When Kenya-born Tony Lopes first tried to make connections in the travel industry to get his fledging safari business off the ground in Canada, people were uncertain about the nature of the Kenyan’s offer.
“Travel agents and airline employees I approached would say, ‘Oh, isn’t that the place where they put the white man in the pot and have him for breakfast?’” Lopes recalls.
That safari business was Africa On Safari, and in 1972, when Lopes founded it, Kenya was a brand-new market. The country had won its independence in 1963, and the Lopes family had moved to Canada to provide a higher-quality education for their young daughter.
In Kenya, Lopes had owned an accounting business, and prior to visiting North America, he had never travelled. But a friend of his in the Kenyan diplomatic service suggested he open a travel agency and tour the world. Despite having no business experience in this arena, Lopes went ahead and opened his agency, with, he says, $100
in his pocket.
“I was from Kenya—I thought that I knew everything,” he says.
Being a new market, Kenya didn’t have anybody marketing or selling the country in Canada. Lopes describes the ensuing years as hard work, getting kicked “right, left, and centre,” he says. “But it was worth it.”
Fortunately for Lopes, he had a friend in the Kenya tourist office in New York. Two years after opening Africa On Safari, Lopes managed to get appointed as the official Kenyan Tourist agency’s representative in Canada. For two years after that, Lopes flew all over Canada and the United States, attending trade shows and networking. By the end of it, his company’s reputation had been established.
Initially, Lopes was back and forth between Africa, organizing safaris and setting up the infrastructure in his home country. As the business grew, he travelled less, but the destinations that his company served expanded. “As we went along, people said, ‘How about Tanzania, South Africa, Botswana?’ and so on,” Lopes says.
Today, Africa On Safari serves 30 destinations in Africa and on the Indian Ocean, and this focus helps to differentiate the company. “We’re the only company in the United States and Canada that does only Africa,” he says. “Everyone else has something else on their shelf—and they have to, in order to exist. We’re happy with what we offer. We’ve been here almost 40 years, and we’re now a trusted brand.”
That trust has provided perks for the company, especially where marketing is concerned. “We hardly do any advertising,” Lopes says. “It’s all word of mouth. Different generations of families come back to us.”
Lopes attributes this loyalty to the meticulous service that his company provides. “We’re not a big company, but we give individual attention,” he explains. This involves a detailed review of the client’s likes and dislikes prior to the safari. The company is in touch with its guides in Africa every day of the safari, to monitor progress, and clients fill out a report at the conclusion of the safari.
Lopes’s own brand of fearlessness, predicated on his grasp of the local knowledge, has also helped his company’s reputation. Africa On Safari used to offer solar eclipses anywhere in the world. Three years ago, Lopes scouted out the desert in Libya as a potential viewing platform for an eclipse. “It was one of the more difficult destinations, as Libya’s name was muck all over the world. But it was perfect: not a tree, no mountains, flat as could be,” he says. “Gaddafi also wasn’t going to be a problem.”
The clients he was scouting for were, naturally, hesitant to go to Libya. But they trusted Lopes, and the trip was a success (insofar as nobody got kidnapped; unfortunately a cloud came out of nowhere and blocked the eclipse at the crucial moment).
Lopes, now 82, still maintains hands-on operation of the business, and has personally vetted all of the contracted guides. He plans to continue in his role as president as long as possible.
“Future plans are to continue as long as I can on the same basis,” Lopes says. “But the main thing is to give each individual complete attention to every little detail.”
Staff members recommend places and things they’ve personally enjoyed, as well as what wasn’t as popular, and whatever the safari-goers decide to do is passed to Africa On Safari’s contacts in the host country. At the trip’s end, Lopes gets a feel for how it went. Suffice it to say, there’s a reason the company is still going strong. “We get some excellent reports,” Lopes says.