A personal account of the Wolwedans journey so far
By Stephan Brückner – 2020
The Wolwedans journey started 25 years ago. The reason we got going back then with four Igloo tents pitched on wooden decks in the dunes, was to generate income for the NamibRand Nature Reserve, a project my father started in the early 80’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 sheet of 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 of ‘luring’ paying guests to this desert paradise in order to generate income for conservation (official levies were introduced much later) we started to walk, not quite knowing where the journey would take us.
Intuitively (or so it appears in hindsight) we seem to have gotten some things right, like treading softly on the environment: building our first camp with minimal impact and respecting mother nature, religiously staying in the tracks, not burying/ dumping our waste, and using renewable energy in our camps from the beginning, including solar water heating. The tourism business was seen as a means to an end and profit, which eventually became the norm, was seen as a by-product as opposed to the purpose. 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 in a way, albeit not consciously.
Over the years, Wolwedans grew with the addition of Dune Lodge, Private Camp and Boulders. In 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 this ‘micro economy’ ticking over.
Wolwedans has been a financially sustainable business for the last 20 years and in addition to handsome profits (none of which were ever paid out to shareholders, incidentally) it has generated in excess of 27 million Namibian Dollars in conservation levies, 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, with both projects vested in vocational training of less privileged Namibians. Combined, these training centers have graduated some 250 young Namibians in the field of hospitality, providing them with a future, meaningful work opportunities, and hence a livelihood.
In 2008, Wolwedans became a founding member of The Long Run and adopted its 4Cs sustainability model. The Long Run is a membership organization of nature-based tourism businesses committed to driving sustainability with the aim of maintaining a healthy and productive planet for posterity. ‘Longrunners’ 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). Collectively, Long Run members conserve over 21 million acres of biodiversity and improve the lives of 750,000 people – it is a growing, global community. Visit www.thelongrun.org for more information.
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 financial bottom line in mind. It also serviced as a ‘good practice guide’, helping us to go about sustainability in a more structured way, doing less harm by limiting our damage to the environment, and, importantly, putting more focus on people beyond just the well-being of staff.
If there was one feather we could ‘put in our cap’, it was to be Namibia’s trail-blazers and set an example that others might feel inspired to follow when it came to matters of sustainability. In 2019, we won the Namibian “Responsible Tourism Award”, reaching a milestone in our sustainability journey. We were well aware though that a long and challenging road was still 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 invested in sustainability – the 4Cs – and working to “make the world a better place” (with considerable financial resources 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 buy 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 commercial business was all about; the guest and his/ her overall happy 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 of NamibRand and Sossusvlei. Lodges, camps, and villas (e.g. “The Nest” – adored and celebrated by travel media), 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 bandwagon of the seemingly ever-growing tourist arrivals and an insatiable demand by the market for bigger, better, bolder, and ‘sexier’ luxury products of the pre-COVID paradigm. However, contrary to popular belief, the cake of high-end tourist arrivals did not grow at the same pace as all the additional beds in the neighbourhood. This meant we were now competing for the same client. 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 Jubilee 25th year on the horizon, 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…
Just in time (starting mid 2019) and being honest with ourselves and the challenges facing us, we pro-actively commenced with 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 that July. Our refurbished hardware was going to take Wolwedans to a whole new level and it was going to be on par with (or even better than) what the ‘newbies’ had to offer and what the market demanded from us.
We also had to work hard on our "software" (service delivery), instilling a new sense of client-centred consciousness within our team. With infrastructure re-vamps well into the second half of visible and tangible progress, we launched “MissionOne” – a programme aiming at making Wolwedans the undisputed number one lodge operator in every respect and not only in our region, but in the whole of Namibia. Helping us in this endeavor – and without any of our own doing – was our unique location in the heart of NamibRand, a landscape of indescribable grandeur and mesmerizing beauty.
In late March 2020, we planned a workshop themed “Changing into 5th Gear”. With many professional, creative, and ‘smart’ external minds invited, the workshop intended 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 too.
A new organogram – Planet Wolwedans – put the client and people at the heart of it all and 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 logo and commercial brand. Mid-July we intended to re-open the freshly renovated Dune Camp and celebrate our Jubilee with a ‘big bang’! We had ample 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’, averting a potential commercial competitiveness situation just in time.
In late March, Namibia (like so many other countries in the world) went into lockdown, bringing everything and all 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. Everybody sensed that the world and Wolwedans would never be the same again 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 lockdown and with no end of this disruption in sight – the somber reality hit us: we would not be seeing any guest arrivals (our financial lifeline) for a prolonged time (far beyond June as generally anticipated at first). In early May, we sadly faced no other option but to suggest a “mutual disengagement” with the entire Wolwedans team, coming into effect four weeks later. It was ‘game over’. Three months of zero income (and with many more to come) 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” for a reason... If we hadn’t closed shop temporarily and cut operational overheads by 85% (right down to the bare bone), certain liquidation would have resulted by June or July, at the latest, depriving Wolwedans of a future for good.
After three tumultuous months of ‘wrapping up and winding down’, the ‘ship’ is safely moored in the harbor (kept afloat by shareholder loans and bank credit lines). It awaits its next passage and mission. When that journey will be allowed to commence is anybody’s guess… We have enough “oxygen” to carry us through until the end of the first quarter of 2021, by which time the accumulated damage of operational losses plus deprived income for both the business and the Foundation will have reached some 20 million Namibian Dollars (about € 1 million)! Quite an unexpected, external disruption, beyond anyone’s control and, fortunately, with nobody to blame. A small, if somewhat bitter-sweet, consolation is that at least we are not alone… Tourism businesses the world over are all in this together, to a greater or lesser extent.
What keeps Wolwedans alive in this time of standstill 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 somewhat different and on a shoe-string budget. Despite all the odds and to comply with our Training Grant Agreement with the Namibian Training Authority (NTA) that 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. A recent class of trainees finished their assessments in November 2020, and we continue preparing other ‘hopefuls’ for theirs in June 2021.
The ‘present’ probably constitutes a 12-month window of time (optimistic hope) – spanning the whole of 2020 and into 2021 – or perhaps longer, depending on where all of this is going. Nobody knows. It is a window that affords us the opportunity to reflect, say good-bye to the past, and plan for the future.
The timing of this global disruption and forced standstill is almost eerie in the context of Wolwedans and its 25th Jubilee mid-2020. Our envisaged new journey is perhaps symbolic. COVID19 forced on us a sudden and uncompromising “STOP”. Yet it allows us time to reflect, adjust, reboot, and press “GO” when the time feels right. It also forces us and the entire world (well, those who make it) to launch ourselves into the second curve.
"To improve the future, we must first understand the present and to really understand the present, we must know the past." Garth Owen-Smith
The future, providing we can hold on until then, will be fine. If there is an organisation that seems perfectly positioned for a time post-COVID19, because of how we evolved 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 future direction we chose even pre-COVID (adding the 5th ‘C’ and introducing “Happiness” as a purpose) can only stand us in good stead. The field was prepared anyway. In a way, the COVID disruption will inevitably result in a massive shift of paradigms and enhanced consciousness, and is the perfect ‘fertilizer’ for global change and our journey ahead.
Wolwedans Vision 2030 – a bold concept branded The AridEden Project – seems more relevant now than ever before.