Carry on camp­ing

Finweek English Edition - - Business strategy - FRIK ELS

YOU DON’T OF­TEN HEAR a chief ex­ec­u­tive invit­ing com­peti­tors to join a lu­cra­tive mar­ket. But Mal­colm McCul­loch, CEO of Wilder­ness Sa­faris, says there’s room for more in the in­dus­try. “Wilder­ness Sa­faris has done lots of pi­o­neer­ing work through­out the con­ti­nent but we’re not look­ing at go­ing into new ar­eas at the mo­ment. I sin­cerely be­lieve there’s scope for three or four op­er­a­tors to en­ter the mar­ket. If you look longer term, Africa’s still an un­tapped re­source.”

Wilder­ness Sa­faris was founded by the Bell fam­ily in 1983 as a mo­bile sa­fari out­fit con­vert­ing old army am­bu­lances into game view­ing ve­hi­cles. McCul­loch, ex-MD of con­struc­tion firm Murray & Roberts, bought into the com­pany in the early Nineties,

and Wilder­ness Sa­faris cur­rently op­er­ates 60 per­ma­nent lodges, sea­sonal bush camps and pro­vides sa­faris and air­craft tours in south­ern and east­ern Africa and the Sey­chelles. “In the early days pas­sion some­times over­rode eco­nomic sense and there were times when we won­dered if it would ever be a real busi­ness. But we’ve ma­tured out some­what.”

Wilder­ness Sa­faris can be de­scribed as an eco-tourism op­er­a­tor. If only the word eco-tourism hadn’t been hi­jacked by ev­ery­one with a game farm, ron­dav­els and a white rhino. “The ‘snazzy’ lodge where you drive from one big five to the other is a pe­cu­liarly South African phe­nom­e­non. Too many peo­ple are do­ing it – it’s a dog­fight. Wilder­ness Sa­faris is about some­thing dif­fer­ent. Peo­ple want some­thing au­then­tic and want to know they’re in a real wilder­ness. There was a time when you couldn’t per­suade some­one to go and stay in a tent in the mid­dle of Botswana, but that’s the mar­ket out­pac­ing all other forms of tourism,” says McCul­loch.

Wilder­ness has been grow­ing at a rate of 22% to 30%/year over the past four years and this year will turn over more than R750m. It’s a close num­ber three to CC Africa and Aber­crom­bie & Kent in this mar­ket.

While some op­er­a­tions in Zim­babwe have been moth­balled, the com­pany has opened sev­eral new camps in Ka­fue Park in Zam­bia, with more planned this year. In con­trast to other sa­fari tour op­er­a­tors it has a ma­te­rial eq­uity in­ter­est in al­most all of its branded lodges. The ter­ri­tory cov­ered by its con­ces­sions, vary­ing from 15 to 45 years and a few span­ning 99 years, is 2,5m ha – big­ger than the Kruger Na­tional Park.

Says McCul­loch: “Sos­susvlei (in Namibia) is the only prop­erty we own. It may be worth a lot of money, but it’s not a ma­jor as­set. In Africa, land is­sues are bet­ter dealt with through al­ter­na­tive ways. The African un­der­stand­ing of the prin­ci­ples of land own­er­ship is dif­fer­ent to Euro­cen­tric views and we pre­fer not to own the land.”

For Wilder­ness Sa­faris, con­ser­va­tion is an is­sue of land use. “In re­mote ar­eas it could be min­ing, pas­tur­ing (usu­ally in­volv­ing bush clear­ing) or hunt­ing. While hunt­ing may also lead to the con­ser­va­tion of an area, our model em­ploys more peo­ple.”

Wilder­ness has won nu­mer­ous awards for its com­mu­nity in­volve­ment pro­grammes, con­ser­va­tion ef­forts and sus­tain­able tourism, in­clud­ing over­all win­ner of the 2005 con­ser­va­tion award from the World Travel & Tourism Coun­cil for its Da­ma­r­a­land camp in Namibia and num­ber two tour op­er­a­tor and sa­fari out­fit­ter in the world by Travel + Leisure mag­a­zine last year.

Wilder­ness runs a con­ser­va­tion trust and a char­ity fund that sees chil­dren af­fected by ex­treme poverty or ill­ness take over camps closed to pay­ing guests each year. Its Chil­dren in the Wilder­ness pro­gramme was started in con­junc­tion with Amer­i­can ac­tor Paul New­man af­ter he vis­ited the Oka­vango in 2001.

McCul­loch says 97% of vis­i­tors are from abroad, with the US mak­ing up more than half and the re­main­der from Bri­tain and Europe. “How­ever, our south­ern African vis­i­tors play an im­por­tant part, as they can in­flu­ence oth­ers con­cern­ing land use and – be­cause they also fre­quently host for­eign­ers – they can re­fer our busi­ness.

“But some don’t ap­pre­ci­ate our ‘ex­clu­siv­ity’ and pric­ing,” says McCul­loch. Asian tourists only make up a frac­tion, mainly be­cause the av­er­age Wilder­ness prop­erty is small and can’t ac­com­mo­date large groups, which is the pre­ferred mode of travel for Chi­nese vis­i­tors par­tic­u­larly.

Wilder­ness Sa­faris does no di­rect sell­ing, and 50% of its busi­ness is re­peat vis­i­tors or by word of mouth. With re­gard to its pric­ing that South Africans com­plain about: the cheap­est night on of­fer is R1 600, but you can also spend R25 000 for the plea­sure.

Wilder­ness Sa­faris em­ploys roughly 2 100 staff in its op­er­a­tions and will con­tinue grow­ing. “How big do we want to be? That’s an is­sue weighed up inside the com­pany all the time. How big can your brand grow be­fore it starts los­ing some of its at­tributes? I wouldn’t want to grow so big that the Wilder­ness cul­ture and ethics dis­ap­pear. On the other hand, if we weren’t a sub­stan­tial busi­ness, we couldn’t have gone into Ka­fue and changed the world there. The de­mand is def­i­nitely there. How much of it Wilder­ness will catch is an open ques­tion.”

The de­mand is def­i­nitely

there. Mal­colm McCul­loch

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