Meet SJ Koortzen, Kgalagadi Lodge co-owner
Kgalagadi Lodge, situated between the red sand dunes of the Kalahari, is the ideal desert haven where modern meets wilderness. Two-hundred and fifty kilometres away from Upington Airport, and only five kilometres from the popular Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, this family-owned and operated lodge is perfectly located for excitement-seeking travellers.
Thank you to SJ Koortzen, the co-owner and developer of Kgalagadi Lodge for taking a moment from his busy schedule to talk about his lodge in the Northern Cape…
Where did it all begin between yourself and the lodge?
For me it started when I was still young, it was always a dream of mine to build a lodge, I think it must be the atmosphere you find at a lodge, relaxed, I did not realize then that this is only when you are a guest and not an owner.
Who played a role in your love affair with the lodge and why?
My grandparents had a lodge in the region and it is where it all started for me. Even now thinking back the whole feel of the lodge and the atmosphere is what changed my childhood dream of becoming a pirate to being a lodge owner.
So many people played a role, my wife, Denise doing all the décor, the style she chose were amazing, I am not one for the old African lodge feel, and did something more modern and contemporary. She is always by my side supporting me when things got a bit tough and gave all the necessary support. My parents that stood with us and guided us financially and helped where they could, my parents in-law always helping to source or store something in Upington when we needed something and could not get time to get something in Upington, they came to visit and help us a lot at the site and we could always count on their support.
Walk us through the journey of your first lodge…
Where do one begin? Nothing can prepare you for the massive task that laid before us. My Dad was a farmer, but I always saw him more like a businessman, he always had new ideas and he will always do it and make it work. He always believed in me, and help me build a small lodge on his game farm, when I just returned from the UK. We managed the lodge from 2006 to 2012. One year in we realised that the location of the lodge is not ideal and made a big decision to sell the lodge and build one at a better location. We looked at a few sites and with a bit of research and the new tar road just finished to the park we found the perfect spot only 5 km from the park.
With the new site identified, we put the old lodge and game farm up for sale and started with the rezoning and the environmental impact analyses of the piece of land. After rezoning and the EIA were done we started with the subdivision of the piece of land. From starting in 2008 it took us 4 years just to get all the legal aspects in place to start the lodge.
From there everything fell in place, 2 days after receiving the bank guarantee for the farm sale, we received the deed of the new piece of land.
How did you finance it and for how much?
We were lucky enough to borrow money from dad and we managed to agree on an interest rate that benefit both parties.
Between the period when you started and now, how has the industry changed?
I think where we are situated and how SANParks operate their booking system that you can only book six month in advance opened a big market for us with international tour operators, we slowly see a movement towards more international clients.
This is a move in the right direction for us as the South African economy is under an immense amount of strain and local travellers are getting fewer by the day.
SANParks now have a new system in place which only let’s in 20 vehicles per day as day visitors, especially in busy seasons. I think this will have a huge decrease in tourism in our region.
Your honest opinion between Airbnb vs hotels or lodges?
You have so many different views from different people, for us running an establishment like this we have a certain expectancy when it comes to accommodation. We travel far because of where we live, we tend to go more for well establish lodges or hotels where we know there is a certain standard.
Since becoming a lodge owner, what have been your memorable milestone(s)?
The first phase of the lodge was the hardest for us, because we only used local contractors and also not coming from a building background, there were a few issues that we figured out with time as we went. When the second phase started we were ready and everything moved along much smoother.
We will never forget the first night all 12 chalets were fully booked, we then knew we made the right decision opening the lodge.
What has been your unforgettable challenge being a lodge owner?
Training the team, you can never be prepared for the effort that needs to go into skilling uneducated staff for the first time. We used local people and the industry was new to them, it really took a lot of time, but today we have the best team and I am so proud of each and every one of them.
How do you stay motivated in such a competitive industry?
We always see competition as a good thing it keeps you on your toes and drove us to where we are today, we want to be the best, competition drive us to work harder and harder every day.
How many souls does your lodge feed?
We have 30 permanent staff working for us and a few seasonal workers in the really busy months. For us and the location we are in, it goes a lot further than only 30 people. The local community are poor and job opportunities very scarce, Kgalagadi Lodge’s salaries added up to nearly 2 million rand for 2016 and is estimated to 2.4 million for 2017. This money will uplift the whole community, families are opening own little businesses and have money to keep children in school. New skills are learned by staff which are transferred to their families. Since Kgalagadi Lodge opened, it had a massive impact on the standard of living for our community.
OTA’s vs direct bookings…where do you stand on third parties?
Direct bookings are better because OTA’s can be very expensive, but OTA’s give you better exposure to the market, especially when you are a new lodge and still need to create the necessary awareness.
Where are the opportunities for new lodges in the local market, if any?
I think it depends on what kind of lodge you are looking to establish, if you want a sleepover lodge that is a halfway stop or an alternative to a certain attraction or if u want to do a game lodge and be an attraction.
For the first one you need to identify the road to the attraction that is mostly travelled and distances. Look at the trend of the travellers and do your research. You have the traveller that leave early in the mornings, see how far they are willing to travel in a day, or the traveller that leave Friday after work and how far they can travel. Use this to identify a location. Then you have a lodge like ours that are very close to an attraction and give the travellers an alternative to where he can stay. It can be because of price, service, and luxury or just to fill the days the client have for their holiday. Lots of our clients have a specific amount of days but cannot get accommodation for the whole duration in the park, they combine it with staying with us to fill their days.
As a lodge manager, what gives you sleepless nights?
At this stage it must be our economy and the rising prices for services, equipment and products.
How do you unwind after a busy day in the office?
A day in the office usually starts at 06:30 and end at 21:30, coming home from the office, me and my wife quickly grab something to eat and of course watch Binnelanders on my wife’s request that has been recorded, before going to bed.
When we have some time off, we love travelling, doing outdoor activities, we both love fishing and spend time with family and friends.
Which is your preferred accommodation (hotel or lodge) brand when travelling locally and why?
Lodge. I think we like the lodge atmosphere and it is also something to compare to our lodge and it is nice to see new ideas and how people put their ideas to reality.
You need to know what is trending and it is much cheaper learning from someone else’s mistakes.