Weathering the Storm – by Judi Groenewald

Dearest Fellow-Waterbergers and Friends,

As I’m sitting outside under the trees, listening to the wind and looking at the various birds and butterflies going about life in my little bush backyard, I can’t help thinking:

“I didn’t think my first blog entry would be during an international pandemic shutting down the very industry we are all so dependent on…”

The COVID-19 outbreak in China was like a far off thunderstorm – you could see it was coming and you were going to get caught in it, but you had no idea how intense the storm would be once it hit.  And like being caught in any storm, you hope that the worst is done by the time it gets to you.

I could spend the rest of this blog engaging in speculation about how long the outbreak will last, how many people will die, how badly our economy will suffer, how many of our local tourism businesses will drown and how long the market will take to recover.  But I think there are enough people doing that at this stage – my Facebook feed, mailbox and WhatsApp is overrun with these speculated scenario’s and prophecies.

Instead, I would like us to refocus on what must be done, now and after the storm has passed. We all must go on and one step at a time, keep fighting on.  If we don’t, it is not only our own livelihoods, but also that of our employees and the other businesses dependant on us who will suffer.   Without droning on, I’d like to remind you of the spider-web analogy:

Instead of thinking of our tourism industry as a pie, rather imagine it as a spider-web.  The web is delicate but efficient as it is attached to various points. If there is a stir or touch on one part of the web, the whole web vibrates, and the spider, ever alert, is ready in the blink of an eye to catch its prey.  If the web pulls lose or is broken at any point, it is no longer functioning effectively, and the spider is unable to feel the vibrations or effectively trap its prey.  We are all components and part of that tourism web.  If one of us does something good or bad, the rest of us will feel the impact.  Bad service at one establishment in our area can give the whole area a bad reputation…  And where the web breaks, we can no longer lure and “trap” our visitors to stay with us.  The whole network is down, and everyone suffers.

As a community we are all inter-dependant in one way or another – we all buy goods for our tourism businesses in town.  Groceries from SPAR, or Choppies, or Sentra, we buy hardware from BuildIt, Obaro or NTK, gas and toiletries from Tidy World, have a coffee at Die Kooperasie and Syringa or a beer at Hunters Hide.  We go out with our families for new dishes at the Social Bistro and to buy clothes at Pep or Ackerman’s…  We are entwined in a complicated relationship of competition and dependence.

And for that very reason, we need to stand together.  That was one of the motivations for starting Waterberg Tourism.  By marketing our area and creating a desirable destination, a greater benefit could be had for all.  And now, even our existence is in jeopardy…

So how can we save tourism in the Waterberg?  What can we do, as a community and as induvial businesses to weather the storm?

Firstly, keep supporting local wherever possible.  If you know someone who sells good vegetables and chicken locally, support them first.  Do you need a service done; maintenance completed?  Is there a local who can help?

Secondly, have a look at your own business model.  The two main things you can try and exercise some control over is your revenue (income) and costs (expenditure).

When considering your revenue, look at the following:

  • How well do you know your market segments? Who are your guests really, when do they usually travel and who is most likely to return to your establishment?  How can you welcome them back with added value as soon as lockdown is lifted?
  • Be careful at slashing your rates/prices haphazardly. Remember people are not travelling because they are not allowed to travel; most of them really would like to travel now.  So lower rates won’t stimulate demand right now and it has proven time and again that establishments that sacrifice rates to drive occupancy levels (during a crises) suffer deeper losses in profit and take longer to recover. Think clearly and carefully how you will adapt prices if you feel the need to AFTER lockdown.
  • Be flexible with your cancellation and postponement policies. Always encourage guests to rather postpone and reschedule and be lenient during this time of uncertainty as there are global lockdowns of various lengths, and we’re not out of ours just yet.
  • Be ready to take full advantage of re-scheduled events and start brainstorming innovative ways you can draw locals to the Waterberg.

Cutting costs is usually our first instinct and many business owners climb in with a panga, slashing ruthlessly.  We need to be smart at cutting costs as we are at stimulating and preserving our income streams:

  • Curb your marketing spending for the duration of COVID-19. Don’t go crazy with full page colour ads, or massive Facebook ad campaigns because people CANNOT travel, no matter how much they would like to. I didn’t say stop marketing, I said curb your spending.  Keep your communications channels open with beautiful Instagram images, insightful Facebook posts and informative and social emails; don’t stop talking to your target market, but don’t insist on selling the whole time.  Often, gently reminding guests of great experiences had can be a more effective sell.
  • Take advantage of all the subsidies, tax breaks, UIF offers, payment holidays and low to no-interest loans you can, and that fits into your business model. Don’t make unnecessary debts if you don’t need to (by taking loans right now) but do your homework and see where you can get a bit of an expenditure break.  The more money you can channel into your cash flow, the longer your business can survive.
  • If you do have spare capital, now is a good time to invest in your property with improvements that will increase property value. Don’t rush into a major refurb now, but look at fixing those fences and gates, going onto solar power, fixing that borehole and doing essential maintenance you’ve been postponing.

In all of this, keep your ears to the ground and your eyes on the news to see what the competition is doing (not just around the corner, but in the rest of South Africa, Africa and the world), as well as the latest developments in the industry as a whole.

Fourthly, educate yourself and your staff with additional training where possible.  You will be surprised how many free or low-cost online training there is available.  And don’t forget the value of just simply reading – there is much to be learned from a good article or free PDF guide online.  Review some of your old textbooks or industry magazines as well.

And “check your tech” – are you using technology to your advantage?  Are there new solutions to old problems your business has been facing, and are you getting the most from the software you use, your Facebook and Instagram, your automated diary and reservations systems?

There is a lot of uncertainty, but we must take courage, hold fast to the hope that has been set before us: This will pass and when it does, we must be ready to receive our guests again. We can come out of this better and stronger.

We have everything at our disposal: amazing natural resources, stunning scenery and climate, welcoming and warm communities and people, and proximity to major domestic and international markets.

I believe now is the opportunity for the Waterberg to step up and onto the stage, and by the time people can take a walk outside their yard again, we’ll make sure they’ll want to do it here!

Chat again soon!  Keep safe!

Judi, and the Waterberg Tourism Team

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