Considering all the challenges that the travelling industry is facing during the global pandemic caused by the COVID-19 I spoke to Andrew Attwood, owner of Antbear Lodge, about how the tourism industry can adapt according to the new normal and how South Africans’ travel expectations have changed.
Travel operators, tourist destinations, and travellers alike will also be interested in his initiative to conduct a survey about travel trends in South Africa. He also offers a free listing for destinations looking to market themselves. All participants receive a R1,000 travel voucher that can be redeemed at participating venues – and all participants get entered into a lucky draw to win a holiday in the Drakensburg worth R18,000.
About Antbear Lodge
Antbear Lodge is a small owner-run ecolodge situated in the Drakensberg.
What makes this lodge special is that accommodation in a luxury cave is on offer. This is a responsible and sustainable business with an organic vegetable garden, own eggs, own milk, home-baked bread and even homemade cheese. Their pre-covid customer base was 98% international so the impact has been the loss of their entire market. The lodge employs 10 persons who are all from the local village and we are a major employer in our rural and economically depressed area. 10 employees translates to about 120 livelihoods that they are responsible for.
– How has COVID and travel restrictions impacted your business?
Right from the onset of the crisis we sat down with the staff and discussed the options and decided on 3 priorities. The first was staying healthy. The second was to find some way of supporting all of our livelihoods until this crisis has passed and the third is that the business has to survive otherwise we all lose what we have. Antbear Lodge has always implemented a strong culture of workplace cooperation and the fruits of that responsible employer-employee relationship has assisted hugely with the buy-in that we were in this together. I have been thanked for the way that I have handled the situation by our team and I can only return the favour.
– How have you adapted your business?
Initially, we implemented a crowdfunding campaign and were astounded at the tens of thousands of rand that flowed into our account from our previous guests. It turns out that there is a lot of goodwill out there from people who have enjoyed a holiday in South Africa. Then we started to sell discounted vouchers on a pay now stay later principal. The cash flow was a godsend although it did in the end only extend our cash flow problem further into the future as we still had to redeem the vouchers although the vouchers did secure the business so I am glad that we did that.
There have been some huge realizations. For example a travel channel like booking.com takes up to 36% in commissions and discounts and while that is pretty much how all the agents work the realisation that that means they take 65%-85% of the profit margin still sits badly with me. What this means is that if we deal directly with consumers we can all easily accommodate a 20% discount. On top of this, sustainable tourism is supposed to be about benefiting local. How can it be a sustainable principal when 65%+ of the profit margin benefits a company in Amsterdam. Another vision of clarity was the importance of owning the customers or leads. Advertising with Facebook or Google is a continuous paying for customers over and over again. Again that is money that is spent outside of South Africa. This concept of keeping things local inside our own circular economy needs to become a new way of life.
A major milestone for me was when I changed my mindset from being a victim to that of a survivor. As soon as that happened avenues of recovery started to show themselves. The first was collaboration and I started to call everyone I knew and then started to call those that I did not. What still astounds me is the empathy and willingness to help. Despite the crisis and the news and the corruption, there are a lot of very good people who also have a terrible situation to deal with, who without any hesitation just said how can I help. Using the motto to build back better we started to work on campaigns that had a basis for the future and were not just an immediate plaster to fix an immediate problem
We needed to change our business model and pivot into the domestic market. That turns out to be easier said than done. It meant that instead of using a B2B model of working with travel agents we had to market directly to our customers. It basically meant starting the business from scratch. Add to that there is no money available for marketing and neither did we have much experience of how to go about this. It seemed to me that those venues that had already built a marketing list were is a far better situation than we were. They owned their customers and leads. I also realized the value of destination marketing. People come and stay with us, not just because we have such a beautiful lodge, but because of the dramatic mountains, the bushman rock art, the spectacular views and all the fantastic adventure activities that the region offers. Sure they also want to stay somewhere nice but their reason for travel is the destination. So the next adaption has been to market the destination.
I found that our local tourism associations were to slow to adapt to the new normal so I simply started to collaborate with anyone from the area that is proactive to collaboratively build a destination marketing list. We are doing this through a competition giving away a prize of an R18,000 holiday to the Drakensberg. This survey is helping us understand how the market is changing so that we can base the changes in our businesses on data trends. If there is anyone in the industry who can see a value in this data that we have collected or would like to be involved in our efforts please feel free to get hold of me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some of the major points that have come out of this survey are that pet-friendly accommodation is a new trend, self-contained self-catering cottages are in higher demand, there are huge budget constraints, and that currently, people will not travel more than 5 hours from home if at all. Antbear Lodge has already implemented 2 pet-friendly units and we are in the process of converting some of the units to self-catering too.
We have also created a Drakensberg destination guide as a downloadable giveaway as well as a hiking trail guide as a giveaway. A retreats guide in progress. I think the two key points for me are collaboration and destination marketing. This is not the time to get that one extra booking by undercutting your neighbour. This is a time for us to stand together and help each other survive this storm.
To help stimulate the travel sector we have built a tourism community website www.gosouthafrica.co.za which is free to list and attracts zero commission for any tourism business in South Africa. This community is giving away R1000 travel vouchers to anyone who would like a voucher at to encourage more people to travel. This alone has been the number 1 way that we at Antbear Lodge attract people through our doors. Please dont understand this to be a silver bullet but at least there is now enough turnover to keep the wheels moving.
I think we are also surviving this crisis because of our sustainable and self-sufficient tourism concept. Not having a burden of debt has helped us too. Taking care of our employees by creating new ways to work like cutting thatch grass generated some income for the community and a lot of goodwill. I am really thankful to the magnificent people that work with me and have helped create Antbear Lodge and I will see that retrenching even a single staff member to get through this crisis as being a failure.
– Are South Africans supporting the local industry?
The hard truth of the matter is that no matter how many South Africans travel they will never be able to fill the gap that the international market was supporting. about 70% of recreational tourism spend is generally attributed to international as well as the fact that they travel on weekdays as much as they travelled on weekends. The new domestic market is weekends only and is additionally limited due to fear of travel due to contracting covid as well as that a great deal of this market has suffered substantial financial hardship. There is as good as no pensioner travel either due to comorbidities. Our travel messaging needs to explain that travel is safe, in fact, its clearly safer than going to a shopping mall. These rural lodges are in natural environments in the middle of nowhere. Those that are travelling do seem to be keen on supporting local and we are finding that those that might well have gone on an overseas holiday are now staying local which improves things a bit. There is a huge pent up demand for travel and we see that every time there is a long weekend as we get booked up assuming it does not coincide with a covid wave. Travel has become far more last minute and what might seem like an empty weekend on Thursday suddenly has a few guests on Friday.
– Have traveller’s expectations changed as a result of COVID? If so, how?
Domestic traveller’s expectations are have changed as a result of covid although many expectations have remained the same. People want to feel safe and want to know that you are taking the situation seriously. Not that the covid protocols are that difficult to follow. Cleaning is what we have always done and a few little tweaks here and there with some extra sanitation of high traffic areas and implementation of PPE the problem is solved. The big expectation is a low price. Travellers want the deal. I see that the market has reacted to that and there are the best travel deals available today that I have ever seen. I think from a consumer point of view there has never been a better time to explore your own country. The GoSouthAfrica.co.za R1,000 Travel voucher giveaway is becoming a great motivator too. On the other hand expectations of service have not changed and with so many places operating with minimal staff, standards do slip and there is zero consumer tolerance on that front. I understood that right after we were allowed to operate again and have taken care to make sure we don’t drop our standards.
– The SA travel industry has a reputation for chasing foreigners and neglecting locals. Now that international travel is restricted, our money is good enough.
Antbear Lodge has never had differentiated rates for domestic and international clients and neither have we ever charged our rates in Dollars or Euros. The travel channels on the whole demand that rate parity is kept so although you will find examples of places that have exorbitant rates on the whole this is not the case. However, that 30% commission paid to agents has been priced into the rates although I suspect if we pay for our own advertising that 20% of turnover would probably be spent there so I don’t think that will make a huge difference to rates.
Antbear Lodge offers a value for money experience and has targeted international travellers intentionally as this is a larger and easier to reach market using travel agents on a B2B business model. The fact also remains that the International travellers create a more regular market and that bookings are made in general 6 months ahead of time making the business far more planable. There is no truth to the belief that internationals with their foreign currency means that a South African holiday is super cheap for them. Generally, they need to save for a whole year to afford their holiday.
There are simply way more affordable international destinations in the world like Thailand or Vietnam. Also once the long haul flight is taken into account destinations like Greece, Portugal and Turkey offer way cheaper holidays for Europeans than what South Africa offers. South Africa on the other hand is not yet been affected by over-tourism and offers superb holiday experiences that are still of good value. Targeting the international market has however proven to not be such a sustainable business practice in such a crisis and going forward we intend to try to create a more balanced split so that when the next crisis happens we do not lose the whole market all at once again.
I think also that sustainable travel is going to become even more important than before the crisis in the minds of international guests which will in all likelihood try to omit long-distance flights in favour of the environment. Staying local is going to be something for the future and while that might not be so high in the minds of South Africans it is certainly high in the minds of our international source markets.
Something exciting that we have noticed of late is that there is a new market of black South African travellers that is emerging which has the potential to expand the domestic market size considerably. I think that there is a lack of travel products developed especially for this demographic and I think every tourism business should be looking to see what changes they can make, to make this market sector feel more welcome. It starts with things like having some of your marketing imagery to include black customers to start the communication narrative. Some of these black South African travellers see travel as a way to educate their children, and to provide them with the opportunity to broaden their perspectives. Others see it as a way to boost their social status, and to experience the finer things in life in new and different settings. Understanding this black middle-class tourist may very well be a great basis of competitive advantage and stimulate travel even more.
– Do you think the travel industry will return to its old ways of doing business or do we need to consider new ways of travelling?
The outlook for the tourism and hospitality industry remains uncertain, but South Africans pride themselves in finding creative solutions to whatever problems might come their way. This crisis will at some stage be over but I don’t think there is an end in sight yet. The key now is to build back better. We need to be looking to what will sustain us in the future. One fear I have is the industry will go back similar to what it was and sustainable practices will be generally ignored again.
I think the best way for sustainable business practice to happen is through regulation. It’s a question of ethics and why should good ethical practice not be laid in our in tourism regulation. With the release of the Tourism Equity Fund there will be a few more black-owned businesses that will enter the market. Our country certainly needs to do something to create a more equitable black stake in the sector in what is currently pretty Lily-White. I can’t judge if this funding scheme is correct or not and there has been much criticism levied. I doubt that it will aid the recovery of the tourism sector although it certainly can make a small impact on transformation.
– Is enough being done by government and industry stakeholders in protecting the travel industry?
I am unable to say if enough is being done by government and industry stakeholders in protecting the travel industry. Some shining lights have emerged showing extraordinary leadership lobbying for the travel sectors. Names like Wendy Alberts, Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, and Natalia Rosa come to mind. The fact is we have a pandemic and I think I have never seen the government act so swiftly as it has in these unprecedented circumstances. Sure the lockdown rules have created more problems particularly for the tourism and related sectors than any other parts of the economy. I can also nitpick the details of the value of alcohol bans and closed beaches but that discussion will not get us anywhere.
One example was the reopening of international borders. Regardless that they are open there is still no tourism coming to South Africa. The problem is pandemic. We need to get away from blaming the government for our problems and to start looking to solve our own business issues ourselves. Regardless of how much support is created there can never be enough. Programs like TERS although riddled with issues and controversy has certainly helped our staff have some basis to a livelihood and together with support for our side as an employer they are surviving. They cannot just be left as casualties of the crisis. We did not manage to benefit from the Tourism Relief Fund although I am not sure how R50,000 would have helped us much besides stopping the haemorrhaging of cash for a single month. I think that I initially thought that small business was one of the biggest casualties to the crisis and I now realise that actually the employees are the biggest victims and we as a business have a responsibility to try to mitigate that issue rather than just taking cold business decisions and retrenching. I think the only solution going forward is to trade a positive cashflow and we each need to make every effort to achieve that situation.
– What will it take to revive the travel industry?
It’s thought that it will take a minimum of three years for the industry to recover. It took a global pandemic for the travel industry to finally face the truth about diversity and inclusion, a topic we often run from and dispute even exists. We have an opportunity to move forward with a clean slate. Those brands who reflect this will be the ones who recover stronger and build loyalty and trust amongst a community that isn’t 100% sure about travel. While there is optimism that vaccines will contain the virus and reduce the impact of further waves of the infection I can’t yet determine what the new normal will be. The first certainty that will need to established is flight bookings as well as the elimination of the need for quarantine. I think more technology will be integrated which I think goes against the connections people make which drive them to travel. Until this recovery takes place all we can do is offer travellers the reassurance they are looking for so that once travel resumes the sector is ready for what will in all likelihood be a strong recovery.
Get Your Free R1,000 Travel Voucher Now!
Go South Africa are giving away free R1,000 travel vouchers to assist tourism through this crisis. Download your free voucher which will pay for your first R1,000 off your travel bill to encourage you to get out and travel more. Get your voucher here: www.gosouthafrica.co.za.