Keith Vincent, CEO Wilderness
Following a major rebrand, Wilderness CEO, Keith Vincent discusses the ethos and commitment behind the world’s leading safari company, as he takes SPACE for a walk on the wild side.
Where did you grow up and what was your introduction to the world of safaris?
I grew up in Zimbabwe, and as a child I spent many family holidays in Hwange National Park and the Zambezi Valley (Mana Pools), so that was how I became exposed to nature and wildlife and where my love for safaris originated. Hwange National Park remains my favourite holiday destination and where we still go for our family holidays.
Where did your passion for wildlife stem from, and when did you realise it could translate into a viable career choice?
I would definitely say that my passion for wildlife comes from those childhood holidays in the bush in Zimbabwe, where I developed a love for the outdoors and the natural history of the country. As early as the age of nine, I knew that I wanted to contribute to the conservation of my country’s wildlife, and the protection of its wilderness areas. This eventually led to me becoming a professional guide, starting my career in 1980, and I haven’t looked back since!
Could you share a little bit of the back story to Wilderness?
Wilderness was founded in Botswana in 1983 by a passionate group of guides whose love of conservation set us on this journey, so conservation has always been our guiding principle. The company started out as a mobile safari operator and then in 1985 we built our first permanent camps in Botswana. This evolution of the business model enabled us to make a bigger difference to conservation because we were then able to conserve large areas of land, plus benefit local communities through employment opportunities and the payment of lease fees. The company philosophy naturally attracted more like-minded people who were also passionate about conservation and wildlife, and so Wilderness began to expand into other areas – Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and then Zambia. We’ve continued to expand into new areas in Africa such as Kenya, Rwanda, and most recently, Tanzania. Our business model is to restore and help conserve invaluable wilderness and wildlife through high-end conservation tourism, which means that hospitality and conservation are deeply intertwined.
How has Wilderness evolved over the years and what does it offer that is unique compared to its competitors?
Wilderness has evolved from humble beginnings into a pioneering collective that now helps to protect 2.3 million hectares of land, with over 60 camps in 8 African countries, and with approximately 3,000 staff (over 90% of whom are from local communities). We host about 40,000 guests each year.
As our journey progressed, we soon realised what an enormous positive impact we could make through conservation tourism, and this led to the formation of our Impact programmes, Children in the Wilderness and the Wilderness Wildlife Trust, both founded over 20 years ago.
Bringing guests to experience Africa’s wild places enables us to benefit communities through employment and lease fees, purchasing locally sourced produce, running educational programmes in local schools, supporting empowerment programmes and various conservation initiatives, whether these are research-based or developing and funding ways of mitigating human-wildlife conflict.
The ethos of the company, being driven by the purpose of positive impact, has been part of the Wilderness DNA from the very beginning. We believe that we have the most iconic destinations with arguably the best guides and the best wildlife in Africa.
Why did you feel a re-brand was necessary and what has this involved?
We’ve set ourselves an ambitious goal – to double the amount of land we help protect by 2030 – and thereby having an even bigger impact on the world’s wildlife, wilderness and local communities. This meant that it was time to reposition our brand to help us take our core conservation ethos and passion for hospitality to greater heights, and to position ourselves for future global growth. The rebrand process involved an in-depth analysis of our business and where we want to go, many hours of research and debate, many conversations with guests, trade partners, staff and other stakeholders.
We are the same company, just with a more modern and edgy look and feel, an exciting new logo and enhanced brand messaging. Conservation remains our core purpose – that will never change.
What do the camps offer guests from a hospitality point of view?
With over 60 camps in our portfolio, there is a wide range of different offerings, but what remains constant is superb locations in vast, private wilderness areas and immersive design so that our guests feel that they are part of the surrounding landscape. We also pride ourselves in having the best teams in our camps, from the guides to the management staff, to the chefs and housekeepers. We often receive wonderful feedback from guests to say that our staff made the biggest impression on them, even more so than the wildlife. We’ve invested substantially in staff training over the years, for example in Botswana, Wilderness has been operating an in-house Training School, fully accredited by the Botswana Qualification Authority, since 2005. Our in-camp experience naturally includes luxurious guest suites designed with sustainability in mind, our food philosophy is based around celebrating local ingredients and incorporating traditional dishes into our menus and some of our camps have gyms, spas and private plunge pools. We will always continue to place a huge amount of value on our in-camp offering, but our main focus is to immerse our guests in nature and the culture of the place in every way possible.
How important is the interior design of the camps, and how have guest expectations evolved over the years? (is there a design model that you follow or is each camp unique?)
The interior design for each camp is very carefully considered and planned, with each camp having unique elements which are appropriate to the environment in which the camp is located. We incorporate design inspiration from the surrounding landscape, for example at Wilderness Little Kulala in Namibia, the colours and shapes in the design echo those found in the desert around the camp. We also often take inspiration from the culture of the country in which we are building the camps, great examples of this are Wilderness Bisate and Wilderness Magashi in Rwanda, where colours, textures, and various items of furniture were custom-designed to reflect traditional items used in the country. The architecture of Bisate was inspired by the shape of the traditional King’s palace in Rwanda. The specific purpose of the camp is also often reflected in the design, for example at Wilderness DumaTau in Botswana, there are various art and curiosity installations that talk to the camp’s role in the protection of key species in the area, specifically elephant and wild dog.
The interior design should also take sustainability into consideration and naturally our guests have come to expect this. Many of our camps are completely solar-powered, and others use a combination of solar-inverter or battery-inverter hybrid systems. We build our camps with the lightest possible footprint, we use water-efficient bathroom fittings, above-ground sewage treatment plants and reverse osmosis water purification systems for drinking water which negate the need for plastic bottles of water. We incorporate clever tent designs for climate control, such as those we will be using at the new Wilderness Mokete in Botswana, which have multi-layered roofs allowing for natural airflow and cooling, canvas extensions along the sides to create shade, and the bedroom roofs can even slide away so that guests can sleep under the stars in the comfort of their suite.
We’ve seen that guests who travel with us want to feel part of the environment that they find themselves in, they would also like to learn something on their travels and be exposed to different cultures along the way, and it is possible to incorporate a lot of this into the design of the camps. On a more practical note, we also see guests wanting to focus on wellness and being active during their trip, so as mentioned above, some of our camps have gyms and spas (whether dedicated spa facilities or in-room spa treatments).
Who is responsible for the design concepts?
We have an in-house Business Development and Project Management team, and then we also work with a variety of architects, interior designers and artists.
What are the main challenges and considerations when creating a new camp?
We need to build camps with as light a footprint as possible, using renewable energy technology in the form of solar power and water heating; sustainably sourced materials; locally produced food wherever possible and the management of a sustainable supply chain in the business. We need to have access to a water source and also fairly easy access to the area in order to bring building materials in with the least possible environmental impact.
Once we’ve chosen a site for a camp, both an external and internal Environmental Impact Assessment takes place, and once we receive the go ahead, building can begin.
What are the determining factors when choosing a new location?
The foundation of our decision making is underpinned by our group Impact Strategy of protecting the areas under our custodianship; empowering our people to reduce their dependence on natural resources; and educating communities surrounding these areas to improve resilience and support for conservation. When we choose a new location, all of these factors come into play and we take into consideration what sort of positive difference we can make in that location.
We create circuits to diversify the experience. Each area needs to be unique and offer a difference in terms of the ‘in camp’ and ‘out of camp’ experience.
The quality of the area is critical – this could be current quality or future potential. Examples of this would be investing in an existing conservation area such as Wilderness Magashi within Akagera National Park in Rwanda, and also investing in areas for conservation protection and future potential such as Gishwati National Park, also in Rwanda.
We work hard to identify global trends and hone in on what travellers want from their safari experience. This creates a unique experience and drives demand.
We take into consideration the positive impact that any new experience would have on the neighbouring communities through the involvement of our Children in the Wilderness programme and alternative income generation related to tourism and improving community income and welfare.
High end tourism no longer relates to architecture and the size of your room, but rather a diverse experience providing a life changing journey that engages on different levels of conservation and community development.
What was involved in the Vumbura Plains refurbishment?
Extensive refurbishment was done to both the exterior and interiors of Wilderness Vumbura Plains, with the new look and feel specifically designed to celebrate its sense of place and culture. Unique design elements were incorporated to reflect the core purpose of the camp, which is the conservation of this exceptional wilderness area and the wildlife within it, along with the pioneering community partnership with the Okavango Community Trust (OCT), a 20-year partnership that ensures the benefits of conservation tourism are shared with neighbouring rural stakeholders.
Inspiration for the room interiors is drawn from the environment to pay homage to the Okavango Delta – for example, using enlarged Andrea Crawford underwater photographs to clad wardrobe doors and shower screens. The colour palette reflects the blues and greens of the Delta and the new charcoal-coloured mosquito nets and black sanitary ware give the rooms a more contemporary feel. Doors and windows were redesigned to maximise the incredible views of the surrounding landscape, with all furniture and interiors replaced and enhanced to bring nature inside.
The formation of the Okavango Delta and the life it supports has been brought to life on a unique wall installation in the lounge area, as well as through various other artwork, screens and maps. Posters and installations in the main areas pay tribute to the OCT community – showcasing individual stories on their heritage, basket weaving and local fishing culture, as well as a series highlighting the unique species of the area, including sable, cheetah, wild dog, common reed frog, coppery-tailed coucal, and more.
The patterns in the hand-woven basketry each tell a story or depict a particular animal – this is brought to life through an installation on one entire wall of the lounge, as well as another installation above the bar that features some 30 baskets woven by the Vumbura ladies in camp. The colours unique to this community’s crafting style are used to brighten the area, with the dyes all sourced from the surrounding area.
All furniture has been reupholstered or replaced to enhance the colour palette of turquoise, purples and natural tones, while design inspiration was taken from the basket patterning for the steel-cut side tables and screens, marquetry patterns in the coffee tables and bespoke carpets.
As CEO, what does your role involve and what is your main focus at the moment?
One of the main aspects of my role is to ensure that our strategic plan is implemented over the coming years, and handing over the bulk of the day to day operations to my very capable executive committee members. This naturally builds continuity for the long term sustainability of the business, whilst growing capacity and providing mentorship to the younger generation of the Wilderness management team.
A large part of my time is focused on continuing to expand the Wilderness brand into other geographies, and growing our positive impact on conservation and the tourism opportunities that come with this expansion. This means that the majority of my life is spent travelling our regions and exploring new areas for potential expansion.
Could you tell us a little about Mokete camp and what makes it so special?
Wilderness Mokete is going to be remarkable because of its unique location in the Mababe area in Botswana. This is an area with wide open grasslands, with visibility to the horizon not found anywhere else in the country. This is where the Okavango waters spill out into, a flooded area of 2 600 hectares, the only water source for hundreds of miles, which attracts vast multitudes of wildlife, mega herds of buffalo and elephant, zebra migrate through this area, followed by predators such as lion, cheetah and wild dog. Naturally this density of wildlife and predator activity produces a lot of action, guests will be in the thick of things and have a really immersive experience.
This area has never before been utilised for photographic tourism. This means that Wilderness, together with Cobus Calitz, now has the incredibly exciting opportunity to launch photographic safaris here, which will contribute to the conservation of this pristine wilderness area and at the same time, benefit the local community through the payment of lease fees, employment opportunities and other community upliftment initiatives. Secondly, the location of our vast private area (over 50 000 hectares for our sole use), is unknown to travellers who have been to Botswana before, as it is situated to the east of the Okavango Delta and to the south of Chobe National Park, therefore outside of the parts of Botswana that travellers are familiar with.
Another aspect of the camp that makes it unique is that it will be a “limited edition” camp, meaning that it will only operate for two years while we develop the permanent camp that will replace it. Wilderness Mokete will be a minimalist build with the lightest possible footprint, although obviously still offering all the luxurious touches that our guests would expect. When we remove this camp, within a few months there will be no trace that it was ever there. It will have nine en-suite canvas tents, accommodating a maximum of 18 guests. The permanent camp, Wilderness Meraka, will be a larger camp with additional features (to be revealed at a later stage), and will accommodate 24 guests in 10 rooms, including two family units.
Wilderness has an ambitious growth plan – to double the amount of land it helps conserve by 2030. Could you explain what this means and how this can be achieved?
Wilderness is expanding within Africa, and this has already started with new development in Tanzania and further development coming in other countries where we already have a presence, along with opening new camps such as Wilderness Mokete.
We believe that our African model of conservation tourism can work unbelievably well in so many other places, and for the first time, Wilderness is looking at potential acquisitions off the continent of Africa.
We’ve also just recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Carbon Ark and the Zambian Ministry of Green Economy and Environment to launch a carbon storage and sequestration project protecting millions of hectares of Game Management Areas around Kafue National Park. For more detail, please see the press release here.
Who are your clients and what do you believe they are they looking for when they embark on a Wilderness adventure?
Our guests are a mix of couples, some of whom are from the older generation but also younger honeymooners; families, some of them multi-generational or they could be grandparents taking their grandchildren on a special trip; as well as solo travellers. Some of our guests are doing a once-in-a-lifetime trip, others have travelled with us multiple times.
Some guests are simply looking for an exceptional wildlife/nature experience, while others are actively looking to completely immerse themselves in the natural world, to learn something new and to interact with different cultures. Many guests are looking for an escape from their daily lives and to reconnect with nature, with their fellow travellers, and with themselves.
With an obvious commitment to both community and conservation, could you share news of any projects Wilderness is currently working on?
We’ve always existed to protect, explore and expand the world’s wilderness. We channel our conservation and hospitality business as a force for lasting, positive impact. To achieve this, we focus our conservation and community empowerment programmes under three key impact pillars: Educate, Empower and Protect.
“Educate” includes Children in the Wilderness, an educational and life skills programme for rural children in the communities adjacent to the areas in which we operate, and we do this through ongoing Eco-Clubs, school curriculum and infrastructure improvements, literacy centres and other environmental education initiatives. We have just expanded the programme to a new area in Zimbabwe, thereby establishing Eco-Clubs in eight local schools. See the press release on this here.
“Empower” entails many community upliftment and income-generating projects that we help to support. Employment and local small business support reduces reliance on natural resources, which mitigates the knock-on impact on wilderness and wildlife. Wilderness Vumbura Plains is the perfect example of this, and this press release explains why.
“Protect” involves finding ways to facilitate human-wildlife co-existence, and wildlife security programmes, protect people from wildlife – and wildlife from people. This pillar incorporates the Wilderness Trust. An example of this is our recent partnership with a Botswana non-profit, Communities Living Among Wildlife Sustainably, to help reduce human-wildlife conflict in the Okavango Community Trust areas neighbouring Wilderness Vumbura Plains. More info here.
Passion is obviously at the forefront of Wilderness, but what are the biggest challenges Wilderness is facing at the moment and how are they being addressed?
One of our challenges, but this is actually an exciting one, , is guiding and mentoring the future leaders of the business to allow for continuous individual growth. We do this by engaging with the various teams and encouraging individuals to challenge the status quo and experiment with new ways of thinking, thereby bringing new ideas and energy that will enhance the Wilderness brand and our conservation goals.
Another challenge is the ongoing search for the right areas to support our ambitious expansion plan, but this is going well and we believe the future is bright!
What do you hope Wilderness guests take away from their experience with you?
I hope that guests will feel restored and inspired after their experience with Wilderness, that they feel that they have made a connection, with nature and wildlife, with our guides and camp staff, and with their travelling companions and even just with themselves. I also hope that they will feel that they have made a difference to conservation and communities simply by travelling with us, knowing that their trip makes a positive impact. And if we’re able to inspire guests to be more aware of their impact on the planet in a wider sense, that would be humbling.