Majority of climbers would be looking for a mid-range priced climb with the “best” service. So how can you tell a mid-range Kilimanjaro tour operator from a high-end one who is effectively charging the same price for a Kili climb?
If you are looking to spend $1500 to $2000 per person for a climb, then you’d most likely be looking at mid-range local tour operators. If you are looking to spend between $2000 and $3200 per person for a Kilimanjaro climb, there is a significant overlap between tours offered by overseas booking agents and local high-end tour operators.
TALA licenses for mountain trekking are only issued to companies that are 100% owned by Tanzanian citizens. Foreign companies would need to either subcontract their operations to a local outfitter, or establish a subsidiary locally in order to operate. Either way, because of the added profit margin required to uphold foreign operations, the Kilimanjaro climb price would need to increase accordingly. Let’s have a look at this chart here:
Overseas agencies would subcontract their operations to local mid-range tour operators because the wholesale cost and generic tour product offerings align with their sales-driven business model. If you are paying $2500 per person to an overseas agent for a Kilimanjaro climb, you can expect to be served by a mid-range local ground handler where the actual costs of the climb would amount to $1500 or less. On the other hand, if you are paying $2500 per person to a local tour operator, you can expect to get better services and more value for what you are paying for, because no commissions are paid out overseas.
2) TALA license
It can be rather confusing to book a Kilimanjaro trek online when the same operator has multiple booking agents and operates under various internet domain pseudonyms containing the keyword “Kilimanjaro”. Some tour operators set up those domains themselves, and some tour operators (could be the same ones) have overseas booking agents who set up such domains, adding bewilderment to the vast sea of Kilimanjaro trek outfitters to choose from. Sometimes, it is not easy to tell if a Kilimanjaro “outfitter” is the actual tour operator or merely a booking agent. How can you tell if the operations are subcontracted? Ask your Kilimanjaro tour operator to show you a copy of its TALA license. Is it registered under the same company name, or a different name? That is also a good way to ask an agency which ground handler it employs, and to check if the company bears the relevant licenses and registrations to operate Kilimanjaro climbs.
3) Size of the company
High-end companies are boutique in nature. Think of high-end restaurants, or boutique fashion stores. In order to deliver quality products and services, the quantity of sales is limited to ensure that the few valued customers will get the absolute best the company has to offer. Do some research to see how the company is selling their Kilimanjaro climbs. Is the company promoting group-joining and set departure dates? Joining a group reduces the overall costs of the climb, of course, but it also reduces the amount of attention you’d receive from your mountain guides. Is the company saying that it is the best because it is the biggest? Remember, good things come in small packages. Boasting the largest numbers doesn’t necessarily mean the company can meet your unique travel needs.
4) Corporate values
Go to the company’s website and read the “about” section. How long a company has been serving isn’t necessarily an indicator for how well it is currently serving. What are the operating principles? (Does it have operating principles?) Why does it say you should choose that company over its competitors? Are those reasons just a list of the “standard” inclusions/exclusions expected in a Kilimanjaro climb package? Is the company boasting inflated success rates over safety records? The lack of standards would suggest that a company is cost-driven (no frills) or sales-driven (mid-range), and not values-driven (high-end). Then, do a Google search. Is the company practicing what it’s preaching? The experts on TripAdvisor will be able to tell you which companies are avoiding park fees and evading government taxes, maltreating their staff or being evasive about possessing a TALA license, despite what those companies say on their website. Usually values-driven high-end companies strive for sustainable growth, not shortcuts to boast sales.
5) Product offerings
Does the company offer the Marangu route? No high-end or luxury outfitters would offer a cheap product that is not in line with their portfolio. They would leave Marangu to their no-frills or mid-range buddies. Does the company offer customizability in their tour packages? Agents are resellers. They have very limited ability to alter a wholesale package. A company’s product offerings can tell you a lot about how a company operates – whether it’s a low-cost or mid-range local tour operator who sells Marangu, or an overseas agent who can only sell a generic tour product.
6) The company’s website
What is your first impression of the company’s website? The website is a company’s storefront on the internet. It should give you a feel of what kind of company it is. Using the high-end restaurant and fashion boutique analogy, a high-end Kilimanjaro tour operator should entice you to be a guest at its “premise”. Does the website appear professional? Are the words garbled? Does the website look dated? Tour operators that rely heavily on feeder-agents don’t have the incentive to keep a neat storefront, unlike boutiques that sell directly. Having an uninviting website signifies that a tour operator is either a no-frills company or a mid-range one that gets its sales from other channels (i.e. feeder-agents) rather than selling directly.
7) TATO membership
Most reputable Tanzanian tour operators are registered with the Tanzanian Association of Tour Operators (TATO). While TATO membership is not mandatory, it provides an alternative means of verifying the legitimacy of a tour operator. Some Kilimanjaro outfitters have been denied TATO membership due to a history of client complaints or a dire financial record. Most foreign-owned Kilimanjaro outfitters are not TATO members because they do not have a Tanzanian registered business. The lack of TATO membership signifies that a company is either an unlicensed entity, or that a company is a foreign business that operates under a different name locally, i.e. it uses a TALA license under another tour operator’s name, to run Kilimanjaro climbs in Tanzania. TATO engages in dialogues with government and other tourism stakeholders in the interests of tour operators both nationally and internationally. From national park fees to poaching issues to overseas marketing, TATO is involved in serving its members by providing a voice in the industry. TATO members benefit by getting timely information about important matters that have direct impact on various tourism stakeholders. In addition, customers who book tours with TATO members gain an additional resource to contact in case services rendered are below expectations. When booking with an agent instead of booking directly with a tour operator, you forfeit this avenue to directly hold the (unidentified) ground handler accountable for any wrongdoings. The TATO directory should be your first point of search if you are looking for a genuine, locally registered tour operator.
If the focus of a company is on mass sales, it would formulate a generic product with a favourable pricing point, and distribute it through as many channels as possible. It would unlikely invest time in answering individual questions, or take a personal approach to business. Is the company trying to sell you its product, or is it trying to build you a product to suit? This is one of the major differences between mid-range companies and high-end boutiques. Is the company taking time to answer all your questions? Are the responses personal? The only way to find out is to ask many, many questions!