During the 2020 Lockdown we had time to contemplate the past (and future) 25 years.
Below is a reflection from Stephan Brückner on the journey Wolwedans has travelled from past to present, and most importantly into the future.
The Wolwedans journey started in 1995. The reason we got going back then, with just four Igloo tents pitched on wooden decks in the dunes, was to generate income for the NamibRand Nature Reserve, a project started by my father the 1980’s.
At the time, tourism in Namibia was in its infancy. If you wanted to visit Sossusvlei, you either camped (no glamping back then) at the Sesriem campsite, or you checked in at the Maltahöhe Hotel (still in business today!), some 180 km further East. That was it! Imagine…
Starting tourism at Wolwedans was really a blank canvas. There were no benchmarks, no competitors, no market trends/demands, no leads, no best practices, no regulations, nothing. And so, with the vague objective to ‘lure’ paying guests to this desert paradise – in order to generate income for conservation (park fees were introduced much later) – we started to walk, not quite knowing where the journey would take us.
Intuitively – so it seems in hindsight – we seem to have gotten some things right. Like treading soft on the environment, building our first camp with minimal impact (respecting mother nature), religiously staying in the tracks, not burying or dumping our waste and using renewable energy in our camps from the word go, including solar hot water. The tourism (business) was seen as a means to an end, and profit – which eventually became the norm – was seen as a byproduct, not the purpose. In a way (with the primary aim being to generate cash for NamibRand through the collection of conservation levies), “sustainability” was infused into our DNA from the word go, albeit not consciously.
Over the years, with the addition of Desert Lodge (previously called Dune Lodge), Plains Camp (previously called Private Camp) and Boulders, Wolwedans grew. Early 2020 the Wolwedans Collection comprised 56 beds, requiring some 110 employees (this excludes 20 contractors and some 45 trainees) to keep the wheels in motion and a this ‘micro economy’ ticking.
Wolwedans has been a financially sustainable business for the last 20 years, and in addition to handsome profits (none of which was ever paid out to shareholders incidentally), over the years has generated in excess of 27 million Namibia Dollars in park fees (collected on behalf of the NamibRand Nature Reserve).
In 2007 – with the understanding that it was not only about “saving the Oryx” (who were pretty happy by then anyway) – the time had come ‘to give back’ to the community (people) too. We registered the non-profit Wolwedans Foundation and initiated the “Wolwedans Desert Academy”. We also started NICE (the Namibian Institute of Culinary Education) in Windhoek, both projects vested in vocational training of less privileged Namibians.
Combined, our training centres have graduated some 250 young Namibians in the field of hospitality, providing them a future, meaningful work opportunities and hence a livelihood. In 2008, Wolwedans became a founding member of the Long Run and adopted its 4C sustainability model. The Long Run is a membership organization of nature-based tourism businesses committed to driving sustainability. This ‘community’ is global in scope and growing. The aim is to maintain a healthy and productive planet for posterity. Collectively Long Run members conserve over 21-million acres of biodiversity and improve the lives of 750,000 people. ‘Long Runners‘ seek to support, connect and inspire nature based businesses to excel in following the highest standards of sustainability encompassing Conservation, Community, Culture and Commerce (the 4Cs), and adding the Wolwedans-centric 5th C, Consciousness.
This global affiliation with like-minded people made us more ‘conscious’ about the concept of sustainability and the need to conduct one’s business with more than the bottom line in mind. It was more of a ‘good practice guide’ though, helping us to go about sustainability in a more structured way, limiting our damage to the environment (doing less harm), and importantly, putting more focus on people (beyond the well-being of staff).
If there was one feather ‘we could put on our cap’, it was to be Namibia’s trail-blazers and when it came to matters of sustainability. Setting an example, others might feel inspired to follow. In 2019, we won the Namibian “Responsible Tourism Award”, reaching a milestone. We were well aware though, that a long and challenging journey was still lying ahead because “doing less harm” was simply not good enough. 2020 was just the start of things to come. What also happened, to be honest, was that our focus was so much invested in sustainability, the 4C’s, and working to “make the world a better place” (with much financial resource committed to the cause), that our core business and financial lifeline (the hospitality product/experience of Wolwedans) started to suffer. Camps started to look ‘tired’, our fleet got old and battered (because it seemed more important and exciting to build a greenhouse than buying new cars…) and perhaps most importantly, our team got somewhat complacent, taking constant tourist arrivals (and a guaranteed monthly pay) for granted. We lost sight a bit of what our business was all about; the guest and their (happy) overall Wolwedans experience.
In addition to our commercial offering being in need of an overhaul, we faced more and more (up-market) competition right in our backyard, the NamibRand Nature Reserve and Sossusvlei area. Lodges and Camps, and “Villa’s – i.e. “The Nest” – adored and celebrated by travel media, as well as large international brands developing their own camps, backed by financially strong investors who did not seem to care too much about cost/return and financial sustainability (never mind endless marketing budgets) popped up left right and center, most jumping on the band-wagon of ever-growing tourist arrivals and an insatiable demand by the market for bigger, better, bolder and ‘sexier’ luxury product (the pre-COVID paradigm).
However, the cake (tourist arrivals and high end at that) – contrary to general belief – did not grow at the same pace as all the additional beds in the neighbourhood, and this meant, we were up to compete for the same client. This reality hit home very suddenly.
In terms of our commercial enterprise (the lifeline of Wolwedans – no money no honey), we faced a critical point (in terms of financial sustainability). With our 25 year Jubilee in 2020, it was time for an overhaul, a new beginning, a ‘second curve’.
The Second Curve
‘The Second Curve’ is a concept described by author Charles Handy. The essence is that most organizations, companies, empires, etc. reach a point where “their (upward) curve” starts to drop and either they manage to launch into a second curve by re-inventing themselves, or decline is inevitable (ending up in the proverbial dustbin of history). With regard to business, examples include Kodak (missing digital), Nokia (ignoring smart phones), and the list goes on…
And then COVID hit. Changing all our plans and bringing us back to step 1, maybe an opportunity to relook and remake in a more evolved way, shaking us out of our relative complacency.
Just in time (starting mid 2019) and being honest with ourselves and the challenges facing us, we pro-actively commenced on a massive re-vamp and refurbishment programme spanning the entire Wolwedans Collection. This exercise was to be completed in time for the 2020 season and our Jubilee in July. Our refurbished hardware was going to take Wolwedans to a whole new level, and it was going to be on par with (or better even) what the ‘newbies’ had to offer, and the market demanded from us.
We also had to work hard on our software (service delivery), instilling a new sense of client centered consciousness with our team. With infrastructure re-vamps well into the second half of visible and tangible progress, we launched “MissionOne”, a programme, aiming at becoming the undisputed number one (lodge operator) in every respect. Not only in our region, but in the whole of Namibia. Helping us in this endeavour – and without any of our own doing – was our unique location in the heart of NamibRand, a landscape of indescribable grandeur and mesmerizing beauty
At Wolwedans you will find beauty feeding the soul, tranquility to clear the mind and space for your imagination to fly…
Late March 2020, we planned a workshop themed “Changing into 5th gear”. This workshop, with many professional, creative and ‘smart’ outsiders invited, was to align our team with the future, show them where we were headed, bring them on board, and change into 5th gear by introducing “MissionOne” (to the team), “Consciousness” (our new 5th C), and the concept of ‘Happiness’ (because happy guests require the team to be truly happy).
A new organogram (Planet Wolwedans) putting the client and people in the heart of it all was the key to getting the message embedded in our corporate soul.
We were very excited about the journey ahead. We also planned to launch our ‘new’ commercial brand. In mid July 2020 we wanted to reopen the freshly renovated Dune Camp and celebrate our Jubilee with a ‘big bang’. We had ample (cash) reserves to do all these things and with enough money and effort thrown at the challenge, we would have launched ourselves into the ‘second curve’ and, just in time, saving a potential ‘situation’.
Pre-Covid, Wolwedans found itself somewhere in this space. The time had come to re-invent ourselves, especially regarding our product/experience.
At the end of March 2020, Namibia (like so many other countries in the world) went into lock-down, bringing everything (and all our plans) to a grinding halt. 90% of the team was sent home (except for some die-hards holding the fort, the Vision workshop was cancelled, building projects (both at Wolwedans Village and the camps) were put on hold, and all Wolwedans Camps were ‘mothballed’.
An abrupt and unplanned ending to a 25-year journey of progress, growth and prosperity. The world and Wolwedans “would never be the same again” (everybody sensed), and all we had come to know (and take for granted), had been severely disrupted. This sums up the past.
By late April 2020 – four weeks into the lock-down and with no end of this disruption in sight – the somber reality dawned on us, that we would not be seeing any guest arrivals (our monetary livelihood) for a prolonged time (way beyond June as generally anticipated). Early May, we sadly faced no other option but to suggest a “mutual disengagement” to the entire Wolwedans team, coming into effect four weeks later. It was ‘game over’. Three months (with many more to come) of zero income burnt away our handsome cash reserves in a frighteningly short amount of time and Wolwedans had run out of air (they say “cash is the oxygen of a business”). Not closing shop for the while and cutting operational overheads by 85% right down to the bare bone, would have resulted in certain liquidation by June or latest July – depriving Wolwedans of a future for good.
After three tumultuous months of ‘wrapping up and winding down’, the ‘ship’ was safely moored in the harbor (kept afloat by share-holder loans and bank credit lines), awaiting its next passage and mission. That journey is slowly coming back to life and we are full steam ahead as of April 2022.
What kept Wolwedans alive in this time of stand-still is the Desert Academy, and a happy bunch of some 45 young trainees who are allowed (what a privilege!) to just get on with it, albeit different and on a shoe-string budget. Despite all the odds, and to comply with our Training Grant Agreement with the NTA (Namibian Training Authority, which sponsors 50% of our programme), Wolwedans committed to continue with hospitality training, including the trainees from NICE in Windhoek (who now also train in the desert). We are preparing our ‘hopefuls’ for their assessment in November and June 2021 respectively. The ‘present’ probably constitutes a 12-month window of time (optimistic hope), spanning the whole of 2020 and into 2021 – or perhaps longer, pending where all of this is going. Nobody knows. A time window, which affords us the opportunity to reflect, say good-bye (to the past) and plan the future.
The timing of this global disruption and forced standstill – in the case of Wolwedans and its 25th jubilee mid 2020 – is almost eerie, and our envisaged new journey, maybe symbolic. COVID forced on us a sudden and uncompromising “STOP”.
It allowed us time to reflect, adjust and reboot, and we’ve pressed “GO” as the time feels right. It also forced us and the entire world (well, those who made it) to launch ourselves into the second curve.
The future, providing we can get through 2022 and 2023, will be fine. If there is an organization which seems perfectly positioned for a time post COVID-19, because of what happened in the past, it must be Wolwedans.
Our history, our sustainability track record, our genuine quest for ‘business in balance’, our integrity (walking the talk), and the direction we chose going ahead (adding the 5th ‘C’ and introducing “Happiness” as a purpose) before COVID caught the world by surprise, can only stand us in good stead. The field was prepared anyway. In a way, the COVID disruption, inevitably resulting in a massive shift of paradigms and enhanced consciousness, is the perfect ‘fertilizer’ for global change and our journey ahead.
Wolwedans Vision 2030 – a bold concept branded “The AridEden Project” – now seems more relevant than ever before.