How do we value travel awards?

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Nigel Vere Nicoll is Chief Executive of Atta, The African Travel & Tourism Association, which serves travel companies in the African travel sector in 37 countries around the world. For more information visit www.atta.travel.

NigelATTAMiss Mitford-Colmer was a formidable headteacher. To the seven-year-old me, she was the centre of my world. Every month she would walk slowly onto the stage carrying a carved wooden box holding several coloured tin badges. We waited in excited trepidation for the words ‘and the winner is…’, longing to gain recognition from our peers in any of three categories: lessons, sport and good behaviour.

The winners would proudly wear the badge on their grey sweaters for a whole month. I still remember the emotional roller-coaster of hope turning to despair when my name was once again excluded. But that badge carried a mark of recognition and achievement and I still wonder how the winners were selected. (The process must have been flawed, as I never won a badge!)

Our tourism industry has many ’badges of honour‘. Almost every hotel, lodge or tour operator now seems able to describe itself as ‘award-winning’, proudly displaying its commendation on its website and email signatures. Seldom a week goes by without one or other of the 600 members of Atta winning an award of some kind.

Is this all for recognition among their peers within the travel industry, or do they hope that their clients will be influenced when selecting the safari company or lodge for their holiday of a lifetime? I wonder.

Many of these awards are little more than popularity contests, voted for by peers or readers. More often than not the winner will have sent out round robin emails to canvass votes, an arguably flawed model giving the longer-established companies a wider reach.

The process may be profit-driven, with the awarding body requiring nominees to pay large sums of money or to support advertising in order to be considered.

This is not unique to the tourism sector, of course. Even the Oscars are not flawless: film companies spend millions of dollars marketing to the six thousand Academy Award voters in an attempt to improve their chances of winning while trying to get round the rules established to limit overt campaigning.

The problem is that any awards ceremony is costly to arrange and needs substantial funding from somewhere, be it advertising, sponsorship or other avenues. Then there is the judging process. What are the criteria used, how are the judges selected and are potential conflicts of interest avoided? Have the judges visited each nominee to see if they are genuinely worthy of the accolade, or is Internet or email research sufficient? While the Academy Awards panel can watch every film nominated, travelling to each country across Africa to inspect nominees is well-nigh impossible (let alone prohibitively expensive).

So my question: is it possible to establish a fair system with real meaning in terms of quality and sustainability? Is it perhaps time for us to consider a uniform awards standard to level the playing field? Is this our ‘FIFA moment’ – and the time for a radical review of the process?

Perhaps. But then again, I would still have liked to have won that badge at school – and I still have no idea how the winners were selected!

Is it important to know if a company has won any accolades? Let us know: editor@travelafricamag.com

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  • Alex Walters

    Very well written Nigel. I would put in order of importance of what these awards mean to have won them; 1. the tremendous effect on camp staff morale; 2. marketeers who think it is a reflection on their work; 3. the consumer, and 4. the tour operators and agents, but with every camp winning some kind of award how do they distinguish the wheat from the chaff?; 5. peers within the industry.
    Certain awards carry more gravitas than others, and the award category itself can sway the order of the above. An ‘Atta or Travel Africa Award for First to Comment on this Post 2015’ most welcome!

  • Richard Smith

    Pleased to see the Chief Exec of ATTA sticking his head above the parapet on this one, and in particular highlighting the profit driven motives of certain awards.

    More categories –> more income (awards organisers are happy)
    More categories –> more winners, runners up, special mentions (camps/lodges have their certificate)

    But are the public being well served?

    It’s noticeable recently that some of the bigger players in African safaris have stopped entering, so are these awards really judging the best safari camps on the continent? If all safari companies were included, would the award winner actually be from one of the companies who’ve decided not to pay the ‘admin fee’?

    It may well be somewhere in the small print for the awards for safari companies that ‘not every camp in Africa has been considered for these awards’ (since they’re not prepared to stump up the fee required to be considered for each category for each camp they own) but that print may be in a font so small, or so well hidden, that none of the public actually notices.

    I think if you told them that not every safari camp in every country was included in the final judging, the public would probably be fairly miffed.

    Are the safari camps being well served by these awards? Do awards lead to more enquiries and more bookings?

    As a travel professional, the awards certainly made me sit up and notice when they were first run, and arguably if you’re a judge hosted by a nominated camp, as the camps are encouraged to do, you might be more likely to recommend that camp to your clients. But with the expansion of the number of categories came a feeling, for me, that every safari camp will win an award of some type, therefore devaluing the awards overall.

    As a member of the public, does the award make a difference? Unlike TripAdvisor the awards’ companies websites don’t tend to come up if you search for a camp on Google, like TripAdvisor does, with that huge review site now typically the second result after the camp or lodge’s own website. So you probably won’t find a safari camp through the awards company, but will seeing the award make a difference to your likelihood of booking the camp? Arguably not if that logo appears on the majority of the camps you look at as ‘everyone’s a winner’ (apart from those choosing not to enter)

    With roughly 200 entrants to the various categories for one set of awards for Botswana alone, it’s clear that there’s enough safari camps still entering the awards to make it financially worthwhile for the organisers to run them, but it’s interesting to see Nigel as the winner of a 2015 award querying the value of travel awards.

    Has someone finally shouted that ‘the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes’?

  • Henry Hallward

    Thanks to Nigel for creating the platform for a mature discussion about awards. As one of the founders of The Safari Awards I agree that in many cases the process of how awards are given is opaque. I welcome the opportunity to dispel a few myths and set the record straight for The Safari Awards and share some thoughts on some of the points raised by Nigel, Alex and Richard.

    Approaching ten years of running The Safari Awards I would like to assure Richard Smith that there is no commercial profit in running awards for us. Break-even with subsidy from our supporters is the best we have ever managed. I am sure that there are awards operators out there driven by profit (and good luck to them) but most are driven by the communities that are interested in the results. Conde Nast Readers awards reflect their readers views. The Safari Awards reflect the views of agents and safari travellers. We Are Africa Awards reflect the view of the small group of invitees. They are all different and all serve a different community. Is that a bad thing? I argue it’s a good thing – travellers are influenced by the organisations they trust and support and there is a need to ‘slice and dice’ the market for a traveller to get a clear perspective. Awards help define their choices.

    Each awards process is a collective view of the community that vote. That’s why there will never be a single ‘catch all’ awards process. The key is the judging process which forms the integrity base for the awards results. Originally using a manual system was cumbersome and vulnerable to human errors. Our 16 independent judges (soon to be 20) wanted something robust and transparent and 5 years of software investment has produced a system that delivers them all the detail on votes in their area of responsibility they need to make the best assessment of the votes cast. It’s an expensive business creating systems that deliver true data instantly to those with the responsibility of judging.

    Alex Walker makes a good observation asking the question, “with every camp winning some kind of award how do they distinguish the wheat from the chaff?” The fact is that awards drive change and raise standards. When significant effort has been expended raising standards and improving standards why should awards nominees be excluded from recognition. Africa has well over 9,000 safari establishments and within that The Safari Awards deal with just over 1,000 – arguably the best 10%. With 18 awards across Africa and no recognition of the efforts at a country level The Safari Awards began to look elitist and aloof. The Judges took the view that there needed to be acknowledgement of the achievements of nominees at a country level to reflect the ‘up and coming’ leaders of tomorrow and share the benefits Alex mentions, “1. the tremendous effect on camp staff morale; 2. marketeers who think it is a reflection on their work; 3. the consumer, and 4. the tour operators and agents”. Recognition at country level is good for the safari industry and the communities who vote, who normally travel by destination, to get a clearer view of the best safari operators in the country they plan to visit. Whilst there is a perceived dilution effect from the nominee perspective the voter/traveller/agent gets a more rounded picture. The finalists at country level all go through the Judges final judging process from which the Africa winner is selected – there is still an overall Africa winner that separates the wheat from the chaff.

    Most awards judging processes are part statistical and part subjective. Counting votes is irrelevant and anyone can cast a wide net for votes. Getting real input from voters on each category delivers a more complete view of the contenders to assess alongside the judging criteria. Inevitably there are differing views based on Judges personal experience but the system does not lie. This is time-consuming work and all of our Judges do this unpaid as do most Judges. It’s a responsibility that is carefully managed and requires responsible and independent people.

    The issue of fees is thorny but the money to run awards processes independently must come from somewhere – if an association or club runs awards the administration will be drawn from revenue or sponsorship. Taking sponsors money gives them a voice at the table, indirectly or directly. Trying to fund awards admin through a glitzy dinner and high ticket prices is risky. The fact is that there is a significant PR benefit for awards finalists and winners and there are significant advantages of simply being involved in the process. The benefit far outweighs the relatively small ‘admin fees’, $125 in our case, that are charged by The Safari Awards and many other awards organisations. Over 94% of safari awards nominees pay the admin fee and they, often the smaller operators, subsidise those who choose not to. We are frequently thanked by new safari operators for creating a platform where they can compete with the more established operators on a level playing field. Visibility on equal terms at a very low access fee is a fraction of a single bednight for almost all safari operators. Just having a presence on a website with their peers is a huge step for them alongside gaining visibility with the Judges, all of whom are experienced independent tour operators. Some of them are very good and sometimes upset the ‘natural order’ created by past finalists and winners. This is what awards processes are all about – winkling out the really excellent product.

    There is no bar to any nominee winning a Safari Award, it’s a question of integrity as to whether they are prepared to part fund the process and have access to the voting data via the online voting system. Regardless of whether admin fees are paid the votes roll in and the judging process continues but if nominees ask to be excluded from the results we respect their decision. Interestingly it is generally the larger safari operators who request exclusion from The Safari Awards process, many past winners.

    Some awards nominees cannot see the value of a totally transparent awards system where the judges are all at the end of an email or phone. By paying a small fee the nominee has a right to contact the organisers and/or judges to discuss, promote or complain about the awards process. How many awards allow that?

    Nigel himself is a past winner of a Safari Award as is Great Plains conservation, the company Alex works for, and I am sure there is a ring of truth in Nigel’s comment, “I would still have liked to have won that badge at school – and I still have no idea how the winners were selected!” Richard, we would love to welcome you on board as a Judge to restore your confidence in awards processes, with or without fees, but you’ll find it’s a lot of work, unpaid, sifting through thousands of votes and voters comments.

    In conclusion awards are a reflection of the community that vote for them and the results are primarily of interest to that community. Big marketing budgets can obscure emerging or smaller nominees without equivalent resources. We are frequently approached by organisations like Your African Safari and Safaribookings asking to share the data we have accumulated on safari lodges so that it can be shared with their viewers who are making decisions on buying safaris from tour operators like Aardvark, Richard’s company, who uses both websites to market Aardvark’s highly rated safaris. It’s a subject up for discussion at our next Judges Conference, an interesting proposal that may provide the revenue to stop charging awards admin fees, though I am sure there will be some Safari Awards nominees, finalists and winners who will have something to say about that approach. Maybe transparency isn’t such a bad thin after all?