On the day of finweek’s visit, Peter Hayward and his team, without appearing to break a sweat, were preparing to host a big corporate group for a five-star celebratory dinner in the company’s gin tent with adjacent library, cigar lounge and bar.
With all the offerings of a luxury hotel, it’s hard to imagine that the whole set-up can be packed up and moved within a few days, leaving not a trace.
Inspired by the great grand safaris of days gone by, such as Simon van der Stel’s expedition to Namaqualand in 1685, Hayward’s aims to offer its clients a true adventure, with menus and activities tailor-made to suit their tastes, right down to the last coffee bean.
And for those groups looking for a more economical option, or who prefer a shorter experience closer to home, the company’s 1 000ha property near Dinokeng offers a multitude of activities, while still feeling a million miles from Johannesburg.
I had a bit of army experience with tents, like all of us in our age group. I ended up becoming part of an infantry engineering team that goes in and establishes big camps for battalions, makes sure the water’s in, the place is de-mined and safe, and sort of able to work and operate.
I did a bit of that training, hated it of course, but army was enforced and it wasn’t anything any of us thought we’d ever use again.
In the 1990s, the Namib desert became very popular for ad shoots, as production costs were relatively low, it was easy to get to from Cape Town, and they could do all these weird and wonderful things like IBM’s elephants coming out of eggs.
I was already doing small camps for documentary teams and treasure hunters and the like, and then a mate in the movie industry phoned me and said: “We’ve got a biggie; Americans coming out with a director who does all Madonna’s filming, and they want us do the Lexus car launch.”
The full launch budget was $120m, and we were part of that launch budget.
We were the first people to take on big productions in places like the Namib desert and the Kalahari, mainly for the ad industry.
I was able to put up a 200-bed camp within two or three years and charge it out at a bricks-and-mortar rate, without having to have bricks and mortar.
And I just built it as the money came in.
It was never designed to become a franchise or a big lumbering giant. We often get calls for 600 b and 800 b – and you just know it’s not going to work. Now we’re getting into the army barracks space.
We’re not going there. We put up 100 bedrooms, which has space for 200 people sleeping, and tents for 90 staff.
What makes your offering unique?
In other words, a pure expedition based on their ne and their wants.
It’s very exclusive, it’s one-on-one. We don’t mix groups.
A lot of other styled tented operators do what we call scheduled departures: “I’ve got a camp leaving on the 15th of Feb, going to X, it’s a six-day tour, we’re going to provide your meals, etc.”
We don’t do that. We only focus on groups and often our groups are not necessarily tourism-focused, but also product-focused, such as product launches.
Sometimes those are quite big events. It could be 10 nights of back-to-back groups, basically running a tented camp as you would run a five-star hotel.
It’s a massive production; the logistics are mind-boggling. That’s where we also stand apart – we have the ability to run these things back-to-back over long periods, without dropping the ball.
What group sizes do you cater for?
We don’t really have a minimum – economically speaking, we normally look at about 40 people.
At home base [in Bobbejaansberg], we can do a one-nighter; it’s easy to do as we’re already set up. But when we go cross-border, or when we go into Kruger or places like that, you know you’re looking for 40 minimum for four to five nights; you want a proper safari.
What is your capacity?
We can do somewhere between 12 and 16 major jobs a year.
But some of the jobs are these big back-to-back jobs, so it will run for five weeks. We look at at least one every 10 days to three weeks on average.
How do the logistics work?
Everything is brought in; generators, fridges, truck fridges. Each camp is specifically designed for the group.
It’s not about how many people you can get in a camp. You also have to be honest and say to a client sometimes: “Look, 200 people in the Okavango for five nights is just not going to work because of danger factors and other things you have to consider.”
We can do 40 in the Okavango; we’ve done 200 in the Kruger in a wilderness area. You’ve got to do very particular site inspections; you’ve got to look at the lay of the land; how do you get your vehicles in; how do you get them out; where do you hide them? No client wants to walk into a camp and there are 16 trucks standing around; it’s all got to disappear.
You want this tour to be positioned at a very bespoke level at each point.
You don’t want them to arrive in your space disgruntled from the bad service in the place before.
You’ve got to keep on going; you’ve got to spread your product offering around; you can’t just focus on one type of group.
We’ve learnt when times are tough, to offer more. If they’ve bought a product for R100, give them R150 worth of value, just go for it.
You charge a client R100, times are tough, he walks into camp and he’s getting a R50 product, but he paid R100.
It’s like taking your car in for a service and you know for a fact they didn’t do an oil change, but they charge you for the oil change.
It is very, very bad, especially when the economy is tough.
You’ve got to have the ethics and the discipline to say: “Let’s still go the extra mile.”
That’s actually the only way to run a solvent operation.
Who do you see as your big competitors?
There are a few glamping operators, and there are operators who are focused on the individual tourism market.
How many people do you employ?
Full-time, we’re a team of 16.
What is the biggest thing that’s gone wrong?
Miscommunication with agents. The production times needed to plan a huge expedition and put it together and make sure you’ve taken everything into account – that takes a huge effort.
We’ve had some interesting safaris. We had an Italian group once who were still trying to pay us our deposits while we were going through the gates of Kruger.
They still hadn’t told us the menu design. That’s very precarious with a production like this. Y
ou’re sitting in the middle of nowhere; it’s not like there’s a Woolies on the corner and you can quickly make a plan.
If it’s not in the truck, there is no Plan B. So I think that’s where my grey hair has developed.
The biggest problem is the sourcing of like-minded people to run it. You’re running this thing with absolute passion and dedication.
You don’t sleep, you eat badly sometimes; you’re trying to keep guys going 18-hour shifts.
You need that sort of a guy that is maybe retiring out of mainstream business at the age of 40, wants to do something different, and has got the money to buy into the programme, because it’s not something banks are going to necessarily fund.
If you want to set up a camp like this today, I suppose you’ll spend R30m-plus.
It’s a lot of money, although it’s not a lot of money for 200 b. A 200-bed hotel will cost you R300m.
It’s not like buying a franchise. You can’t really give people these absolutes in terms of figures.
The tourism industry is volatile. About 10 years ago we were ready to go into a multiplication of the concept, and then 2008 hit.
If you haven’t built up cash reserves, how do you get through that year?
What kind of cash buffer do you have?
I think you need a minimum of a three- to four-month cushion, but really you should have a five- to six-month cushion.
And you’re buying that cash, or maybe you can take an overdraft on your house and buy a tent with it.
You haven’t decorated it yet; that’s just the tent. It’s a tent, it’s material, this stuff doesn’t last forever. So your replacement costs are there all the time.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt?
If you want to tell someone that the toilet isn’t clean, then you had better show him/her how to clean a toilet.
If your chef, for instance, is not quite up to scratch, then go into the kitchen and show him exactly what you mean.
You must have the know-how at every level.
In that, you’re instilling passion into ordinary people. We get amazing ratings on our staff; I’m gobsmacked every time.
We rate our camp every single morning on 22 things on a one-to-10 basis.
We average 9.7, 9.8 across 22 points, across 70 000, 80 000 responses so far.
We instil that faith and that confidence in them to act on our behalf – to go out and do it.
This article originally appeared in the 12 April edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.