Tourism entrepreneur Brett Gehren has learnt the hard way, but today runs four thriving lodges, has bounced back from the pandemic, and would like nothing more than for the government to raise the tourism flag for KZN.
If anyone in government has ears to hear the real deal about tourism in KZN, they would do well to visit Brett Gehren, an entrepreneur from Dundee who runs four thriving high-end lodges that employ 155 people.
Gehren was a “jeep jockey” game ranger whose passion for tourism has helped him create a thriving business and expose thousands of tourists to the gems KZN has to offer.
A quick summary of 54-year-old Gehren’s story: after he did a commerce degree he worked as a game ranger with Mike Rattray. He followed that with a stint travelling abroad and returned home to work with his neighbour, Dave Rattray (and Mike Rattray’s son) at Fugitive’s Drift Lodge.
In 1992 Gehren and his wife Paige bought a small farm nearby on the Buffalo River and started Isibindi Rafters – isibindi being the isiZulu word for courage. The Gehrens built a lodge on their farm and by 2005 had built another two. They now run three lodges in northern KZN: Kosi Forest, Rhino Safari and Thonga Beach. They also run Tsowa Island on the Zimbabwe side of Victoria Falls.
In 2000 they successfully tendered for a site in Kruger National Park and built Rhino Post Safari Lodge and other properties which they sold in 2020.
It is well documented how Covid dramatically impacted the hospitality sector and Isibindi was amongst the many hit hard. But Gehren learnt valuable lessons in the pandemic. Deep relationships with long-serving staff meant he was able to navigate changes to working conditions to survive. It meant paying for time worked, rather than a salary, but with a profit share.
What started out as a means to survive has become a mechanism for prosperity.
“Business is unbelievable right now. We were running at 80% capacity in July and those figures are not far from March. It is phenomenal. I expected we’d come back by July next year, but the rebound came a year earlier.”
Apart from moving salaries from a fixed to variable cost, Covid also opened up a new market. Before the pandemic lockdowns, about 80% of Isibindi’s patrons were foreigners. In lockdown, Isibindi dropped rates by 30% and lured in locals.
“It made us appreciate how strong the domestic market is and that we have to pay it more attention. During Covid, we couldn’t travel abroad and a lot of us realised what incredible places there are locally.”
Gehren believes the government should seize the opportunity to work more with the private sector to create more tourism offerings. Since 2015, three new lodges have opened around Hluhluwe/Umfolozi, including one of Isibindi’s.
“There should be 20 or 30, not two or three. The government could do a lot more. They should privatise more. It can take up to 10 years to get a concession and build a lodge. It takes years to get permits to operate game vehicles. Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has amazing assets. The Wilderness Trails, for example, could be running at five times the current capacity. The Hluhluwe/Umfolozi area should be like Kruger. Sanparks has done a great job of privatisation.
“There is an opportunity for tourism to fly in KZN but the government is slow and reluctant to offer private concessions. We made good progress with Ravi Pillay (as MEC for tourism) but he’s moved on and we’ll have to start from scratch. It is a bit disheartening when you consider the opportunities lost. Most of the private sector is committed to conservation and advancing the sector, but at the end of the day people have businesses to run so they can’t spend hours petitioning politicians.”
Gehren says tourism authorities have to do more than broadly promote the KZN brand and tourism. They have to help develop more products. At the heart of lasting, impactful tourism is community engagement. For Gehrens it is about dropping fences, literally and figuratively.
“Fences create the mentality of them and us. We have to integrate. It’s not easy and there are lots of challenges, but we have to get to a place where we all protect nature and wildlife instead of an us-and-them attitude.”
Tourism is not only about creating jobs, and Gehren would rather see better opportunities for people to grow. Apart from the people directly employed at Isibindi, the company has a host of service providers, local companies doing everything from providing curios to running transfers.
Guests rave, Gehren says, because the people they engage with are deeply invested in what they do. “Service is embedded in our psyche. We know tourism is our livelihood. The guests bring us money.”
Gehren says he’d rather employ “fewer people and let them shine than create more jobs for the sake of it and have people loitering around earning a measly salary”. “Our people make the business work. Sometimes fewer people with more responsibility are more efficient.
“I get excited about the opportunities we have and the community partnerships. It has created prosperity. I engage with four inkosi (tribal leaders) and any one of them might call me at any given time to say they have broken down and need help with a tow, for example. Corporates don’t do that sort of thing. Small businesses closely aligned with communities will do that. The government needs to open up more opportunities in tourism. There is a one in 10 success rate and people run out of patience and resources.”
Big influencers in Gehren’s career
“My dad ran the Toyota franchise and a petrol station in Dundee. I saw him operate tightly and grow with meagre assets. At Mala Mala, Mike Rattray was a hard taskmaster. He insisted people deliver the best possible service. Dave Rattray enchanted people by connecting them with beautiful places that have real impact.”
Gehren’s top places to visit in KZN
“Other than Isibindi’s three resorts I rate the Injisuthi mountains in the Drakensberg. I love walks at full moon along the Maputuland beaches and in the Umfolozi wilderness. I have slept on top of Isandlawana with my three sons. That was amazing. Kayaking down the Buffalo River is something. Walking in the Ntumeni Forest in Eshowe is fantastic. There are stunning places, but safety can be challenging at times.”