Dream now reality among Kalahari sand dunes

SJ and Denise Koortzen of Kgalagadi Lodge. (Supplied)
SJ and Denise Koortzen of Kgalagadi Lodge. (Supplied)

Cape Town - SJ Koortzen is the co-founder and co-developer of the Kgalagadi Lodge in the Kalahari.

He describes it as the amalgamation of rugged terrain and luxury.

Kgalagadi Lodge is situated 250km north of the Upington airport and only 5km from the popular Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.

Fin24 talked to SJ about his experiences as entrepreneur in the tourism industry.

Tell us more about yourself.

As a child, my passion for hospitality transpired from visiting my grandparents at their lodge. The relaxed atmosphere – albeit with a range of available activities – is what planted the seed for my interest and love in the industry. I was born in Upington and moved to Cape Town to study marketing management at Tygerberg College.

My parents, Koos and Suzette Koortzen owned a farm called, Dreghorn. When I finished my studies, I went to the UK for a year. When I returned, I knew that we had to incorporate more into the farm to maximise profits.

We then opened our first lodge called Dreghorn Kalahari Game Ranch. At Dreghorn I quickly learned a lot about the hospitality industry, and it also made me realise that this is what I want to do.

I then met my wife, Denise, who started helping us out almost every weekend and in the holidays. She immediately also fell in love with the industry. We make a great team when it comes to wining, dining and hosting guests.

We soon realised that there is not enough growth potential and that we would need a better location.

We visited Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which was close to the farm, numerous times and always noticed how full the accommodation became and that there is a high demand for more accommodation in the area.

A new road to the Kgalagadi was also under construction at that time, and we knew that traffic would only increase and so would the demand for accommodation. This made us decide to open up our own lodge close to the park next to the new road to cater for guests wanting to experience the park, but who got turned away due to limited accommodation.

The location itself is so beautiful - surrounded by the red sand dunes of the Kalahari and overlooking the Botswana border. We knew from our first visit to the location that the spot had a lot of potential to create the ideal desert haven where modern accommodation can meet wilderness.

I can honestly say that my passion for hospitality and Kgalagadi Lodge is truly visible in the many roles and responsibilities that I have to cover on a daily basis to ensure that the lodge runs smoothly and that guests are content.

How did you become an entrepreneur?

I don’t think I became an entrepreneur, I think it is in my personality. I’m a very driven person, who is always on the lookout for the next great business opportunity.

I always feel accountable for any and all problems and complaints, and it sometimes makes me feel like a failure and for me failing is not an option. I will not rest until every problem is resolved.

I’m an extremely organised person and always looking at how I can improve – and that is how I run my business as well.

The opportunity presented itself to start Kgalagadi Lodge when we were still managing Dreghorn Kalahari Game Ranch. We supplied bottled water and wood to the shop in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park at that stage and spoke to the owner, who told us that it is really difficult to get accommodation in the park on short notice because it is always fully booked.

We then decided we wanted to develop a nature-friendly yet contemporary lodge near the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, offering guests accommodation who want to visit the park, but cannot get accommodation.

End of 2011 my parents sold their hunting farm, which gave us the opportunity to start with Kgalagadi Lodge in 2012.

My wife and I did everything ourselves to get Kgalagadi Lodge up and running: research, planning, building, the décor, everything you can possibility think of we not only managed but were actually physically involved with. We worked really hard to get everything ready to open our doors in August of 2012.

What were the challenges?

It was not an easy journey. My wife and I lived in a single caravan for four months onsite during the harsh winter with only an outside shower, while the building of the lodge took place. We did this to make sure that we were able to supervise and ensure that the lodge was built according to our vision.

We also had some tough times with the planning of the lodge. It felt like it was taking forever to sort out all of the logistics such as the environmental impact study (EIA), rezoning, sub-division of the property and the list goes on.
The distance also had a great impact on the construction and development of the lodge, which affected original cost estimates or even sometimes made it difficult to plan or budget.

After opening the lodge, one of our biggest obstacles has been the lack of skilled labour due to where we are situated. We soon realised that so much more time should be spent on training our staff than what we initially planned for.

Most of our staff are employed from the nearby communities and most of them have never even worked in a professional environment before. We really had to invest in getting them the necessary training, specifically in the hospitality industry. Therefore, we started offering workshops and in-service training.

We have come a long way and learnt a lot from these challenges.

What is your recipe for success?

I believe that through hard work comes great success. Be organised, be motivated and be involved in all departments and operations of your business. Do your research, identify your market, create a business plan and implement your plan.  

Listen more than you talk, for this will give you different and new insights in life and it will also give you a better perspective about your market. It is necessary for you to be informed about what is happening in the industry - both locally and abroad. Make sure you read a lot.

What trends do you see in the industry?

I believe the industry will have positive growth over the next few years, especially with excitement-seeking travellers from abroad. The reason for this will be because of the exchange rate that makes South Africa a prime and cheaper holiday destination.

The Fifa World Cup Soccer in 2010 already started having a great impact on people’s perception of South Africa and made international travellers realise that it is a fantastic and beautiful holiday destination and not as bad as it is always portrayed in the media.

I do also predict that there will be a small decrease in business travelling (locally and internationally) until our economy stabilises and governmental issues are resolved.

What are your future plans?

We believe in dreaming big and always striving to offer the best in what we do.

Kgalagadi Lodge currently offers a variety of 28 chalets: 4-star family chalets, 3-star luxury, standard and business chalets, as well as a 4-star campsites with a swimming pool and fire pit. We also have a 50-seater restaurant offering authentic, South African cuisine and a fully-stocked grocery shop. This has all been part of phase one.

Now we are in the process of starting with phase two where we will be building conference facilities, upgrading existing accommodation and offering more activities for our guests.

Our future plan is also to get more involved in the conservation of the region.

Any advice for entrepreneurs in the tourism industry?

Make sure you do comprehensive research on what type of product and/or service you would like to offer. Site location is extremely important. Also make sure you know what natural recourse and services are available. Plan everything - the location where you would like to create your establishment, the type of guests you would like to attract, and more.

The more knowledge you have about what you want to do the better you would be able to manage your business. Make sure to implement your research into your business plan. Also make sure that your vision of what you want to achieve is possible with the natural resources available at your site.

Once your lodge is ready, the actual hard work of managing it through all of the different growing phases starts. When you open your doors and start operating you have to start implementing all the different business aspects from marketing all the way to human resources.  It is very important to always keep time in mind to train staff before you open your doors.

It is very important to make sure everyone knows the structure of the company and where they fit in. Each employee needs a job description – specific positions that you know are necessary.
It is also very important to make sure that each employee understands what their role is and what is expected of them on a daily basis.

Anything else?

When someone asked me the other day, what I would say has been my key achievement with Kgalagadi Lodge, I could honestly answer: The mere completion of the project thus far was an achievement in itself and the compliments we receive from satisfied guests are what drive us to ensure that we deliver on guest satisfaction in every aspect.

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