Isibindi Africa’s story: Entrepreneur Brett Gehren’s path from Jeep Jockey to Luxury Resort Owner

Rural KZN lad Brett Gehren and his wife Paige have established a portfolio of four luxury resorts, Isibindi Africa, which has come through the Covid-19 challenge stronger than before. In this interview with BizNews’s Alec Hogg, Gehren shares his own path from hosting game drives to owning four exclusive tourist havens based in some of the wildest parts of Southern Africa. The secret, he says, is establishing partnerships with local communities, creating a virtual cycle built on four-star prices, five-star accommodation in six-star locations. With a permanent 30% discount for South Africans.

Isibindi Game Lodges Owner Brett Gehren on his background

I grew up in Dundee. I went to school there and then went on to broaden my horizons at Stellenbosch and then ended up not not really knowing what to do after I’d done my B.Com degree and wanting to do something different, although my dad had a business in Dundee. A friend was working up at Matamata. So I went up there to become a game ranger and had a lot of fun and then travelled overseas for a while. And then Dave Rattray, who was our neighbour, heard that I was looking for something else and offered me a position at Fugitive’s Drift Lodge to come and help him restock the old cattle farm where they had fenced and created a game reserve. So I joined Dave and helped him with anti-poaching and the game side of things. I was fascinated by the history and eventually took some of the tours for him to Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. And after that was a complete change and the unexpected.

On changes to the Industry over the past couple of years and if they’ve come out stronger  

I think yes. It was a fascinating time. And obviously that initial lockdown for all of us was really terrifying. And particularly once we realised it was going to be with us for a while. I mean, initially we thought for two or three weeks, this is going to be over. And then we realised it was going to be here for a while. And like a lot of people I’ve spoken to, the four or five months of the hard lockdown were some of the busiest days I’ve had for a long, long time. We were reconfiguring the business, working out how we could survive through COVID. And just looking at every little detail of the business, cutting costs, which you tend not to do. Well, you tend to do it less than you should potentially, because the business has been growing over the years. And our focus was on giving people experiences and not so much on the cost. I mean, we obviously had to be very careful over the years with how we run the cost side of the business. But yeah, the drive is always just giving people that wow factor, you know, and this was like okay, there are no guests anymore, so we can do what we love doing and that’s, you know, showing off these beautiful places. But we had to cut back on our costs and it was an interesting exercise. And I think the business has become leaner. We also took one of the biggest costs in salaries and wages. And that’s also our biggest asset, obviously, but it’s generally been a fixed cost over the years. And so we’ve rejigged that and everyone has sort of gone back onto a daily or an hourly rate which now makes it a variable cost. So it’s no longer just a fixed cost. And I’m hoping that people are seeing the value in a variable salary, in that when their guests are intent, they get paid more. And so they really now see the value of having tourists in camp because it reflects directly in the salaries and I’d rather pay them a little bit more and have that basis of of employment where they’re highly motivated then just having the kind of staff that expect a salary and and don’t really know who’s paying the salary. Ultimately the guests being happy is what pays their salary.

On where the vision for the Forest Lodges came from and partnerships with communities

Yeah. My wife Paige has more vision than I have, so Paige can see a much bigger picture. I just bumble along and I suppose I’m maybe more of an opportunist. I see an opportunity which Paige will often suggest and we’ll make it work from there. So obviously starting out, I actually realised while working for Dave that there was a huge sort of potential for the Zulu side to be told in the battlefields. And I arranged to lease a piece of land from Rorke’s Drift mission. And I was going to build Zulu huts and really give people an authentic experience. And my dad said, well,  if I was going to be investing that kind of effort – and it wasn’t a lot of money at that stage – was it not wiser to actually build on his place. So there was this offer from him and that’s what we did. So we actually built the first lodge in a Zulu style on his base. And from there, we heard of an opportunity up at Kosi where the community had been in negotiations with a developer to build a small camp there. And then this developer had another opportunity and left. And this community was sort of kind of stuck with no one to take their project forward. So we just partnered with the community there and, and I built the Zulu lodge at Rorke’s Drift and then moved on to Kosi Bay and spent two years there building and then running Kosi Forest Lodge. 

And then while we were there an opportunity came up to actually tender for Thonga Beach Lodge and again a partnership with the community. So we’ve got a lot of community partnerships and Rhino Ridge is also a 50/50 partnership between us and the community.  I think that’s critical. We have an opportunity firstly to show off some of the incredible assets that we have in Southern Africa, but more importantly, we’re in a position where we’re close to conservation areas, but also close to communities on our borders. And really, the future has got to be to get those communities involved and invested. You know, jobs are great, jobs are fantastic, and we desperately need them in this country. But I think they need more than just jobs, they really need to be invested in projects. And that’s what we realised in 1997 when we won the tender for Thonga Beach Lodge. We realised then that we had to get the communities as partners and it came through. We just get fantastic comments from our guests on how sincere our staff come across. You know, they really are passionate because it’s their business, you know, as much as ours is also theirs. And so we all have to put our hearts on the line to make it a special stay for our guests. It’s a competitive space we’re in, it’s an international space. We’re an export business. But you’ve got to come out. You have to fix the goods. That’s often the truth. And we’ve got to really work hard to make sure people keep coming back.

On the partnership in Zimbabwe 

So Zimbabwe is a little bit different. We are in the middle of the park. So the partner there is a Zimbabwean woman who originally had the concession. She had some other developers who partnered with her and for various reasons just couldn’t get it off the ground. And so she then approached us through a mutual friend. And she’s sort of a partner. I wouldn’t call her a community partner – she was the ex-ambassador to Botswana and in Germany for Zimbabwe. But the politicians in Zimbabwe don’t have a lot. They’re the ones that are no longer sort of employed assets and earning their local currency, which is really tough. She’s a wonderful woman. And we’re so happy to have her as a partner. And she’s realised her dream of developing the island. So there we don’t have a community partner as much as a partnership with an individual but we do a lot of anti-poaching work and work with communities.

On the kind of visitors that come to the lodge

We obviously get a lot of international clients. That’s by far the bulk of our visitors who come from overseas. And in remote areas, it’s our job is to make sure that everyone has a safe journey to our lodges and then is looked after. We obviously have professional guides. It’s sort of off the beaten track, but with all the mod cons. We don’t follow the sort of star grading system of SA tourism, but always our motto is four star prices, five star service and six star locations. So we’re very proud of the food that people get to eat. It’s a big, big factor during your stay. It’s just to have some great cuisine and then just be pampered and at the same time take cognisance of where you are and enjoy. To me, the real luxury is to have a space to yourself, you know, to be one of only a few people in a very beautiful location with not a lot of other people to sort of share with. Not a lot of people understand it, but more and more people are realising the luxury of space.

On the price points for the lodges

So it varies from lodge to lodge, but they start at around R3,000 rand per person per night and then go up. Each lodge has got different sorts of levels of rooms so we’ve got standard rooms and then honeymoon suites and so on. They’re going up to about R6,000 rand per person per night, and that includes most activities and all your meals. We’ve offered discounts to South Africans, which were initially 40%, we’ve now gone to a 30% discount for South Africans and we’ve actually had a lot of South Africans supporting us and  that really got us through COVID and  the request kept on coming back to us, we didn’t even know about this. And please just have those rates available going forward, so we have we, we said we’re going to keep a 30% discount available to South Africans on a first come first serve basis. But that will always be available. Just, as a kind of way of giving back to, you know, giving South Africans the support that they showed us during COVID.

On whether 4X4’s get to the lodges

You do. To get to the lodge itself, you need a 4×4 and we have points at the different lodges, not Rhino Ridge. You don’t need a full vessel, but Kosi Forest and Tonga Beach, you do. But we have pick up points and we either do the pick up ourselves or at Tongo we have a subcontractor, the community member who’s bought two vehicles and they then do the 4X4 transfer for you if you don’t have your own. So it’s quite easy.   hired car or normal vehicle to  get to the meeting point and then we do a transfer, which is about an hour’s drive, so quite a fun trip. 

On the idea of changing and adapting

COVID has been very stressful for a lot of people for numerous different reasons. And there’s definitely been a change from people really wanting to connect with friends, family and with nature, and just, I suppose, appreciate what you’ve got. F friendships and being in touch with the natural world, I think, are two really critical elements for our psyche. And I think people have realised that and I really hope that we don’t forget about COVID. You know, I just think it’s taught us so many lessons and we’ve got a tough time ahead of us in this world to get through it, and and if we take the lessons that we’ve learned from COVID and apply them and and really look after this world of ours and appreciate it, we will make a difference and we’ll get through it. . And then, halfway through that, the Ukrainian disaster has made us realize that there’s change and climate change and the floods in KZN. I think we are going to have to just live and adapt to an ever changing, fast changing world. These crises must no longer be crises. They must just be events that we have to obviously be prepared to deal with – that we are going to have to be flexible about and on our toes to adapt accordingly.

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