For those of us lucky enough to get the chance to escape the New Zealand winter by heading to the sun, surf and serenity of the many South Pacific island destinations, the mere act of being there is heaven on earth. Our pale bodies getting some much needed Vitamin D, those Pina Coladas that just beg to be ordered (because you can) and the reading of that now-famous Steig Larsson trilogy (again, because you can) being all par for the course.
I had yet to visit Samoa however many of my friends had, so I figured it was time to get over there and get a feel for it first hand. Despite the relaxation and much needed time out, I was also there to scope Samoa out from a work perspective as well – somewhere that I could potentially send clients both on their way to, and coming from, their Kiwi Does It New Zealand itinerary. When planning these top-end trips, I am often asked for stopover recommendations, especially with those honeymoon folk desperately wanting some down time…
We looked into accommodation at the top end (our target market) and found Sinalei on the southern coast of Upolu and Le Lagoto on the island of Savaii. Both of these resorts are in the luxury category with Sinalei having just reopened after being completely wiped out by Mother Nature and her tsunami in 2009.
Having trawled the net and decided on Samoa, the introduction emails were sent, the flights were booked and the commitment made – and then the countdown was on.
The experience came around quickly and finished with the same speed and so it was that we returned from the beautiful islands of Samoa after only a mere 5 days of bliss. It was without doubt a stunning destination to visit. Yes, I did get burnt and yes, I did order a Pina Colada however I have already read the trilogy so I opted for something slightly more obscure – Paul Tordays ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’ (and I highly recommend it).
Without harping on about it, the damage post tsunami was not hugely visible where we went. However, the graves in the front yards of nearly every home were testament to the depth of tragedy that was. The smiles were still given freely, the waving was clearly still a custom and the timeframe upon which we worked was clearly still relaxed. As far as I was concerned, it was a great experience.
However (and I will just remind you quickly) the purpose of my visit was to get a feel for the place from my clients’ perspective. Is it somewhere with the level of accommodation and service required for my clientele and do the prices reflect this?
To be honest, I think there would need to be some serious expectation-setting in order for their experience to be a smooth one. There are a couple of reasons I say this and I will start with the most obvious…
As a rule, my travellers would be arriving from either the continental US or on the back end of the super-lodge experience around New Zealand – their expectations will be pretty high. As a result, pricing is a sensitive issue. It’s one of those realities that everyone is conscious of no matter where you work or what you do for a crust. Money is arguably needed for almost everything and we all like to get more ‘bang’ for our buck, especially post GFM (that’s like, Global Financial Melt-down for you cyber-virgins).
With regards to Samoa, the need to get heads on pillows has understandably been the first and foremost priority however with that comes the visitor expectation. To be honest, at around USD500 per night, the Beachside Fales (albethem brand new) were not up to scratch. They lacked basic amenities such as any hint of a mini-bar, TV or sound system and, while I am most definitely not one to stay in the room watching TV, my clients may be. The photos from the old website have been used and as amazing as it looked, gone was the outdoor shower, there was no beachside hammock in sight and the rooms are now a completely different setup. Come on people, update the website – it’s only fair.
Secondly, service. Despite loving the culture and resonating with it on a personal level, I felt that the relaxed nature (or lack of training?) of the Samoan people ultimately hindered necessities at these resorts such as service and upkeep. Our showerhead hit nothing but the wall it was attached to, the roof of our bathroom was a mildew-grey (the rest was white, the compendium stated a mini-bar service was available however when asked it wasn’t, and there was clearly no communication around our check out, as we were charged full rates when I had been dealing with management for over 6 weeks. Blank stares and simple answers were common though, but all with that Samoan smile so its hard to get worked up over anything.
I really can understand it on a certain level and I have no doubt that it is a double-edged sword. On the one hand you have staff that are local villagers and walk down the beach to work – how cool is that? On the other, you have a luxury resort offering a luxury product, at luxury prices, with below luxury attention to detail. Again, the small things become large when you are charged through the nose for them.
One of the key issues that most operators face is the expectation of their travelling clientele and the managing of them. I feel the most pivotal factor in this process is knowledge of the product you are selling. By knowing, I don’t just mean of the website (which may or may not be current), the brochure or the location of the country. I guess the word ‘knowing’ could be replaced with ‘experiencing’ – and it has to be first hand.
Despite our initial contact with the resort being somewhat disorganised, there were just those little things that were missing – for want of a better word, the ‘polish.’ For those frequent top-end travellers among us you will know what I mean…
In order to marry together what I experienced personally with what I expect for my clients, perhaps some in-depth training angled towards the luxury end of the market would be a good start. There is obviously some training that goes on but perhaps more experienced people could get in there and call the shots. That way, the locals would know what to polish, the clients would be charged the right amount and they would recommend it to all and sundry.
Please don’t get me wrong Samoa, I still think you are beautiful. I feel like I have been hard on you, but I had my agent hat on. Take that off and replace it with my traveller hat and I loved you. I loved your lush, fruit-scented native forests. I loved your white-toothed, cheeky grins from children and adults alike. I loved your completely ‘pimped out’ public buses with flames down the sides that were overflowing and I loved your water – oh the crystal clear, brimming-with-electric-coloured-fish water you have…
Samoa, I’ll come back to you and this time I’ll have my surfboard.