Whether you go deep bush in northern Kruger or follow the big cats in the Maasai Mara, a trip into the wilderness will be life-changing and it's very probably the number one thing on your list of stuff to do in Africa. This is where Wilderness Holdings comes in. It has been providing tailor-made holidays and superb accommodation to African visitors for 30 years. Indeed, it is the largest safari company in the SADC region.
"We're a company that operates on a policy of conservation through tourism and share the benefits with local communities," says acting CEO Keith Vincent. "Wilderness began life as Wilderness Safaris in Botswana in 1983 and it is the holding company for many of Africa's premier ecotourism brands: Wilderness Safaris; Wilderness Air; Wilderness Adventures; Wilderness Explorations; Wilderness Collection; Wilderness Wildlife Trust; and Children in the Wilderness. Each of these brands is a leader in its specific niche."
Wilderness has countless properties throughout Southern Africa: the Okavango Delta in Botswana; Sossusvlei in Namibia; Kruger Park in South Africa, Kafue, Victoria Falls in Zambia; and Hwange in Zimbabwe, to name a few.
"We've got it all," says Vincent. "In terms of safari we've a vast array of world-class lodges to choose from."
Mr Vincent replaced Andy Payne in March, albeit on a temporary basis.
"This is part of a significant change," he explains. "It is part of our bid to improve operations as well as to build further executive capacity and to support our operations in Botswana. We would definitely like to move more of our capacity and certain functions from Johannesburg to Botswana in order to develop the business further.
"The move makes sense because Botswana is by far our biggest business so it makes sense for us to make the change."
Wilderness has about 900 employees in Botswana, by far the bulk of its total employee base of 2,500.
"Really it is about what we see as untapped opportunities that exist in Botswana as well as the rest of the region. We think we'll be better placed to tap into them from Botswana than Johannesburg."
As Africa's premier conservation organisation and ecotourism company Wilderness is dedicated to 'responsible tourism' throughout the areas in which it operates in. These changes play into that, says Vincent. "Our goal is to share wild areas with guests from all over the world while at the same time helping to ensure the future protection of Africa's spectacular wildlife heritage and sharing the benefits of tourism with local communities. In the past couple of years we have been focusing on operations outside Botswana because they have had a tougher time in the tourism market. Botswana was only mildly affected by the economic downturn.
"Thanks to our efforts, the business is performing well. I can't give you too much information at the moment because we are a in a closed period but it is performing well. We started a big reshuffle of functions in our business 18 months ago and the results of those are proving to be very good. We are encouraged about the outlook over the next couple of years on the basis of our three-year plan and we are well down the track of moving towards the goals of that.
"Now it is a case of really focusing a little bit more on Botswana and exploiting potential here and other opportunities in emerging SADC markets. Obviously because of the economic downturn we have been more internal focused over the past three or four years and haven't been looking for opportunities to grow too much. There is no doubt there is an upturn in demand throughout the regions now and we'll definitely, over the course of the next couple of years, be looking at more growth opportunities outside of the regions we are operating in now."
Two countries Vincent is keeping a keen eye on are Tanzania and Zimbabwe.
"I think Zimbabwe is turning a corner," he says. "We're waiting to see what happens in the elections later this year but we have an incredibly strong footprint in Zimbabwe which we have maintained over the last 12 years despite the political challenges. But, there is no doubt that in the last 18 months there has been significant improvement in Zimbabwe and for us it would be very low cost growth potential because we already have most of the infrastructure in place."
Wilderness has spent a lot of time and money in the last 12 months refining its operations and refurbishing and rebuilding campsites not just in Zimbabwe, but across Africa.
It is paying off.
"It is all part of our strategy, the first pillar of which was to make sure our properties are maintained to the highest level. We have been putting in significant levels of capital into the refurbishment and rebuild of some of our facilities in particular in Namibia where we got rid of a couple of non-performing assets and refocused what we offered in the country. Namibia was probably harder hit than any of the others regions because it is a very European based market, specifically France, Italy and the UK. We refocused that business. We have been putting significant money into refurbishments and new camps in Botswana too and we are starting to dribble some investment into Zimbabwe.
"Making sure our properties were maintained and positioned ahead of all of our competitors was very much the first step because there has been very little capital investment made by our competitors in their camps in recent years."
Investment in human capital ties in with the three year strategy too, and Wilderness has ploughed funds into setting up its own business school, says Vincent. "That is very important. Our second step was to invest in our younger generation and we have been making significant investments into staff training and executive training. Basically, we created our own business school and we've got a retired professor from Harvard Business School working for us and training our next tier of executive management. The idea is to bring fresh energy through and make sure the business is better able to fight the battles that probably need to be fought. We are moving more and more into the internet phase. We don't take direct bookings as a business. We are a b2b operator through a network of agents. As part of that we also made a significant investment into an internet based reservation system. Now the camp operation is our core but we've been linking it all together in a simplified reservation system for our agents enabling us to drop our cost quite significantly."
Promoting from within is very important to Wilderness. According to Vincent, those individuals are more likely to succeed than external hires. That is because they "understand the business and understand the customer".
"We believe our business is like a family and understand clearly that people are the heart of our business. From an experience point of view we believe that wildlife and the camp infrastructure is really only 50 percent of the overall customer experience. Our people are the ones that deliver the final part and make the difference. Service is very important. If we are going to be a consumer orientated business we want to keep that people connection. We don't just want another MBA coming out of another school. And that is why we are training internally and promoting from within. It is easier, we think, to teach the business side. Dealing with customers is a skill that is character based. You don't learn it in a school. On that front we are very much looking for characters."
Interestingly Wilderness's visitor profile has changed slightly.
"There has been a slight shift," says Vincent. "Our core market, primarily out of Europe and North America, has been solid. The fallout from the global economic crisis and knock-on on tourism has been in the mid-tier, people spending between $3-5k a head on a 12 to 14 day holiday. There has definitely been a slowdown in that part of the market. In the top end, and I'm talking between $7-15k per head, that has shown significant improvement to the tune of at least 20 percent up on the prior year. So, they have definitely taken up the slack. One of the key indicators we look at is how long in advance people book their holidays. If you go back to pre 2008, in particular in Botswana most bookings – around 80 percent – took place in excess of a year in advance. After the economic downturn that slipped to about 6-7 months. It is now back up to a year. That is a very good indicator of confidence."
He is optimistic about the future.
"I think we've laid the foundation and I've no doubt we can achieve our three-year objectives. There may be some tweaking; if we notice an upturn, it would create an atmosphere where we'd be looking to make an acquisition or move more significantly into other areas. The growth could happen sooner than expected. We are sitting here in Africa and you read press from the international side and it is all doom and gloom. But my bookings in the first half of this year are 40 percent up on the same period last year. Also the local exchange rates have moved in our favour because predominantly we charge in dollars."
To learn more about Wilderness and to book your trip visit www.wilderness-holdings.com.
Copyright is owned by Africa Outlook and/or Outlook Publishing. All rights reserved.