Andrew Attwood from Antbear Eco Lodge gives some great insight into being a accommodation provider in South Africa today.

Please tell us about yourself, your history and your connection to your property.

I am Andrew Attwood owner of Antbear Lodge (https://www.antbear.co.za) situated in the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa. I am passionate about sustainability and Eco-tourism and have built our lodge from scratch starting with an abandoned ruin some 20 years ago. We have built using alternative building practices from materials available on the property like straw bales, rammed earth, sun-dried bricks and more. We even cut the thatch for the roof on the property. We subscribe as much as possible to the farm to plate concept. We cook all our meals from scratch and have our own organic vegetable garden. We have our own chickens for eggs, cows for milk and bake our own bread and we even make our own cheese. I simply am not aware of a place anywhere in the world that is as self-sufficient as Antbear Lodge.

Andrew and Conny Attwood

What do you think makes your property unique?

What makes our lodge particularly special is that we offer accommodation in a luxury cave. This is an accommodation unit built under a rock. Glass doors open onto a wooden deck with hammock chairs and a spectacular view of the Drakensberg Mountains. This is a luxury eco experience. The cave is cosy and comfortable with features like a Jacuzzi spa bath and a fireplace and even has rock art on its walls. We offer a private dining experience where we set up a table on the deck of your cave and you dine by candlelight under the stars. Antbear Lodge also offers horse trails ideally suited to beginners. Hot air balloon flights launch from the lawn in front of the lodge and our newest attraction is our star gazing hammock camp where we tell the Zulu stories of the stars.

What have you learned in the accommodation industry, that you wish you knew five years ago?

These last 12 months have been a sharp learning curve for us. Having lost 100% of our market before covid, which was all international clients, we have had to restart the business from scratch trying to pivot into the domestic market. Our survival depends on us achieving this. It means changing the business model from B2B using agents into direct sales on a B2C basis targeted at the domestic market. Turns out that this model has a more than 150% better profit margin over working through the trade channels, not having to pay 25%-30% commissions.

What do you think you are doing right that makes your establishment stand out?

We are surviving the pandemic and have a proactive plan, with a vision to come out of the tourism crisis stronger than before. I don’t know many places that even have any sort of plan. We have also started to change our product to be better suited to the domestic market capitalising on pet friendly and self-catering.

What is your approach to marketing?

We are doing this through destination marketing and building an own destination-related email database. Its long term thinking but will become invaluable. We are doing this through a Drakensberg competition https://survey.accommodation-drakensberg.co.za which we are using to subscribe interested consumers to an automated email series that creates Drakensberg awareness. This email series positions us as destination experts and builds trust with our audience building a marketing asset that we can then use with offers for our lodge. Collaboration is key, and so far over 6 month period accumulated 18000 email addresses.

Luxury cave interior

What do you do in the off-season to make your business work?

Right now, there is only off-peak season. Even periods that are traditionally busy like Easter and Christmas have fallen flat for tourism, and while we all had some bookings over these peak periods, lodges were booked at better than 50% occupancy. We are offering as much as 50% discounted rates. 

Do you do any overseas marketing, and if so, how do you approach it?

Pre covid our guests were 100% international. I would spend approximately 3 weeks a year to various source markets in Europe on marketing trips, usually combined with a trade show/ road trips with agent appointments. Additionally, we attend Indaba in Durban and WTMA in Cape Town each year. 

How do you stay in touch with previous guests?

We have recently started a newsletter but as we have only recently started to capture domestic client contact details. We still have a very small email database of customers. Domestic guests are currently the only available market. Foreign guests, we simply send quarterly reports of what’s going on at Antbear Lodge.

What do you do to get bookings directly from guests?

We are offering 30-50% discounted deals. We also use the destination database to get the word out. By my calculation, this database needs to get to 50000 before a single email shot will have a significant impact.  Destination marketing is long term as not all potential clients that are on the list are in the buying window right now, so perhaps over time, a lower number of subscribers will be required.

Employees are very important, but what are your biggest criteria when employing somebody?

Attitude. We employ people from the local area as part of our sustainability ethos. It’s a rural and economically depressed region so there is a zero skill base that can be hired, resulting in a huge training effort on our part. This has resulted in a very loyal employee base.

Is there something that stands out in your philosophy concerning the industry, something you can teach people, or particular insight you have gained that you would like to share?

Collaboration is key. I now look at my competitors as partners and try to build on these relationships more, especially in regards to destination marketing where I share the benefits to anyone who will cooperate.