Africa’s premier luxury safari operator, &Beyond which operates four jungle lodges with Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces in Madhya Pradesh, has been making concerted efforts to introduce better guiding practices in India. It was in 2006 that Graham Vercueil, head trainer of &Beyond set up a naturalist training school near Kanha National Park and has so far trained 30 naturalists, including female rangers. Currently as many as 200 guides are working within the group, while 23 are in India the others are engaged in the many luxury lodges that &Beyond operates across Africa.
The success of a safari is much depended on the skills of a guide and consequently almost six months of training is given to an individual who is entrusted with the job. &Beyond’s Group Field Operations oversees operating standards, including ranger/guide and tracker training programmes and methodologies, across the group. Hugh Marshall, group ranger trainer, &Beyond says, “Our training process has been devised from within the company, based on years of operating at the highest levels, in a variety of environments, across different cultures, understanding what works well, what can be enhanced and also learning from the mistakes made along the way.”
There are dedicated training schools in Southern Africa, East Africa and India all which follow the &Beyond Inkwazi ranger training process. “Guides are trained together and then deployed to lodges in their region according to their individual talents and the lodge needs at the time,” states Marshall, adding that guides are encouraged to visit and explore all the properties and wildlife areas but there are limitations to working in other countries due to work permit issues.
The training does not vary according to the destination. Marshall explains why, “We expect the same culture, standards and understanding of the job requirements across our group. Of course, they do need specific natural history knowledge and legalities vary according to the destination, both of which we facilitate accordingly.”
Almost two decades ago it was at &Beyond Inkwazi Ranger Training School at &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, where the first and most crucial phase of training for new guides was honed before being exported to other areas in Africa and eventually in India. The six and a half week Inkwazi course allows the company to select and train some of the best candidates for a career of guiding with &Beyond. For India a similar three phase course was developed that focused on wildlife and guiding techniques in Indian jungles. Six set of trainees have completed the course and are now working at Taj Safari Lodges.
Graham Vercueil, group ranger trainer who is responsible for India says, “Our courses are designed to create a foundation of understanding around what skills are required to become a successful &Beyond ranger. Upon completion of a course, new guides are placed at the lodges where they will work and where training continues for another three months under the guidance of a head ranger and mentor team. This second phase of training is not only another crucial step in a guide’s development, but can also be a ‘breeding ground’ for the next generation of ranger trainers, as these mentors hone their training skills while directing the development of new guides.”
Many of the trained rangers have also been invited to informally mentor and train other park guides. Vercueil reminds that guiding is not only about animals or plants or ecosystems. “This is simply the environment that a ranger is lucky enough to work in – and we certainly expect our rangers to have expert knowledge about their environments. Guiding is also about people – communicating and interacting well with them,” he asserts.
Whom to recruit
At the time of selection and recruitment the key attributes that are sought in a ranger are – attitude, personality, enthusiasm and the right cultural fit in the organisation.
The company selects and trains naturalists in India according to the same stringent and thorough standards as in Africa. “The &Beyond training process was tailored to suit Indian conditions and operational standards. Trainees first undergo six weeks of intensive selection, training and personal development under the trainers and senior naturalists, including myself,” states Vercueil. He adds that those who successfully complete this phase then enter a second phase of workplace training, further developing skills and an excellent depth of local and regional knowledge under the direction and care of the trainers, head naturalists and senior naturalists at the Taj Safari Lodges where they work. Since candidates are chosen from a wide variety of backgrounds and experience bases, this process takes three to four months but can extend for eight to nine months where necessary, as the highest standard of guiding is required.
As rangers need to constantly interact with visitors it is necessary for them to have hospitality and other soft skills training. Acknowledging that guides play a significant role in the guest experience, Vercueil states that they are much more than simply guides interpreting the natural world while on safari, but are also hosts and often organisers of the guest’s daily activities – essentially the interface between guest and lodge. “With this in mind, rangers definitely receive the necessary hospitality and soft skills training,” he adds.
Guides play a very important role in guest experience and that is why the company believes in invest ing significantly into training and growing their pool of rangers. These rangers have good career prospects within the group. Currently, two of &Beyond’s directors who started in the company as rangers and many guides have become lodge GM’s and regional managers. The company’s CEO, Joss Kent, is also a former ranger. “We have also introduced more specialist safaris, where guides can use their specific skills like Photographic Safaris, Birding or Walking Safaris; or they could even go on to become a private guide,” states Marshall. &Beyond recently launched Private Guided Safaris, where guests can travel on a tailor-made itinerary through Africa, with an expert guide who is also the concierge and host.