Booking Agents: Friend or Foe?
In previous articles, I have offered my thoughts regarding proper preparation and attitude on the part of clients who wish to improve their safari outcomes (“Seven Ways to Ruin an Otherwise Perfectly Good Safari”), as well as rules of the road for professional hunters and outfitters (“The Professional Hunter’s Ten Commandments”). In this article, I explore the role of the booking agent in the internet era.
Most hunters who have contemplated or completed a hunting Safari in one of the African countries have encountered a person calling himself (or herself) a “Booking Agent” or “Safari Consultant”. Many have utilized the services of such a person, while others have chosen not to do so. In both cases, clients have experienced good and bad outcomes. So it is worthwhile to explore the role of these intermediaries (who will be referred to as “agents” for ease and brevity), and to provide some tips and advise in this regard.
The term “agent” is sometimes confused with the term “outfitter” or “operator”. So let’s start with some basic definitions. An “outfitter” in the context of the sport hunting industry is a person or company who owns the rights to hunt in a specific area or areas (another use of this term refers to a retailer who sells firearms, equipment and clothing, but this usage is dated). The outfitter may also be a PH or he may employ or contract with PHs to guide clients. The outfitter is like the general contractor on a building site. He is the counterparty to the hunting contract, if such a document exists. As such, he is obligated to deliver the hunt according to the terms of the agreement. Sometimes, individuals play multiple roles. For example, a South African outfitter or PH who arranges a buffalo hunt for his client in Zimbabwe will usually receive a commission from the Zimbabwean outfitter that actually provides the hunt, even though the PH may accompany the client and behave like a PH for the duration of the hunt. By definition, outfitters are usually located in Africa … which fact gives rise to the need for an agent.
Agents are generally located in the country where the hunts are marketed, normally the home base of the client. I say generally because it is becoming more common for European hunters to book across borders, even using American agents in some cases. But traditionally, the agent speaks the same language, is located in the same or near time zone, and is subject to the same legal jurisdiction as the client …another important set of distinctions. The agent’s role is to market hunts on behalf of the operators he/she represents, and receives a commission from the operator for each hunt arranged. This is very similar to the role of a realtor in a residential home purchase transaction. The agent has a fiduciary duty to the operator, not to the client. In some cases, agents have a legal agreement with the operator defining their mutual obligations. It is highly unusual for an agent to enter into a legal agreement with a client. The hunting contract, if any, is invariably between the client and the operator. However, the agent by necessity makes representations to the client regarding the hunt, pricing, and even travel arrangements, which can lead the client to believe that the agent is the outfitter. In other cases, the agent may act as if he/she represents the client, assisting him/her in selecting a hunt from a smorgasbord of operators (this type of agent prefers to be called a “consultant”). However, unless the client pays the agent a retainer or fee, and has some form of explicit agreement with the agent, the agent remains beholden primarily to the operator(s) he/she represents.
Why then would a client bother with an agent, who after all is an intermediary working for the outfitter? Particularly in today’s internet era, it is increasingly easy to communicate directly with the operator by email and to make the booking directly? This model works well for many clients, who shop on the internet and then either book long distance, or consummate the arrangement at one of the shows in his home country. These clients believe they are getting the “straight scoop”, and “cutting out the middleman”, thereby saving money on their hunt. And some clients do save money this way, particularly where the price is a special “negotiated” price for a late season hunt. However, in the vast majority of cases, there is no savings as the outfitter must recover his own marketing costs and has little or no incentive to come off his price list for a client booking a single hunt. The foundation of any agent/outfitter relationship is that both parties work off the same price list. And in many cases, the “straight scoop” turns out to be nothing more than sales talk on the part of the outfitter. In the worst cases, the client sends off his deposit in good faith and subsequently finds out that he has been taken to a minor or major degree. He then faces the reality of trying to recover money or some other consideration from a person or company located in a foreign country. Even if he has a well-written hunting contract, it’s rarely worth the time and hassle to try to obtain financial compensation for what he perceives to be a breach of contract. And in many cases, hunting contracts are rather vague on deliverables and heavy on contingencies and protections for the operator.
A good agent who is in the business for the long haul has a huge incentive to provide a reliable and honest service to his clients. He is mindful of the power of referrals, and of course most clients return to Africa time and again, providing the agent with repeat business. The agent will have researched the companies he represents, and in most cases he will be an experienced hunter who knows the hunt country in general and the specific areas he markets through personal experience. He will have a more than one area/hunt in his portfolio, and will be able to point a client in the right direction, having established the hunt objectives. Establishing realistic objectives is the first of four ways in which agents provide value to clients. Guiding the client to the right country/area/operator is the second. Filling in the multitude of details is the third. Handling the money is the fourth.
1. Establishing Objectives. Many first-time clients draw up a list of species that they wish to hunt (too often based on a notion of what horns they wish to hang on their trophy room walls) and then try to find the cheapest quote. And some have an unrealistic idea of what $10,000 will buy. This can be a very frustrating exercise as Africa is not a hypermarket, where one can find a 55” Kudu in on aisle, a Sitatunga in another, and a Sable in a third. If there are two or more hunters in the group, this becomes even more complicated. Jim may want a Sable and a Leopard, while Bob has his mind set on an Eland, a Kudu and a Nyala. A good agent can save these two gents a lot of time and frustration. In addition, one can pay a large price premium for a species in an area where the species is uncommon (or sadly relocated a few days prior to the hunt). An Oryx in the Eastern Cape is going to cost a lot more than the same animal in Namibia. Conversely, Impala and Warthog are expensive in Namibia but rather cheap in Zululand. Many hunters try to mix dangerous game and plains game hunting. From a cost perspective, it’s usually better to take one’s plains game at a $350 daily rate, spending only the time necessary to complete your DG wish list at $1200 or more per day. Furthermore, the chances of getting a really good trophy vary greatly from area to area due to genetics and diet. Most outfitters provide a long list of species available but fail to point out that some of them are very seldom encountered in the hunt area. The agent should be able to clarify which species are common and which are not. Then there are important questions about hunting style, physical condition, time and money and so on. It’s important to spend some time sorting out which species are most important, what the household budget will withstand (not forgetting taxidermy!), whether the hunt is about horns or memories, what side trips a spouse may find interesting, and so on. The agent will help the client to develop a realistic and feasible set of objectives before making specific recommendations for a hunt.
2. Selecting a Hunt. Once a budget and set of priorities are established, a good agent will iterate between areas and species, help the client to make tradeoffs and compromises, and eventually settle on a hunt that will provide a high probability of connecting with a short list of quality trophies at a price that fits the client’s budget, even if some species have to be crossed off the list. Often this discussion leads to a multi-year hunt plan, with the hunter taking some of his species the first year and then returning a year or two later to collect the remainder. For example, the first hunt may concentrate on the common Kalahari species in Namibia, with the Sable and Buffalo hunt taking place in Zimbabwe on a subsequent trip. Or it may be necessary to arrange a back-to-back hunt to achieve the hunt objectives. If an agent does not have the “right” hunt in his portfolio, he can usually develop a solution by working his contacts and doing some research.
3. Filling in the Details. Once the destination country, area and operator are decided, the agent will recommend the best travel routing, provide advice regarding calibers and packing list, explain the firearms importation process, identify necessary disease prophylaxis, provide references, and answer the many questions the client will have about the camp, the area, the best months and so on. This can all be done in person, on the phone, or by internet, in half the time it would take to extract all this information from the typical operator. The latter, due to location, time zone, and profession may be incommunicado for long periods of time.
4. Handling the Money. Taking the deposit and final hunt payment is another way the agent can be of help. It is far more convenient to make payments via an agent located “at home”, vs. wiring money to a bank in a country that may change its name before the hunt takes place, or getting on a plane with a money belt bulging with $100 notes. Clients headed to Zimbabwe, in particular, are often asked to bring cash to pay for their hunts. It is far safer to entrust the funds to the agent who will arrange to pay the operator at the appropriate times. In some cases, agents will hold some of the funds until the hunt is completed to the satisfaction of the client. This is a tricky area as “satisfaction” is a subjective concept. However, in cases where there is major uncertainty as to the outcome, this is a wise way to proceed.
You will note that I have not listed trophy handling in the list above. An agent will sometimes stay in the loop until trophies are hung in their reserved spots, but in reality, an agent cannot provide much help in getting trophies home. The outfitter is responsible for getting the trophies to the selected taxidermist for mounting or dip/pack, and for providing the necessary paperwork to cause the government cogs to turn in the necessary manner. The agent cannot do much to facilitate this process, other than to make sure the client understands how the process works. Many clients allow the outfitter to select the taxidermist, who in turn selects the shipper. This works but is usually not the lowest cost solution. The client should appoint and negotiate directly with the taxidermist, as well as pick the export carrier based on crate dimensions and weights when these are known. This part of the process is rife with kickbacks and these can add to the final bill if the process is not managed.
Some clients believe they can protect themselves against fraud by booking through an agent. This is somewhat true, to the extent that a good agent is not going to hook a client up with a fly-by-night outfitter as his reputation is his only asset. But even if the client pays for the hunt via the agent, he may not be able to recover damages by suing the agent if the hunt goes bad, other than perhaps the rather modest commission retained by the agent, and even then only if the agent has operated in bad faith. So in the event of a major letdown, the best the agent can usually do is to lean on his outfitter to settle the matter. If the agent is a good source of clients for the outfitter, he usually has a lot more leverage with the outfitter, and can negotiate a settlement on behalf of the client. But the main role of the agent is to help the client to avoid making a booking mistake in the first place.
Another point worth mentioning is the fairly common situation where a client wishes to book a repeat hunt with a particular operator. Many clients believe it is appropriate to go direct for follow-up hunts. However, in practice, most agents have an agreement with the outfitter that he/she will receive a (reduced) commission on follow-up hunts, and the ethical outfitter will refer the client back to the agent for subsequent bookings anyway. Furthermore, an agent will sometimes advise a client to book with a different operator for a subsequent hunt. When he does so, it’s usually for a good reason. In a recent situation, I advised a client who wished to book a third hunt with a particular operator, against doing so. The outfitter’s access to a particular hunting area had been revoked, something the client was not aware of. The client chose to ignore my advice based on his relationship with and confidence in the outfitter. His hunt, in his own words, was a “bust”, and he returned trophy-less, having hunted a secondary area and not seen as much as a fresh track made by the desired beast.
Finally, it is necessary to point out that not every agent is a “good” agent. There is no certification or qualification required to become an agent. Pretty much anyone can hang out a shingle and many do, mostly on a part-time basis. There are slipshod agents who have only a superficial knowledge of the hunts they sell, will tell the client what he wants to hear, take his deposit, skim off a commission and then move on. These don’t survive very long. And many hunters return from their first hunt in Africa having established an informal agreement with their PH to the effect that if the client returns with enough of his “buddies”, he will enjoy a free hunt. These folks are not bona-fide agents, they clearly have a major conflict of interest, their knowledge is usually limited to one high-fenced ranch, and they invariably fail to disclose their real role to their “clients”.
In summary, an agent can be a valuable and efficient resource in the hunt-planning process, provided one sticks to agents who are professionals and not amateurs, who have been in business for a number of years, and who are willing to take the time to understand and discuss the client’s objectives and constraints before suggesting a hunt. On the other hand, clients who know exactly what they want and where to find it will not find an agent very useful.
Russ Gould owns and operates Big Five HQ (bigfivehq.com), a website offering heavy caliber magazine and double rifles, shooting and hunting accessories, and hunting safaris for plains and dangerous game in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia, Tanzania and Mozambique.