Interview: Africa's Leading Ecotourism Company
Going on safari is the quintessential African activity for the quintessential African tourist. Spending $2,000 per night is no small investment, and the sheer number of operators on the continent are enough to keep a prospective visitor in a paralyzed state of Googling for weeks on end. But once you’ve been transplanted from your metropolitan office to the quietest corner of South Africa where wild elephants roam and stars twinkle aloud, it’s worth every penny and every hour of research.
Widely acclaimed to be the continent’s foremost ecotourism provider, Botswana-based Wilderness Safaris operates in 9 different countries in Africa. The spunky Zimbabwe-born CEO, Keith Vincent, speaks with breathless enthusiasm about the bush and the hundreds of Africans he trains, employs, and treats like family. Vincent believes his camps are valuable commercial assets to the communities where they operate, and his entire business model rests on the bedrock of what he calls the 4 C’s: commerce, community, culture, and conservation.
Zady: What are the origins of Wilderness Safaris?
Vincent: When I came out of the army in Zimbabwe decades ago, I went to my father and asked him for 200 dollars to go to England. He said no, and he also said, “You’ve got 7 days to get out of my house.” After 7 days, he asked me what I was going to do, and I told him I was going to the bush. “What are you going to do in the bush?” he asked. I responded, “I’ve got no idea. I’ll work it out when I’m there.“ So I left the army in Zimbabwe and went straight into being a guide. Most of my executive committee also started out as a guides. I just wanted to live in the bush and take people around. We are where we are today because we bought a lot of places from couples that also just had this immense love for the bush.
Zady: Your business was built around the 4 principles of commerce, community, culture, and conversation. How does Wilderness Safaris exemplify these principles?
Vincent: First thing is conservation. Starting out, our philosophy was that we wanted our children to see the same animals we saw as children or even better. I grew up in a particular great area for wildlife, but I want to leave behind something that was even better than what I originally had. I also wanted to go and protect the wildlife in the areas where we operated to the best of our ability. We thought about how we could protect these huge vast areas and soon came to realize that the community played such an important role. As governments created wildlife areas in many countries - national parks and other conservation areas - at some stage the surrounding villages were pushed aside and people were just living at the boundaries. We figured out that it was essential to employ people from those boundaries so they could realize a direct benefit from job creation and educational opportunities as close to their village as possible.
Ecotourism is playing such a good role from a country perspective by creating rural jobs because the big cities are overrun.
In most of Africa, you have this mass urbanization where he young, educated people rush to the cities to get jobs because those are the only opportunities. So you wind up with a huge chunk of the African labor force where either the man or the woman leaves home for 10-11 months of the year and go home once a year for a month and take money home to make sure their family in the villages is being looked after. Ecotourism is playing such a good role from a country perspective by creating rural jobs because the big cities are overrun. We saw that we could develop our lodges in a much closer location to the actual villages so our employees could go home more regularly. When they would go home they could say they are working next door, and go home knowing they are being properly trained.
Members of our local village staff who have only basic level education are working in some of the most expensive and highest rated camps in southern Africa, and they are the ones managing these places, places that are turning-over 5 or 6 million dollars a year. They are the ones proudly providing a service that people will pay 2000 dollars a night per person for. For example, we have been involved in Zimbabwe since the mid-eighties, and have been through some hard times of course. But we stayed at Zimbabwe because, number one, I’m from Zimbabwe, and, two, because I had 300 people who worked for me at that stage and I wasn’t just going to turn my back on them and leave. Those same 300 people still work for me today, so for decades we have been able to look after 300 employees and their families. In Africa, one job generally looks after 10 people. You know, I couldn’t get a better night’s sleep than knowing I did my little best. I feel good knowing I fed 300 people and I’m looking after the animals.
Zady: How exactly do you go about setting up operations and training new people?
Follow your dream. All my life I’ve just followed my dream, which has been my life in the bush.
Vincent: You have to start with programs to train the people. It is not just an ordinary hospitality school because our kind of hospitality is very unique. Yes, there are some of the basics: we teach the locals how to make a bed, how to decorate a room, how to prepare a meal, how to serve one, and how to greet people. But I also have a guides training school, a lodge management training school, and now I have a business school, where I hired a retired Harvard Business School professor. We teach our staff how to run a big business. Because it is a big, complicated business. For example, we own 50 airplanes that make up our “bush airline.” We had to get airplanes because otherwise we couldn’t get to the places where we wanted to be. We also have an IT platform and with technology we can show our employees stuff from other camps, so if someone is a housekeeper, for example, he or she can now go into the system and train to be a barman and do exams online.
Zady: How do you distinguish yourselves from other operators who classify themselves as operating in the “ecotourism” space? How do you really define “ecotourism?”
Vincent: One of the things to understand, talking about tourism from a business point of view, is that tourism is the first thing to stop in times of crisis. But it’s the very first thing to turn back on again when things get better. And you can bet that for every bed developed in tourism, it creates two jobs.
Our greatest challenge in ecotourism in the world is actually building what I call sustainable conservation economies, which are vital. You have to ask, are we contributing to the GDP of the country in the long term?
Also, now just about everyone understands that the business is about delivering an experience, not just about the “hotel” and its commodities. At Wilderness Safaris, we celebrate what we call the “Wilderness Way.” If you look at our competitors, some of them have a very fine quality product, but their essence is built on the lodge itself, their Michelin star food and an amazing wine seller, and their little area with great wildlife. Wilderness doesn’t want to be known for its food, and it doesn’t want to be known for its wine seller. It is a given that you need a very comfortable bed, a hot shower, good food, and a nice bottle of wine. But what you the client is paying for is to be in the wild in a very private environment. Some of our areas are 180,000 hectares. If you choose to not see another vehicle or another person for days, that is fine - you are out in the bush and you’re out there by yourself for days. That is what Wilderness likes to market. We don’t want to be the “fanciest” operator. Our brand boxes way beyond our size because we’ve remained true to a way of life.
Zady: Many people think of Africa as being “one country,” but through your operations in 9 different countries, you work with vastly different cultures, tribes, and even languages. How does Wilderness Safaris adapt itself to each unique place?
Vincent: Culture is an incredible part of our operations. We deal with about 27 different cultures on a daily basis. If you take one village, for example, it might have 2 main tribes, but it also may have another 11 subcultures. We have to be respectful of the cultures we are dealing with , so we can’t just say to our staff, “here’s a workers manual.” We focus on celebrating the cultures where we work. If I come to your country, I want to see your culture being celebrated, not mine. When our staff is talking with guests, we encourage them to talk about their way of life and their culture. Every couple of days we have a staff evening and part of that is interpreting their particular culture to our guests. First and foremost, people come to go on safari to see wild animals, but this approach makes it a true experience. We don’t sell beds; we sell experiences.
A former NYC management consultant turned legal nomad, Elaina Giolando writes about the intersection of career, life, and travel for today’s 20-somethings. By day, she works to produce economic reports on emerging markets, currently based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Elaina has previously written for Thought Catalog, Escape The City, Project Eve, Go Overseas and Reach to Teach. Read more on her blog, Life Before 30.