Premium travel restores some civility
If you travel a lot for business it is essential to do it in comfort with a dash of style.
I almost cried the day I got a letter from an airline telling me I no longer qualified as a Gold Frequent Flyer. What a disaster. No more "Welcome aboard Ms Stones" and swishing through the fast track at immigration while everyone else stood in tedious queues.
Flying used to be fun. Now it is about as glamorous as catching a bus but with a lot more hassle. The only way to restore some civility is by travelling in premium class, which means far more than just getting a flat bed at the pointy end of the plane.
If you travel a lot for business it is essential to do it in comfort with a dash of style. Premium class means you arrive looking and feeling ready for action.
You stay in a hotel with the amenities to keep you connected, well-fed and with a gym to work off the stress. You have a driver to get you around without waiting for taxis.
Sometimes the airline gives you a contact who anticipates and eliminates potential problems before they arise.
Peter Kunz, whose company FISH-i manages luxury properties, says premium class is crucial because the intensity of work can take its toll. Yet he travels to some remote places where the facilities are not always up to standard.
"I try to travel business class, but local travel is what it is and one simply cracks on with it. Africa is sitting on a goldmine when it comes to tourism. It just cannot seem to extract the value, which is hugely due to poor service delivery."
For Kunz the most important criteria for booking flights are the length of time between connections, cost, comfort and smiles.
Smiles are an odd criteria, but he has a point. "I look for smiles and decent food. The crew must be friendly and must want to be cabin crew," he says.
The standard of facilities across Africa varies enormously, agrees Andrew Stark, the general manager Corporate Traveller, a division of Flight Centre.
"Premium in Kenya and Nigeria is very different from premium in the Democratic Republic of Congo," he says. "In Europe you know what four star or five star means, but in Africa the differences are vast."
Stark finds Botswana, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Nigeria the easiest places to find premium travel and accommodation facilities. Tanzania has a few brand name hotels and Zambia is also getting there.
"As you go further north, east or west the offerings become very different," he says. "We are comfortable in pushing hotel groups that have a global brand presence like Sun International, Sheraton and Movenpick. With a reputable global chain we know what to expect. For other hotels we have ground staff who do a recce on our behalf to confirm it's a decent property."
Most corporates want to use brand name hotels, but that poses a security risk in many countries where political unrest forces western brands to be extra vigilant, Stark says. Often he recommends a hotel based on convenience, given the state of local transport.
"In Nigeria it will take three hours from the airport to downtown Lagos, so if your office isn't downtown you do everything in your power to have a hotel on the outskirts.
"Security is the number one issue for choosing a hotel, then convenience and then the price — and price may not even be in the top three because in Africa you can't put a price tag on convenience or security. If it costs an extra $500 a night you pay it," says Stark.
Although South Africa is the best equipped country on the continent for premium facilities, other countries have great offerings too.
Sheraton Hotels are in Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Gambia, Libya, Morocco, Nigeria, Tunisia and Uganda, with one planned for Senegal.
Nairobi has brands including the Hilton, InterContinental, Crown Plaza and Southern Sun, while Lagos has Protea, Crown Plaza, Ibis, Radisson and Southern Sun.
A good barometer of the standard of available facilities comes from the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA), which lists the global destinations preferred by associations and professional bodies for their international conferences.
Africa stages only 3% of all such conferences, partly because the facilities are not up to scratch. South Africa is the highest ranking African country, in 37th place, followed by Kenya in 56th place and Morocco at 64th, with Egypt, Ghana, Tanzania, Nigeria and Senegal also appearing in the top 75.
The ICCA rankings confirm that business travel facilities in those countries meet a globally acceptable standard.
Nigeria's biggest problem is security, however. Some carriers no longer fly there because of the risks, making SAA the preferred airline for Stark's clients.
"When you arrive there's generally a security escort where they meet you off the plane, help you through immigration and baggage handling and into a car straight to your brand name hotel. Then there's a chauffeur to drive you to and from meetings, and a lot of activities are held in the hotel from a safety perspective," he says.
Corporate Traveller offers a meet-and-greet and bodyguard service in all countries including South Africa. The lack of any recognisable queuing system in some African airports means you appreciate an escort to help you through the scrum. Premium class also offers a faster and later check-in, so you spend less time at the airport and more time doing business. The business lounge is also a compelling attraction.
"If you have been in meetings all day and your next stop is the airport, a plug-in zone to recharge your laptop and cellphone and a place to have a beer and a shower is welcome," Stark says.
Rita Trollip of Events4Africa arranges the logistics for foreign businessmen coming to visit South African companies, and handles the plans for local executives travelling into Africa or further afield.
Since her top concerns are security and convenience, Trollip often uses Bidvest's Meet & Greet service to welcome people straight off the plane and escort them to their hotel.
"For very high profile travellers we use a VIP protection service for bodyguards with the transfers," she says.
For those who want to go it alone, Trollip advices people landing in Johannesburg to catch the Gautrain to hotels in Sandton or Rosebank, because it is faster and safer than a taxi.
Tips to make your travel more pleasant
Most airlines have a business class check-in desk, which makes the process quicker and far less crowded. It allows you a later arrival too, although in some African airports the business class desk remains stubbornly closed or utterly absent.
If you can pre-select your seat and check in online, all you need is the baggage drop. Your fare covers an extra baggage allowance and a priority tag so your luggage should be first onto the arrival carousel.
At Heathrow Airport, premium passengers with BA can fast-track through passport control, but that is a concept yet to reach African cities. Most airports have some form of exclusive lounge to seek refuge in, although in some countries that is just a small lounge with cool drinks and a private toilet.
First National Bank has made itself enormously popular with its Slow Lounges, open to platinum or private client cardholders, among others. A chef is on hand, there are showers, workstations, free wi-fi, and in some lounges free back and neck massages. Johannesburg's OR Tambo Slow Lounge has a fully equipped private meeting room for up to six people.
BidVest Premier Lounges are open to travellers in any class on any airline if they hold private client status or high-end credit cards with some banks and credit card companies.
BA runs more than 60 lounges with access to another 90 worldwide through its partnerships. Although I have known partner lounges turn away gold or silver Executive Club cardholders if they are not flying in business class.
How to wangle an upgrade
Some airlines let you upgrade for cash or air miles when you check in. If the flight is overbooked and people must be upgraded, you may get lucky if you hold a frequent flier card.
Stark says the most likely way of copping a promotion is by having your travel agent put a message into the booking for you, based on the relationship they have with the carrier.
"Another firm favourite is being as nice as possible to the check-in staff, since passing one or two nice comments may get you the nod. You have to look the part. If you're in shorts and a cut off t-shirt your chance of being upgraded is very remote," he says.
Frequent flier schemes often seem useless when so few seats are available for air-mile bookings that you cannot get the flights you want. But the benefits are far broader.
As you rise up the ranks you get priority check-in, extra baggage, a guaranteed seat in economy or priority wait-listing and access to the lounges.
Some airlines, including SAA, organise a chauffeur service to the airport for platinum members. Some Virgin Upper Class fares include a chauffeur car to collect you, although that is not available in Accra, Lagos or Nairobi.
A great benefit of business class or frequent flier status is that you are better looked after when there is a delay or a cancellation, and may be squeezed onto a different flight when other passengers are stranded.
Your chopper awaits
If you really hate jostling with the hoi-poloi, charter a private flight. You still have to go through passport control to fly internationally, but baggage handling is easier and charters often use smaller airports where the processes are faster.
For a local hop try a chopper, like the Ultimate Heli service flying out of Grand Central airport north of Joburg.
Individuals and companies are increasingly chartering helicopters because of the convenience, flexibility and access to remote locations. They fly to fit in with your schedule, so if your meeting is running late, you don't miss your flight home. It is also enormous fun, so if you are flying guests to a game lodge when the business is over, a helicopter is a fast way to impress.
Book it all
For conferences that require a few days of input with a certain level of reward thrown in, try renting an entire lodge rather than hiring a dull conference room in a hotel.
Ideally you need a place where you can fly in and out by charter to avoid wasting travel time, with a vehicle waiting to drive your guests to the venue. Throw in a chef, housekeepers and a ranger for after hours activities, and it is the perfect business meeting.
A great one for Johannesburg-based businesses is Leobo Lodge in the Waterberg, where eight lodges are available for block bookings at R3 500 per person per night. It takes less than four hours by car, or an hour by helicopter from Grand Central.
There are two simple facts about foreign exchange (forex): there is no painless way of procuring a different currency without feeling fleeced, and no one can agree on the cheapest way to do it.
There is no consensus on whether it is cheaper to use a credit card, draw cash from an ATM, buy currency in advance or on arrival, or to take Travellers Cheques.
The answer varies from country to country, foreign bank to foreign bank, and on what your own bank charges you.
Travelling with a fistful of dollars is a smart start. It is almost a universal currency in Africa, and can get you out of sticky situations. Another great tip is to keep whatever foreign cash you acquire for next time, rather than lose heavily on the exchange rate and commission fees to change it back into rands, only to do it all again on your next visit.
It is so handy to arrive with an envelope stuffed with enough cash to get you started. Just make sure it is the right currency.
I was caught out by carrying a wad of euros in Copenhagen, when the taxi driver reminded me that Denmark had not joined the euro system. Nor did his car take credit cards.
Thankfully a phone call to my host meant by the time I arrived at the convention centre with a daunting taxi bill and useless euros, someone met me on the pavement with a stack of cash.
Andrew Stark of Corporate Traveller says cash is king in Africa. But he also uses a credit card to avoid carrying too much cash.
"Pre-paid cards are handy because if you lose them you can get your money back. I use the Passport card where I can, but in some countries finding an ATM to withdraw the cash is a problem. And the charges for ATM withdrawals are hefty," he says.
"My best advice is whenever you arrive at an airport in a new country withdraw whatever you need. People think it's more expensive at the airport but generally it's quite competitive because there are more bureaux."
Stark advises getting forex in advance by pre-ordering it, although you generally pay a premium for the convenience.
South Africa's exchange controls limit you to R500 000 of travel allowance a year, with forex to be bought within 60 days of travelling by presenting your passport, ticket and proof of residence.
Trollip advises against changing forex at the arrival airport because of the risk of being followed by muggers. ATM withdrawals attract fees from both the foreign bank and your own bank, which may also charge interest instantly if you withdraw cash on a credit card. So pay in as much money as you are likely to withdraw before you go.
American Express advises travellers to avoid using credit cards except in emergencies, because banks have 55 days in which to debit your account, by which time the exchange rate could be worse.
Amex suggests using an international currency travel card, pre-loaded in US or Australian dollars, GB pounds or euros. You can use it to withdraw cash from an ATM or swipe the card in hotels, shops and restaurants. The card is pin-protected, pre-loaded to avoid exchange rate fluctuations and refundable if it is lost or stolen.
Amex also recommends using a combination of methods, including bank notes bought in advance and Travellers Cheques in hard currencies, although Travellers Cheques can be harder to exchange and often receive a lower rate.
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