In response to CEO of Tourvest Destination Management Martin Wiest’s opinion piece focused on the commercials of the DMC world, the following:
I always find that my understanding is deepened when considering an alternative view and, although we’ve never met personally, your letter was certainly no exception.
Clearly the pandemic will have a lasting impact on our industry, simultaneously disrupting every single business and forcing all of us to go back to the drawing board and evaluate how we conduct ourselves and, indeed, for many to scramble for their very survival. Those who attempt to predict these things are aligned on one matter: businesses are not going to simply go back to the way they were, and anyone who is banking on that may be in for a surprise.
After 15 years in the safari hospitality industry across sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and most recently having founded a safari business and developed a new 60 bed lodge from scratch – raising capital and opening in the midst of Ebola, Nairobi’s Westgate Mall attack and the attack on school children in Garissa (an early press piece was terrifyingly titled ‘Tourism in the Time of Terrorism’), I feel qualified to share some insights in response to your letter, most notably to set your assertion straight that a supplier simply just “owns the physical and tangible product”. This is a glaring understatement.
Immense support from DMCs
Upon reading your piece, I was drawn to reflect on the immense support we have received from the hundreds of DMCs and other intermediaries who have entrusted us with their clients since we opened, and whilst there will always be those few seeking a three-night fam with their families in the height of peak season, I’m grateful for the ongoing support that we receive from these partners and the ongoing trust that they place in us, and I’m a firm believer that the complex web of interdependence on which this industry relies is actually one of its strengths.
Given the blood, sweat and tears that it took to develop Angama Mara, I’m also certain that anyone who has ever built, opened or operated a hotel, safari lodge, tented camp or similar establishment didn’t do it just for fun, and most definitely not just “to own the physical product”. I’m also sure that they would join me in taking offence if that was all that their trusted travel partners believed was required to run a successful operation. Hotels – even more so than restaurants – are 24/7 businesses that require owners and operators to look after their guests for every single minute and in every single aspect of their stay while they have been entrusted to our care.
Think about that for a minute: what other service or product offering that you know of literally touches every single aspect of your life for a period of time? What you eat, what you see, what you smell, how you feel, what you use – hell, even where and how you go to the loo – hoteliers and their predecessors, the humble innkeeper, need to consider and execute on every single guest touchpoint in order to ensure any level of repeat or referral business. Given that, it’s no surprise that most hoteliers and lodge owners don’t do it simply as a profession, but rather to follow a calling because they believe that guests deserve better, or that a place deserves to be better represented, or any combination of these two, and other ambitions.
Well-meaning souls continue against all odds
I won’t dwell on the many elements that are prerequisites to “owning the physical product” – and please don’t get me started on the fanatical attention that is required to keep our guests safe – suffice to say that raising capital, securing property rights such as long-term leases, investing money in the ground, hiring and training staff months in advance and the like appear to be the very definition of risk: that is, undertaking a set of actions with an uncertain outcome. But wouldn’t the world be all the poorer for it if courageous and well-meaning souls didn’t continue to do so, sometimes against all odds?
Which brings me to the crux of my letter, Martin: as an hotelier, these risks are ours, and ours alone. Sure, some of them are well documented and deservedly celebrated when overcome – can you image what it takes to negotiate a conservancy lease with 950 Maasai families for example? – but I choose to share them with my closest confidantes, my wife, my colleagues, and even my fellow long-suffering peers. In my experience, the market is ruthlessly efficient in its absolution of not caring for them, and – just like every other industry in the world – we are judged on what we purport to provide: a world-class safari experience in the Maasai Mara in our instance. I would expect nothing less.
Our industry does not, in my opinion, need to hear from anyone trying to justify their existence, looking for an empathetic ear to understand one’s problems – COVID-induced or not – or those seeking to entrench inefficient market dynamics and business models, be they in the booking cycle, the supply chain or the protection of land, animals or any other deserving cause.
Greater collaboration and efficiencies
What I believe our industry needs is greater collaboration and efficiencies to ensure that practices that create sustainable land-use economies for our great continent are developed, treasured and amplified. Only if we are successful in this will we make the maximum possible impact in conserving our very unique African heritage, providing as many jobs as possible and diversifying the economic empowerment of Africa’s natural assets, ultimately ensuring that every person on this planet falls in love with our beloved continent and seeks to visit it again and again and again.
This will take resilient and far-sighted investors, an ecosystem that supports, encourages and rewards innovation, and a generation of skilled marketers who can leverage the unfathomable scale of the Internet to broadcast the tales of Africa and its colourful cast of storytellers to a global audience. Perhaps only then will the majority of property owners be incentivised to invest in the physical product they own, to care for their land, to inspire ever more travellers to Africa, and to reinvest in their own marketing efforts to ensure that your client’s clients keep asking for them by name. After all, who really does own the consumer?