affecting Rwanda and Uganda? How can the Gorilla Highlands concept be resilient enough to withstand similar challenges in any of the countries?
We put together an example of how this messaging could work. At GH Silverchef we unveiled a prototype booklet meant to be published in July as the seventh edition of the Gorilla Highlands Pocket Guide. We invited selected tourism, conservation, media and development professionals to comment on it, what was the second phase of an ambitious survey:
Before GH Silverchef we had face-to-face interviews with 23 people while 4 filled an online survey. The topic: all aspects of the Gorilla Highlands initiative. As much as we got very interesting and useful input, we didn’t feel the sample was representative enough and Phase I results were not published previously.
During the first two weeks of May we widened our outreach, offering an expanded version of the online survey to invited professionals. 61 people managed to find 15-30 minutes of quality time to respond, exceeding our expectations. The results presented today combine Phase I and Phase II.
Our Phase I interviewees weren’t asked questions related to the booklet prototype because it wasn’t available yet. Some questions asked in both phases are not included.
We are now opening the survey to the general public in a radically shortened and simplified form (choose the English version/ choose the French version), together with an updated draft of the booklet. This is a chance for anyone anywhere to participate in our discussions and influence the direction of the Gorilla Highlands initiative. Every input will be carefully considered and appreciated but we do not plan to summarise Phase III results for public consumption. The survey will be closed on 15 June 2018.
survey participants: 88 (65 online, 23 face-to-face interviews)
participant selection criteria: current and former advertisers in the Gorilla Highlands Pocket Guide, other distinguished tourism/conservation/media/development professionals in Congo/Rwanda/Uganda, consultants from around the world
outreach: visits and invitations through email, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp
survey period: 21 March – 25 April 2018 (Phase I), 4-16 May 2018 (Phase II)
1. Your name (feel free to stay anonymous)
2. Your business/place of work (optional)
The list of respondents is a cool Who-Is-Who of the tourism, conservation and media businesses. Some influential government officials are among them as well. Only 12 people preferred to be anonymous but as we didn’t explicitly ask for anyone’s permission to reveal their identity, we are not listing any names. We just want to send a big thank you to all these busy professionals who obviously care enough about what we are doing to fill in a demanding survey. It means a lot.
3. Your gender
Taking into account the reality of women’s share of senior positions in the region (and around the world) we find 31.8% a very decent result.
4. Your age group
No surprises here; 92% of our survey participants were 25-60 years old.
5. You are a …
That 25.6% participants were from Rwanda and 39.6% from Uganda is expected. Uganda is bigger and we have been active there for longer.
We truly wanted better Congolese representation, and worked on it hard; there was even a French version of the survey (but only 3 participants chose that language). However, since internet connections are unreliable and we are new in the country, we will take 9.3% as a good start. Hopefully Phase III of the survey will bring in more DRC nationals.
The “other” category includes: two British, two Germans, two French, two Kenyans and two Spanish (one of them actually a DRC resident). The following countries were represented with one national: Australia, Canada, Finland, the Netherlands, USA, Serbia, Slovenia, Sweden, Tanzania and Zambia. (It is worth mentioning that a number of foreigners identified themselves as simply residents of Rwanda/Uganda.)
6. What best describes you …
Just the mix we wanted (see the pie chart at the top). 36.8% survey participants were owners/senior managers of accommodation facilities. 14.6% were from the media, 12.4% from tour company leadership positions and 10.1% from the field of conservation.
7. How have you so far participated in the Gorilla Highlands initiative?
The survey was at first prepared to be an educational tool as much as consultation. We approached potential partners with an executive summary and asked them questions about it. Therefore it is not surprising that most people (33.7%) had not participated yet. Some other more significant percentages:
24.5% took part at or sent a representative to GH Silverchef
22.1% advertised in the GH Pocket Guide
15.1% took part in online consultations (that meant responding to emailed topical questions, a technique we utilised in the past)
7% engaged with GH social media
5.8% took part at or sent a representative to GH Bootcamp
8. If you have participated but stopped or reduced your involvement with the Gorilla Highlands initiative, what was the reason?
Here we go! A super interesting question for us. A sponsor of one of our events felt they weren’t acknowledged enough (luckily we had some proof to the contrary). A former advertiser lamented lack of information (what was a surprise to us as we communicate a lot). Another former advertiser in the GH Pocket Guide complained we were not representing her tourism destination enough but noted that the balance in the booklet had improved. One partner’s chef didn’t want to go to GH Silverchef again, without explaining the reason. For a couple of respondents, it was lack of time or money.
GORILLA HIGHLANDS POCKET GUIDE
61.7% feel the booklet does a very good job. That is not enough; we have to do better for local readers.
10. Is there anything missing in it, as far as domestic tourists are concerned?
We received many cool ideas. One thing mentioned by several respondents is that prices should be listed in local currencies, however, this becomes complicated because we would need to add both shillings and francs. On the other hand, it is definitely true we should be highlighting resident prices for national parks. As proposed in this answer:
“Hiking any of the virungas from the Ugandan side is about USD 70 for foreigners and UGX 30,000 for ugandans(it should be included) otherwise the booklet will make it look like it’s only concerned about the foreign market and not domestic.”
The appalling state of the domestic reading culture is best presented by the following comment: “You have to make some small flyers, all people don’t like reading big books.” It’s true… To many locals, our highly-illustrated little booklet is a big book with too much to read!
“There should have been something about a local group visiting a place, students on a trip etc something that makes the locals want to do the trip as well,” suggested another respondent. Great idea!
Another interesting tidbit: “not really sure what the profile of a local domestic tourist looks like, but they are likely to know most of it and may need deeper and more specific info.” Unfortunately the situation is just the opposite: most local people know less about their countries than foreign visitors! We have a long way to go…
83.1% feel the booklet does a very good job.
12. Is there anything missing in it, as far as international visitors are concerned?
A security expert wrote: “I don’t feel it addresses the security questions or counters the obvious ‘I’d like to go there but….’ questions.” In the latest draft (the one available for download) we tried to deal with that…
There was a poignant question in the feedback: “once someone is interested and wants to act – what’s next step? how can they enact planning/logistics?” We plan to solve that with an online booking system that will be promoted in the booklet.
“Some people will expect more solid practical info in the form of a guidebook style thing, but as a free advertising tool for the region I think it’s excellent. However it would be good if it were available at airports easily and even outside the region (that’s hard to do I know!)” was another notable opinion.
13. What do you think about the slogan “The Essence of Africa” that appears on the booklet cover?
Highly mixed responses, from “great” to “cliché”. Generally speaking, 73% of the survey participants who expressed a clear opinion about the slogan appreciated it.
Somebody asked why not “Eastern Africa”… We feel that we are in Central Africa (especially with Congo being added) and “Central Africa” is sadly not a term with a positive international image.
“It’s marketing pablum. ‘The Essence of Africa’ is something that sounds nice, but doesn’t actually MEAN anything. I think you need to grab attention in a crowded marketplace. ‘See Gorillas Face-to-Face’ would be more powerful since it conveys an obvious goal and intention… and I came up with that in 30 seconds. Stop trying to be ‘nice and inoffensive’ and drive your message towards an outcome,” typed a gentleman. Well, we spent weeks discussing different slogans and we had good, mhm, marketing reasons to put that one on the cover… Mentioning gorillas in the slogan, when the brand name already emphasises them, would feel excessive.
We will explain the new slogan in a more detailed way another time but in short: we are confident our region has it all (we are claiming the savannah too) and should be a preferred destination for anyone wanting to get a good taste of the continent.
14. This is the first booklet with pages for articles and art (Amy Porter interview, poem, 9 things about Nyiragongo, lion killings, Muhumuza). What do you think about them?
With only 5% disliking this new content category and 40% wanting more of it, we seem to be on the right track.
15. What is your opinion on other information in the booklet?
“Clear, concise, beautifully presented,”, “useful, varied, engaging”, “very well balanced”, “the region couldn’t be captured and presented in any better way,” … that is the prevailing tone of the feedback. Plus, there were some excellent ideas for future content – stay tuned!
16. What is your opinion on photographs used?
The most critical Gorilla Highlands veteran said: “Mostly good. Some could use a little color correction.” There has been no other criticism whatsoever, the respondents find our photography rather great. Or should we maybe say: the Marcus Westberg’s photography? His images occupy the vast majority of the booklet pages.
Wait wait… There’s a complaint: “I would have loved to see Amy Porter’s face when I read an interview with her. What I get is a shot of the back of her head with a flag on top of it 😉 ”. Amy is indeed an attractive lady that you will see in full when you follow the link the page is promoting… 😉
17. What is your opinion on the quality of maps?
The opinions vary from “excellent” to “photos and layout look quite a bit more professional than the maps”, and because we care about mapping we will ask the less impressed respondents for more guidance.
18. Does one Congo security warning (page 27) suffice?
73.6% of the survey participants believe one security warning is enough.
19. How many Gorilla Highlands Pocket Guide editions per year would you want as a reader?
A quick look at the pie chart might make one conclude that we should publish two booklets per year. Yet the “more than two” group of answers actually totals 36.2%. It’s the next question that matters more…
20. If you are a potential advertiser, how many Gorilla Highlands Pocket Guide editions per year would you support?
21. If you have accommodation/ travel/ other services to promote but do not find advertising in the booklet attractive, please tell us why.
The most interesting response was: “A shift in the distribution channel is important, tourists who spend theie dollars in communities and villages plan their travel well ahead of time even before leaving their homes , GH pocket guide seems to be targeting people who have already made up their mind on destinations and places to stay.”
The booklet was originally meant to be stimulating travel appetites of those already in Kampala/Kigali, particularly independent travellers, expats and locals. However, the content of the last few Pocket Guides has been prepared to work anywhere in the world, and getting more booklets to other continents will be our goal for 2018.
22. Have you noticed any mistakes or omissions in the booklet?
There was some good advice; big thanks to those with sharp eyes! The updated draft does not yet take into account most of these submissions as it is primarily a demonstration of the actual content flow.
23. Anything else you would like to say about the Gorilla Highlands Pocket Guide?
This question was an opportunity for our survey participants to note that certain locations and activities aren’t mentioned or covered enough. We will reach out to them individually, explain the criteria and ask for further details.
Somebody responded: “I think you can afford more… If a country is complicated (as all three are in different ways) allow them to be complicated without necessarily becoming scholarly or ‘afropessimistic’.” We think the right space for that would be our website, not the booklet.
24. The Gorilla Highlands Video Map is meant to be a promotional tool. Do you think that limiting the videos to places and activities (removing accommodation videos) would encourage accommodation providers and tour companies to use it more?
44% of the respondents agreed.
25. How often should the upcoming newsletter for Gorilla Highlands partners (targeting both the management and staff) be sent out?
ABOUT OUR ORGANISATION
26. What do you think is the benefit of private sector collaboration?
“Same interest. Common voice. Combined effort make it easy for voice to be heard when issues are presented together.”
“With good partnership, there will be higher chances of attracting foreigners, giving us a seat on the world market and growth in tourism sector.”
“We help each other into growth, bridge the gap In tourism and do the work the government doesn’t.”
27. What do you consider the limitations of such collaboration?
“None,” was the most common answer.
“Kartel,” wrote a highly positioned tourism worker from Rwanda.
But let’s look at some deeper answers:
“Avoid opportunism in both senses : promoting the private sectors because their payment helps the development of the GHi , using GHi for its reputation and core values (when practices of the private organization is far from them).”
“If the demands or interests/agendas of private sector businesses funding or sponsoring GH start overriding its broader objectives, and the social and cultural mission at its heart. Or private sector involvement takes GH too far in the direction of being a simple intermediary between hotels, restaurants etc and tourists.”
“That collaborations may come with strings attached, and might limit your autonomy. Also, prospect of abdicating control of promotional messages, potentially attracting the wrong sort of visitor.”
28. Do you think an informal collaboration without any official structure is an appropriate way for our initiative to work?
This was perhaps the most important question of the survey for the future of our initiative, and it came with a very clear answer: almost 75% of respondents feel it is time for the initiative to get formalised.
As we finally have partners in three countries, reaching a major milestone in our growth, we can look into how similar international organisations operate and learn from it.
29. Would you prefer your participation at Gorilla Highlands events, media and other activities to remain something you choose on a case-by-case basis, or become part of an annual membership package?
51.5% would be interested in a membership package while the rest are happy with the current approach.
30. Would you be interested in going to international trade fairs together, as the Gorilla Highlands region?
79% of those who replied to this question would be interested!
31. How can we best enhance efforts by government bodies?
This question didn’t make it to Phase II but let’s see some responses from Phase I:
“Ideally, they would be the ones supporting GH, not the other way around. But the advantage of GH: independence, entrepreneurship, digital and technological know-how. Perhaps good to focus on our strengths.”
“involve it as much as possible, keep them informed, make sure the government is involved as the organizations objectives are aimed at developing the country”
“Holding them accountable. Pushing on and pressing on. Writing proposals and presenting sector needs.”
32. What do you see as most promising about the three countries working together?
There’s huge support for the idea of regional integration. You would probably expect that from people deciding to fill a Gorilla Highlands initiative survey…
“One message being sent out.”
“Hand-holding and availing resources to each other when possible.”
“Enhancement of Tourist products. Increased stay of Tourists and repeated trips to the region.”
33. Do you have any concerns about the three countries working together?
Surprisingly many people have absolutely no concerns. Some mention Congo’s insecurity, of course, and how it would impact the perception of the region.
34. What training do you wish the Gorilla Highlands initiative would offer for yourself/your staff?
The options that received more than one vote:
54.5%: customer service
30.3%: social media
16.7%: advanced map reading and making
12.1%: English language
12.1%: French language
7.6%: beginner level map reading and making
35. Would you be willing to anonymously share your business data (overnight guests/safari guests/….) to help us compile regional statistics?
It is very encouraging that 66% would share and that only 15% are strongly against the idea.
36. Are there any other challenges you meet in your professional life that Gorilla Highlands could help with?
We will highlight just one of the many responses:
“In our Region, we all fight with finding good contractors or drivers or suppliers… GHi could help the lodges (and other actors) by referencing good ones based of terms of references and profesionnal’s feedbacks.”
ABOUT OUR STRATEGY
37. What do you think about the name we chose for the region, “Gorilla Highlands”?
86% respondents agree with it, and those who don’t are mainly concerned about how limiting it might be as the definition of our region expands. We feel that we can deal with that issue using the “wider region” concept and have no plans of going beyond the Rwenzoris in the north and Burundi in the south.
A relevant branding point, on the other hand: “A lot of backpackers can’t afford to see the gorillas and this might put them off the entire region.”
38. How can we best deal with safety and security concerns people abroad have about our region?
Mind you, this question is not about Congo only… As a respondent notes, “Security is everything! From Europe or America, most of the people have no ideas of where these 3 countries are located. They have in mind stories from the past and still think that these things exist (Amin in UG, genocide in RW, etc). If you want to develop tourism, you must first sensitize and educate people.”
An expert advises:
“a) Find out what those concerns are. Do it scientifically, not just anecdotally.
b) Develop counterpoints to each objection.
c) Lay out those objections, and destroy them in your marketing material.
It’s an old, tested formula, but it’s brutally effective. It speaks DIRECTLY to the primary reason people aren’t lining up to give you money.”
To summarise other feedback: be up-to-date, honest and informative, don’t make light of it and encourage clients to seek more advice from elsewhere, use other people’s experiences and testimonies, constantly promote positive things from the region and emphasise distances from “dangerous” areas, show that the situation on the ground is different from what the media talks about, make clear you would do everything possible to keep visitors out of harm’s way.
A couple of participants mentioned official travel advisories and embassies. As discussed on the page 8 of the current booklet draft, they are motivated to blow dangers out of proportion, so asking them to adjust their warnings is unlikely to help.
Finally: “If you want to attract the type of traveler who will worry about such things, an ‘all inclusive’ offering might help. From the moment they arrive at the airport to the moment they leave, they are with a group and a GH representative. They don’t need to book accommodations, or tours, or hire transportation – it’s all done for them as a package. This is the only way some wealthy people will travel.”
39. What do you think about our plan for 2018-2020?
There was unanimous support.
40. How can our initiative best help economic and social development of the region?
Let’s quote some respondents:
“Making sure the benefits are equally shared and that people who goes to visit local populations have the right impressions and respect for the people. Careful with the pics they share too, they need to show that respect. And make sure the people your are visiting understand why people from abroad have interest for them, and what they want to see.”
“Focusing as much as possible on marginalised groups such as the Batwa, and small rather than big businesses.”
“By making sure all the players benefit from the business, since it is a value chain business.”
“By creating awareness, more visits thus more jobs or wealth being created in the region. This in turn would lead the government to prioritize resources of course to regions that promote development of the country as a whole.”
“More often than not, locals get to see the development of their area passing by them and leaving them behind – always look for innovative ways of getting and keeping the very local locals involved and what their needs are and can you meet them, at least halfway.”
“By encouraging people to make independent travel and spend locally – visit local businesses etc. By promoting tourist and accommodation providers in the region, who in turn provide employment. By providing training to locals and helping them start up business that aid tourism or tourism providers – eg making crafts or perhaps growing salad and fruit & veg that can be used in the lodge.”
“Continue creating events that bring together the people of the region and let them be based on projects or activities that will bring revenue.”
“You have a great plan already, implement it.”
41. Under culturally grounded development we list (in the original prototype of the booklet) three traits that we plan to promote: Rwanda’s home-grown solutions, Uganda’s entrepreneurial spirit and Congo’s mentality of generosity and abundance. Did we choose the right characteristic of each country?
It was not an easy thing to zero down on one trait per country, so to have 86% of respondents agree with them is a fantastic result.
Some international people didn’t understand the term “abundance mentality”. It’s very simple really: one can believe there is scarcity of resources and compete for them, or instead feel there is enough for anyone and happily share. Ugandans are widely known for their hospitality but the Congolese actually beat them at that.
42. How do you think we should best promote these traits to the youth of the three countries?
Yes, this would be our first big venture into social and economic development — what our initiative is fundamentally all about… As one of the survey participants said: “That is a main issue. Most of the lodges leave inside their fences instead of living within and with the communities. Tourism industry must contribute to community development and empowerment.”
The ideas received: social media, videos, familiarisation trips, workshops and conferences, tourism training, open-source education programs for secondary schools, and forming associations.
“Tourism should be included in the curricula; even for the younger kids. Gorilla Highlands should be one example of regional cooperation; entrepreneurial spirit; competition & collaboration – competitors achieve more in collaborating,” wrote a respondent.
43. Where do you find gaps in our approach to integrating and marketing the region?
Three selected inputs to consider:
“There should be a platform where individuals can forward what they have then we check it out to confirm if it’s good enough for marketing.”
“What follow up do we have for visitors to our region to encourage them to return and bring their friends? Could we have ‘Friends of Gorilla Highlands’ which we could all promote visitors to join.”
“Government institutions should be made aware as well as the local leaders involvement as these are the voices of the people.”
44. Any other comments or observations:
“Make a board. Members from the business, communities, govt entity.”
“Approach the President, make him aware of the sector and it’s importance.”
“Constant review of partners that work with you ie accommodation to maintain standards. Establish home stay and make them authentic. Share and promote GH programs so operators can participate or support. Promote uniformity in services across the region. Merger GH activities with sector entity activities to avoid duplication ie UWA.”
“Establish partnership with Maghreb countries.”
“Thank you for putting this together.”
… And thank you all for being part of it!
Text: Miha Logar; photos: Vincent Mugaba, Miha Logar, Enock Luyonza, Marcus Westberg