Thekiso Rakolojane, Marketing & Communications Manager at TGCSA, says during the consultation process to finalise the current grading criteria, all lodges were given an opportunity to provide feedback on the existing criteria. “The feedback allowed us to amend the existing criteria according to industry requirements. It also informed us of the fact that it was crucial for a separate game lodge category to be created. We have just gone out on tender to find the right partner to assist us with the consultation with the game lodge industry.”
Industry players claim the current system of grading game lodges in South Africa is vastly inaccurate as it doesn’t reflect the game lodge experience as a whole. The TGCSA has always classified the lodge category under “a formal accommodation facility providing full or limited services, located in natural surroundings beyond that of the immediate garden area”. For an establishment to be graded in this category it had to have an activity linked to the accommodation establishment (either a game drive, wildlife etc.). The star rating was, however, only based on the accommodation establishment and not the activity.
Allison Kennedy, md Game Lodge Destinations, says: “I personally don’t feel that the current grading system is honest and true to the game lodge industry. There are five-star game lodges and then there are true five-star game lodges. To me, the lodges should also be graded on the quality of their guides, vehicle seating capacity, traversing size of land and wildlife, game drive snacks etc. – not only on the accommodation aspect.”
Herbie Rosenberg, AfricaReps, says this debate has been ongoing for the past 15 years. “About 15 years ago I sat on the grading committee as a director of Sabi Sabi Game Reserve and these were precisely the issues that were raised.” Rosenberg cites the example of a ‘back to basics’ tented camp in the Timbavati. “This simply cannot be star graded based on the accommodation but the experience of the guest is beyond five star,” he says.
Grading lodges according to their own criteria would be ideal but it is also unrealistic, says Jackie Diack, marketing and reservations Tau Game Lodge. “Game loges offer a completely different experience from a hotel and therefore should be judged completely differently, but the practicality and reality of the situation make this a difficult distinction.” She explains that there are too many external factors influencing a game experience, such as weather conditions and seasons as well as environmental factors such as, for example, a recent fire. “Simply including quality of sightings would make the grader’s job very complicated or require him to trust information supplied by the lodge or park itself, which would then lessen the objectivity of his final evaluation."
Grading game viewing is just too subjective as a lot has to do with luck, says Brett Thomson, marketing director Africa on Foot. “Advertising a five-star game viewing experience is setting yourself up for a lot of issues.” According to Thomson, there needs to be more education for guests of what the game viewing and wildlife experience is.
For others, the entire star grading system is obsolete.Chris McIntyre, md Expert Africa, says: “I view grading systems as things that were really useful 30 years ago when there was often no other info available about a place than its grading.” He says potential visitors can now find details of almost any lodge, with comments, pictures and traveller reviews on any one of dozens of Internet sites. “I’d like to see the whole thing scrapped so that hoteliers can spend their time and money improving their visitors’ experience rather than worrying if they will tick enough boxes to gain a certain star rating.”
Rakolojane admits that the former grading system was confusing and set false expectations. “Due to its inconsistency and vagueness, assessors were able to interpret it as they saw fit, which resulted in differing levels of quality within graded establishments. The current grading system seeks to correct that very problematic practice.” He says the new system will bring uniformity and credibility to the grading system and will thus impact positively on tourism.