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Trailblazers Uncovered: The Businesses Reshaping Transformational Travel. Today, we meet Gayle Higginbotham of Oculus Travel.

Trailblazers Uncovered: The Businesses Reshaping Transformational Travel. Today, we meet Gayle Higginbotham of Oculus Travel.

As we launch the inaugural instalment of the Thrive Voyager Interview Series, we aim to peel back the curtain on visionary businesses and dynamic leaders reshaping the landscape of transformational travel. This series explores the stories, philosophies, and innovations driving the industry forward. 

Through these conversations, we hope to offer our readers an exclusive glimpse into the behind-the-scenes workings of companies that are not only part of the Thrive Voyager community but are also making significant strides in transforming travel into a force for good. Today, we are honoured to begin this journey with Gayle Higginbotham from Oculus Travel, whose commitment to regenerative, sustainable, and VIP travel experiences sets a high bar for what’s to come in our series.

What sparked the idea for your business, and how does it contribute to the concept of transformational travel?

The genesis of Oculus Travel was a blend of passion and serendipity. My husband and I, having been ardent lovers of the African wilderness, often found ourselves on safari adventures, deeply immersed in the beauty and rawness of nature. Our conversations would always circle back to a dream of somehow making our way back to Africa, not just as visitors, but as part of something bigger—something that could make a real difference.

The idea started to take shape following a significant life transition from Hong Kong to New York in early 2022. This move gave me the pause I needed to reassess my career trajectory. With a background in broadcast media and a burgeoning interest in sustainability, I was at a crossroads, seeking a path that would align with my passion for conservation and my professional skills.

A casual brunch with my travel agent, who had been organising our trips to Africa for years, became a pivotal moment. She, too, shared a profound connection with Africa and a commitment to conservation. Our shared values and her question of whether I was looking for a job sparked a realisation. I wasn’t just looking for employment; I was seeking a purpose. 

Our partnership blossomed from there, allowing me to establish Oculus Travel. We focused on offering personalised, sustainable travel experiences primarily centred around Africa. Our mission is to not only showcase the continent’s spectacular landscapes and wildlife but to do so in a way that supports conservation efforts, local communities, commerce, and cultural preservation.

At Oculus Travel, we believe in the power of travel to transform. By carefully selecting partners who prioritise sustainable and ethical practices, we ensure that our clients’ journeys contribute positively to the regions they visit. Whether arranging the best African safaris for couples, planning unforgettable African honeymoons, or offering unparalleled VIP travel services, our goal is to create experiences that are both transformative for our clients and beneficial for the destinations they explore.

In essence, Oculus Travel is my road back to Africa, allowing me to contribute to the sustainability and conservation efforts I’m passionate about. It’s about creating awareness and fostering a deeper connection between travellers and the natural world, embodying the true spirit of transformational travel.

Commitment to Sustainability: How does your business implement sustainable practices, and what impact have these had on the environment and local communities?

At Oculus Travel, sustainability isn’t just a buzzword; it’s the foundation upon which we build every journey. Recognising the undeniable impact of air travel on the environment, we’ve adopted a strategy to minimise our footprint. By consolidating trips to Africa, we significantly reduce the frequency of flights, limiting our carbon emissions. This practice not only addresses the ‘elephant in the room’—air travel—but also allows us to immerse more deeply in the continent, fostering stronger connections with local communities and ecosystems.

Beyond mitigating travel’s impact, we’re actively contributing to the industry’s transformation through our partnership with Regenerative Travel. As an advisory member, I contribute to shaping policies and practices that promote regenerative travel—travel that has a net positive impact on destinations. This philosophy extends beyond sustainability, urging us to leave places better than we found them. It’s about nurturing the environments we visit and enriching the lives of local communities, ensuring they directly benefit from our presence.

Our commitment is also evident in our careful selection of partners. We only collaborate with properties and operators that adhere to strict sustainability criteria, ensuring they operate under principles aligned with regenerative travel. This approach not only enhances the authenticity of the travel experience but also ensures that our clients’ journeys support conservation efforts, community development, and the preservation of culture.

Through Oculus Travel, I aim to guide our clients towards more conscious travel choices gently. It’s not about preaching; it’s about demonstrating the profound impact thoughtful travel can have. By offering experiences that celebrate and contribute to the destinations visited, we hope to inspire a shift towards more responsible and regenerative travel practices.

Our efforts are making a difference. We’re seeing a growing appreciation for transformative tourism, where travellers are eager to engage with and support the communities they visit. This shift towards more meaningful travel experiences is a powerful testament to the positive impact sustainable practices can have on both the environment and local cultures.

What exceptional experiences does your business provide that sets it apart in the travel industry?

At Oculus Travel, we pride ourselves on crafting highly personalised journeys that resonate deeply with our client’s individual interests and needs. Whether it’s a family adventure, a solo expedition, or a getaway with friends, each itinerary is meticulously tailored to offer a unique and unforgettable experience.

Our offerings include specialist small-group travel journeys that cater to specific demographics or interests. From women travellers over 50 to wellness retreats and kite-surfing adventures, these journeys are perfect for those passionate about a hobby or experience but seeking like-minded companions.

My deep roots in Africa, having grown up there, allow me to offer insights and recommendations that only a local would know. This unique perspective ensures that our clients experience the most authentic and rewarding aspects of their destination, whether they’re navigating the remote territories of Africa or exploring its bustling cities and serene landscapes.

Leveraging the extensive knowledge gained over 20 years as a safari enthusiast, I find the best experiences for my clients, from basic mobile camping safaris to luxurious lodge stays. I understand the nuances of safari travel. I am adept at matching clients with experiences that align with their preferences and objectives.

Furthermore, I occasionally host trips myself to provide on-the-ground support, ensuring that every logistical detail is handled so that our clients can immerse themselves fully in their adventures without worry. This level of support is particularly reassuring for those venturing into remote or unfamiliar territories.

Our curated destinations include iconic safari experiences in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania, and Namibia, offering a chance to encounter the Big Five in their natural habitats. We also arrange for once-in-a-lifetime gorilla trekking experiences in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Republic of Congo, as well as bespoke journeys to the idyllic islands of the Indian Ocean, including Madagascar and the Seychelles. For those seeking genuinely off-the-beaten-path adventures, we explore specialist territories like Ethiopia and even Antarctica.

At Oculus Travel, our commitment to delivering exceptional and transformative travel experiences, underpinned by a deep understanding of the destinations we serve and a keen awareness of our clients’ needs, sets us apart in the travel industry.

In what ways does your business actively support and engage with the communities it operates in?

Oculus Travel is deeply committed to positively impacting the communities within the regions we operate, especially across Africa. Each year, we actively seek out and support community outreach projects that align with our values of empowerment, education, and conservation. Our engagement goes beyond mere financial contributions; we immerse ourselves in these initiatives, participating alongside local communities to foster a deeper connection and understanding.

For instance, last year, we supported the Grumeti Fund and participated in the Singita Serengeti Girls Run in Tanzania. This remarkable event involved running three half marathons in three days, all supporting female empowerment programs focused on education for women and young girls in local communities. These programs play a crucial role in educating participants about their rights, the illegality of child marriage, and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), leading to improved school attendance and overall community upliftment.

A highlight of this initiative was the opportunity to run a 5km fun run with 50 students from the local community. This not only provided a platform for engagement and encouragement but also culminated in a careers fair hosted by Singita and Grumeti. This fair exposed the young girls to potential career paths within the tourism and conservation sectors, showcasing opportunities for their future beyond the traditional roles they might have thought available.

Our involvement in projects like these underscores our dedication to transformative travel, where the journeys we facilitate not only enrich the lives of our travellers but also bring about positive change in the communities we visit. By supporting these initiatives, Oculus Travel aims to contribute to the sustainable development of these regions, ensuring that they thrive not just ecologically but socially and economically as well. Our commitment to community engagement reflects our broader mission to facilitate travel experiences that are meaningful, responsible, and truly regenerative.

Could you share a story about a guest or client who has experienced a significant transformative effect from your business?

One of the most memorable experiences where Oculus Travel truly lived up to its mission of facilitating transformative travel was with a client from London. She reached out, expressing a deep desire for change and feeling stuck in her career in asset management. The call of Africa was strong for her, a place she believed could offer her the clarity and shift she desperately needed. I curated an 11-day transformative journey for her across four breathtaking locations in Botswana and Zimbabwe. Hosting and providing support throughout her journey, I witnessed firsthand the profound impact that reconnecting with nature and oneself can have. The tranquillity of the wild, away from the hustle of city life, allowed her to reflect, rejuvenate, and realign her thoughts. Upon returning to London, she made a bold decision to resign from her job, embarked on a sabbatical to travel, and began laying the groundwork to start her own business. This experience underscores the power of transformative tourism and the role of personal travel planners in catalysing significant life changes.

Another heartwarming story involves my very first client, a gentleman in his mid-60s who dreamed of visiting Costa Rica. As a fit and active personal trainer facing a new chapter in his life after a recent breakup, he sought an adventure that would keep him immersed in water and engaged with nature without the hassle of extensive driving. Initially, he only envisioned beach-related activities. However, leveraging our expertise as independent travel agents, we introduced an element of transformative travel by gently encouraging him to explore beyond his comfort zone. We designed a part of his journey to include the Arenal volcano, thermal baths, waterfalls, and a unique white-water rafting adventure that led him to an eco-lodge deep in the jungle. Accompanied only by his guide, this experience rekindled joyful childhood memories and became the highlight of his trip, surpassing even his initial excitement for the beach. This story exemplifies the essence of transformative travel—gently nudging clients out of their comfort zones to discover new joys and create lasting memories.

These stories highlight Oculus Travel’s dedication to crafting bespoke, transformative travel experiences, from luxurious African safaris for couples to immersive solo adventures in remote destinations. By focusing on personal travel and transformational journeys, we’re not just planning trips; we’re facilitating life-changing experiences that resonate deeply with our client’s desires for growth, adventure, and self-discovery.

What is your personal vision for the future of travel and hospitality, and how is this vision realised through the business?

At Oculus Travel, our vision for the future of travel and hospitality is deeply rooted in the principles of regenerative travel. This concept goes beyond sustainable practices to embody a holistic approach where travel not only minimises harm but actively contributes to the regeneration and flourishing of ecosystems, communities, and local economies. We aim to transform the travel industry by creating journeys that are empathetic, respectful, and supportive of the destinations we visit, emphasising conservation and positive impact as integral elements of the travel experience.

Our commitment to this vision is realised through every journey we curate. By choosing to work with partners who share our values, we ensure that each trip supports conservation efforts, whether it’s through eco-friendly lodges that operate on renewable energy, wildlife reserves that protect endangered species, or community projects that improve local livelihoods. We strive to guide our clients towards more conscious travel choices, showing them that luxury and adventure coexist with responsible and regenerative practices.

The concept of regenerative travel is central to Oculus Travel’s ethos, as highlighted in our soon-to-be-released website under the section ‘What is Regenerative Travel’. This vision stems from a personal reconciliation of my love for travel with a deep-seated passion for conservation and environmental sustainability. Witnessing the adverse effects of unchecked tourism on natural environments first-hand has only strengthened my resolve to promote a more ethical and regenerative approach to exploring the world.

Our approach is not just about avoiding harm but actively seeking to reverse the impacts of unethical tourism. We aim to uplift communities, regenerate ecosystems, and create travel experiences that are truly transformative for both the traveller and the destination. Growing up in South Africa and experiencing its incredible wildlife and landscapes instilled a profound respect for nature, which I now channel into Oculus Travel’s mission.

By focusing on transformative travel, personal travel planning, and VIP travel services, Oculus Travel endeavours to be at the forefront of the shift towards more meaningful, responsible, and impactful travel. We believe that travel can be an enormous force for global good, and through our work, we are committed to making this belief a reality, one journey at a time.

What challenges have you faced in aligning your business with sustainable and transformative travel principles, and what successes have you achieved?

One of the aspects I cherish most about running Oculus Travel is the autonomy it grants me to embed sustainable and regenerative travel principles into the core of my business. This commitment influences my choice of partners and suppliers, ensuring they resonate with our vision of minimising environmental impact and fostering transformative tourism. Whether operating from home or journeying across continents, the ethos of ‘leave no trace’ is integral to our operations. 

However, navigating the sustainability of air travel—essential for connecting clients to transformational travel experiences in Africa and other destinations—presents a significant challenge. Despite this, I remain hopeful and proactive. This year, Oculus Travel is poised to collaborate with innovative organisations aiming to enhance sustainable travel practices, focusing on making air travel more eco-friendly. Addressing this challenge is crucial for advancing sustainable and regenerative tourism. It’s a journey, but one we’re committed to for the long haul, reflecting our dedication to not just offering VIP travel services but ensuring they contribute positively to the planet and its communities.

What trends or changes do you foresee in the travel industry, and how is your business adapting or contributing to these future developments?

The travel industry is witnessing several pivotal trends shaping its future. Notably, there’s a rising interest in solo travel, especially among females of all ages, indicating a shift towards more individualised and empowering travel experiences. Accompanying this trend is the preference for slower travel, where travellers immerse themselves deeply in a single destination rather than hopping across multiple locations. This approach aligns with the growing emphasis on wellness, as both travellers and suppliers integrate wellness into their priorities, seeking not just physical but also mental rejuvenation.

Sustainable travel options are becoming increasingly important, driven by traveller demand and industry offerings. Meanwhile, the impact of AI is anticipated to be significant, enhancing operational efficiencies and personalising travel experiences, ultimately for the better.

Adapting to these trends, Oculus Travel is at the forefront of offering specialised journeys that cater to these evolving preferences. Recognising the demand for solo travel and the wellness movement, we’ve launched special interest small group tours for various demographics, including solo female travellers over fifty and interests like birding and kite surfing. These tours are designed to foster connections among like-minded individuals, offering a blend of adventure, wellness, and cultural immersion.

Our commitment to sustainability remains steadfast as we continue to partner with suppliers who uphold sustainable and regenerative practices. By seamlessly integrating these options into our offerings, we ensure that our clients can make a positive impact, often without needing to prioritise sustainability consciously.

As for AI, we’re exploring how it can streamline our operations and enhance our service offerings, always with a focus on keeping human connection at the core of our travel experiences. Our efforts to stay ahead of industry changes and to contribute to the future of travel are grounded in our mission to provide transformative, meaningful, and sustainable travel experiences that resonate deeply with our client’s desires and contribute positively to the world.

How has your personal journey in establishing and managing this business shaped your views on travel, sustainability, and innovation?

My journey with Oculus Travel has profoundly transformed my views on travel, sustainability, and innovation. Initially, witnessing the rise of mass tourism and its detrimental impact on the environment left me disheartened about the future of travel. However, founding and nurturing this business has reignited my hope, demonstrating that sustainable and regenerative travel practices are possible and essential for the industry’s future. This realisation has imbued my work with a sense of purpose, driving me to explore and implement ways to make travel a force for good.

Travel, in its essence, has the incredible power to bridge cultural divides, fostering a sense of global unity and harmony. This belief has only strengthened as I’ve delved deeper into the world of travel, witnessing firsthand the positive impacts that thoughtful, sustainable travel can have on local communities and the environment.

The journey towards sustainability and regenerative travel is ongoing, filled with continuous learning and adaptation. Despite the challenges, my resolve has only strengthened, inspired by the innovative solutions I’ve encountered in places like the Namib desert. Here, sustainability is not just a choice but a necessity, showcasing the remarkable capabilities of individuals to innovate for survival and sustainability.

This experience has taught me that while the path to sustainable travel is complex, it is paved with opportunities for innovation that can drastically reduce our environmental footprint. My journey has not only shaped my views on travel and sustainability but has also driven home the importance of innovation in overcoming the industry’s challenges. At Oculus Travel, we are committed to leading by example, showcasing how travel can be a transformative force for the world, promoting sustainability, and embracing innovation to create more meaningful and positive travel experiences.

What is the one enduring impression or experience you want your clients to take away from their interaction with your business?

The essence of Oculus Travel is rooted in three core principles: Care, Expertise, and Excellence. I aspire for every client to recognise the depth of our commitment to their unique journey, feeling that undeniable sense of being genuinely cared for. It’s crucial they understand they are entrusting their dreams to an expert dedicated to crafting unparalleled experiences. Above all, I want them to feel the confidence that comes from knowing they are in safe hands, with every detail of their adventure reflecting our unwavering commitment to excellence. I hope this trio of values will resonate with our clients long after their journey has concluded.

On behalf of Thrive Voyager, we extend our heartfelt thanks to Gayle Higginbotham for sharing her insights and the inspiring story behind Oculus Travel. Her dedication to blending care, expertise, and excellence in creating sustainable and transformative travel experiences is a testament to the positive impact travel can have on the world. Thank you, Gayle, for leading by example and showing us the way forward in the travel industry.

photo credit: Singita, Chem Chem Safari lodges and Unsplash various photographers

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