Wilderness Safaris: the world knows them as champions of conservation, true connoisseurs of the ins and outs of the African tourism industry. So what’s the recipe behind their success?
Katie Palmer caught up with the Chief of Sales at Wilderness, Dave Bennett, to talk business strategy, and to find out how their workforce, properties and financial make-up are living embodiments of their brand’s ethos.
Wilderness Safaris have a whole website devoted to the “why” behind Wilderness, outlining 14 key ethos, or “Reasons to Believe”. Could you tell us a little bit more about this? What purpose do these reasons serve?
We always knew what our purpose was – and that was really to conserve and protect wild areas in Africa. We’ve got a really cool business model that works, and it has worked for the last 30 years. But our ideology, mission values and purpose are quite hard to articulate to our staff, who come from a range of different cultural backgrounds – and many of them haven’t had a higher education. When you start talking to a bunch of them philosophically about ideology, you lose them. We wanted to try and break our values down into layman terminology in order to bring an understanding of Wilderness to them in real, authentic soundbites.
Simon Sinek does this video on YouTube about how it should be about why you’re doing something, not what you’re doing – this is the type of stance we took to communicate our ideology to our people: we’re doing some great stuff, and here are the reasons why we’re doing it. We thought, “Let’s try and break it down into actual reasons, backed up with examples of cool things we’ve done – things that people are proud of in our business.” After a lot of consultation with our staff and all the stakeholders in our business, we came up with 14 different reasons – each of which comes with little stories about things that we’ve done – things that our staff are helping us to execute. They cover everything from the areas we support to the species that we are conserving.
How have these 14 “Reasons to Believe” infiltrated into the day-to-day of Wilderness’ employees?
All our staff have these 14 reasons in a book that they walk around with, and, each week, we have a little four-minute video that appears on all our email signatures, demonstrating one of our reasons.
Now they have become a new dialogue amongst our staff, a part of their everyday conversation. People will watch the videos attached to our signatures and think, “Oh, that’s my number four,” or, “that’s my reason”. Our staff know they’ve played a vital part in helping achieve our goals at Wilderness – that’s really good, to see that people are proud of what they’re doing.
“Our staff know they’ve played a vital part in helping us achieve our goals at Wilderness – that’s really good, to see that people are proud of what they’re doing”
Then it evolved: we now show them to guests and agents, and we also have a WhatsApp and a Facebook group called the “Wilderness Grand Champions”, which is the same thing. It’s all about this, and we all tell inspiring stories. We had to do a whole lot of new print runs for those books, because now everybody wants one of them.
Did you realise anything about Wilderness’ values through creating your “14 Reasons to Believe”?
For the longest time, we’ve tried to get this complicated message out to the world. Then it suddenly came to us: “Well, this is our purpose.” The purpose is actually the new luxury. More recently, we’ve paid a lot more attention to it, but I think that, subconsciously, we’ve always done it. When we build a lodge, there’s always a purpose behind it.
These messages weren’t originally intended to be outward-facing – you were marketing to your own employees. This is quite an unusual approach – what was your reasoning behind this internal focus?
For us, the most important thing is aligning ourselves as a business and making sure we all are heading in the right direction, and that all believe in what we’re doing. I think that when people are inspired they’ll do anything. They can achieve great things. That’s how Wilderness started in the first place.
“When people are inspired they’ll do anything. They can achieve great things. That’s how Wilderness started in the first place”
I think that’s the first step to building a great brand – because these messages have got to come from within. They should be deeply personal. It was only when they came from within that we started passing them on to our agents, too.
Who are Wilderness Safaris’ main target market?
I think the reality is our age group is the baby boomers, your over-50s. That’s where the money is for high-end tourism. Our business model caters to that demographic as we don’t get a lot of younger people on safari. The next generation of safari-goers might well be from Generations Y and K – these are demographics who would definitely be a lot easier to sell our ‘new luxury’ concept to.
I think the future is bright for us to have an upcoming generation or generations that will buy into it and hopefully help to protect our planet a bit better. But right now, the reality is that the money is in the 50-plus age group.
What are the challenges that come with catering to your existing target market? Are your target market already aware of and motivated by conservation issues?
Not normally – in essence, most of the time we are trying to educate our target market in conservation. That’s a very big challenge for me at the moment, and that’s why, initially, we showed some of our 14 Reasons to our agents and our consumers. The challenge is is that, generally at the point of sale, our consumer still doesn’t really know what he or she wants. Yet once people are on the ground in Africa, they’re hooked – and when they go home, they want to get involved, contribute to a cause, or write to the kids at the school they visited. Their lives have been transformed from their experience in Africa, but they didn’t know that before they came here.
Why are Wilderness Safaris so determined to push the ‘new luxury’ outlook, since it’s maybe one that’s not be immediately appealing to your target market?
I guess it’s just a reflection of the people who are running Wilderness. We’re all ex-guides. Keith Vincent was a guide. I was a guide, Chris was a guide. Grant Woodrow is a guide. The leaders of Wilderness are certainly not Harvard Business School graduates. We come from humble beginnings. I think we’ve got a true love for Africa, and we want to make a difference.
“The leaders of Wilderness are certainly not Harvard Business School graduates. We come from humble beginnings. I think we’ve got a true love for Africa, and we want to make a difference”
It’s quite difficult to explain, but I think that our values are different to other companies. We’re trying to take our core values and make sure that they filter down through the whole business. Sometimes, the fundamentals of our business structure that supports our conservation and cultural efforts might take precedence over our those that support commercial efforts, and we ensure we enforce that. For example, in Kafue National Park, we lose $1 million a year, but we stay there because it’s such an awesome product. If we didn’t stay there, that 10,000 square kilometres of land would be finished. There’d be no wildlife there. Plus, we have to think of all the staff who are employed by us – too many people are reliant on what we do there. We would rather lose money, because it’s isn’t always about commerce. We understand you’ve got to be successful – and to be inspirational you’ve got to make some money somewhere, but we can make money in other areas. That’s our blueprint and that’s a reflection of who we are as ex-guards. We lead the business, and that is how we want to run it.
“For us at Wilderness, if you can’t guarantee that a fixed sum of your profits will be dedicated to sustainability in your business model, then you don’t have a business”
Do you think it is morally okay for a business cum conservation activist’s campaigning efforts to have a positive impact on their bottom line? How do you disassociate yourself with the brands who’re jumping on the brand-activist bandwagon and are doing it for all the wrong reasons?
I think it’s absolutely fine to be successful and to profit from it. We disassociate ourselves in the way we incorporate our conservation efforts into our financial plan. Quite a few brands are doing it this way now – for us, efforts towards conservation and sustainability are a component spend, or what you might call a fixed cost.
Let me explain: so on an income statement, you’ve got your income and you’ve got your fixed costs; then you take one from the other and you get your profit. A lot of people think that, from that profit, you take money out and give it to conservation – so if you’ve made 100, maybe you can give 50 to conservation. Our conservation is actually in our fixed costs – so it’s a component of our business model. It’s built in already. It’s not a nice-to-have if we do well – it’s a percentage of our fixed costs. So, in my world, if people really start taking to Wilderness’ new luxury and our brand values and, as a result, our revenue grows from two billion to four billion, then our cost base would double as well – as would the amount in our cost base dedicated to conservation or biodiversity. Growth would mean growth of sustainability and biodiversity, as well asour top-line earnings. It’s a very equitable distribution.
For us at Wilderness, if you can’t guarantee that a fixed sum of your profits will be dedicated to sustainability in your business model, then you don’t have a business.