The South African game lodge industry is one of the country’s biggest tourism drawcards, often offering a unique wildlife experience. However, the challenge for any commercial game lodge is to differentiate itself from its competitors.

The Thornybush Collection, a portfolio of luxury four and five star lodges and wildlife camps situated in the 14 000-hectare game rich Thornybush Private Nature Reserve and the Sabi Sand Reserve, is well aware that a unique bushveld experience, comfortable luxury accommodation and a high quality dining experience need to be considered hygiene factors and that to differentiate the brand it needs to go further.

The Collection has achieved this by placing a greater emphasis – and premium – on its people. In its early years staff turnover at the lodges was relatively high in line with industry trends. This tended to negatively impact guest satisfaction levels.

After a thorough review of the company’s human resources practices eight years ago, its performance and reward programme was overhauled with the result that the Collection began to attract slightly older and more experienced lodge managers. In tandem with this new programme, certain policies had to be amended too such as allowing lodge managers to have children and even pets on site, something that previously had not been encouraged.

This new approach has reaped significant rewards: staff turnover at lodge management level has been significantly reduced and more entrenched and committed lodge management have been empowered to put their personal stamp on the lodge they manage. The impact on guest satisfaction levels has been nothing short of phenomenal. Feedback in the form of guest reviews on the world’s most visited travel website, TripAdvisor, are proof that the vast majority of guests come away from the Thornybush Collection’s lodges having had an exceptionally good experience.

Guest travel reviews make frequent mention of the outstanding game experience with knowledgeable, experienced and friendly rangers, and the warmly welcoming, efficient, accommodating and personable lodge staff who make every effort to anticipate each guest’s needs. So positive are guest reviews on TripAdvisor that the Thornybush Collection receives a Certificate of Excellence from the website each year, something that has become a matter of pride.

It is these unsolicited guest reviews coupled with word of mouth marketing that has done much to grow the Collection’s reputation and demand in the past few years as well as ensuring that travel and tour operators, the Collection’s primary source of bookings, are assured that their customers will have a good experience. The end result has been occupancy levels of just over 70 percent in 2017.

Game lodges and private game reserves are a capital intensive business which means rates within the luxury lodge industry are typically higher than an average city luxury hotel stay. This means travel operators tend to rely only on those lodges with good reputations and with whom they have a proven track record. The Thornybush Collection places significant value on the relationships it has formed over the years with travel and tour operators, to the extent that if a lodge manager anticipates a problem with a guest, this is quickly communicated to head office who then relay the feedback to the travel operator concerned, while at the same time doing everything possible to resolve the issue. Called the ‘Tight Rule’, it’s a policy which has worked extremely well on the very rare occasions it is required.

The political environment and economic uncertainty has done little to dampen demand from international tourists for luxury game lodge experiences in South Africa. For more than 82 percent of guests to Thornybush this is their first experience of the African bushveld and for most visitors, is a profound experience. To the first time visitor the very notion of a bush experience has subconscious connotations of a very simple accommodation experience. It’s therefore not hard to exceed expectations, something the Thornybush Collection excels at with five star amenities, elegant luxury accommodation, good food and warm, welcoming and attentive staff, all coupled with a unique wildlife experience.

Earlier in 2017, Thornybush Private Nature Reserve removed its eastern boundary fence with the Timbavati, which means the reserve is now open to the Greater Kruger Park, offering guests an even richer game experience.
Rhino poaching continues to be a threat faced by all game reserves, including Thornybush. In recent years security has become a significantly bigger cost. Staff working in the reserve are required to take lie detector tests – and those who fail twice are barred entry from the reserve – and guests are requested not to use their mobile phones while on game drives so that their location details are not transmitted.

In keeping with the philosophy that sustainable brands are those that do good,the Thornybush Collection is involved in a number of community initiatives including two community food gardens which supply fresh vegetables and herbs to the lodges as well as local clinics and schools.

Occupancy levels at Thornybush Collection’s lodges have been positively impacted recently by greater accessibility in the form of increased flights from South Africa’s major cities to Hoedspruit, the closest airport, including for the first time a daily Cemair flight from both Johannesburg and Cape Town starting in August 2017.