Meet the Mavericks from 2017 is a series that reveals the world-changing work and invaluable insights behind the revolutionaries who took away a trophy at last year’s PURE Awards.
In the series’ fourth edition we caught up with Alex Walters from Great Plains Conservation, who represented his company at the PURE Awards and took home the Innovation and Marketing Award for their Great Plains’ Vinyl Revival campaign. Find out how his audacious approach, wicked sense of humour, and zest for constant improvement has shaped and nurtured Great Plains in its musical marketing endeavours.
Tell us about your winning project – how does it Change Worlds?
Great Plains won the Innovative and Engaging Marketing Award for its Vinyl Revival campaign. It started off as a series of four e-newsletters to attract appointments for ITB Berlin – an old school–style trade show, unlike PURE. The campaign was primarily geared at European agents, and contained a new Great Plains vinyl album of all of our new- and future-release tracks on Side 1 (new camps and conservation programmes); and all the classic tracks that you know and love on Side 2 (such as Zarafa, ol Donyo Lodge and other hits). There were references to Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy and well-known German artists like Kraftwerk. Each email campaign had updates, music press reviews, and a status updating recipients on how fast Great Plains ‘gig dates; (appointment days at ITB) were selling out as we got closer to the show. The agents were also enticed to pick up a limited edition supplementary book to go with the album.
The result was a full appointment schedule, but also more than that. No one actually got a physical album (sorry Lianne, Paul and Ryan at Beyond Luxury!); instead, they got a digital listen and viewing on my Mac, as well as receiving a beautifully themed Great Plains brochure, the style of which followed the design of the accompanying keynote presentation in the brochure. In the presentation, the buyer was in control: they could lift the arm of the turntable and drop the needle on whichever track they wanted to hear. That way, no two presentations were the same, and I didn’t get to sound like a broken record. Change is good. Just think: if it wasn’t, we’d still be seeing the best advert of all time shown on TV, that of the Secret Lemonade Drinker (1970s ad for R. White’s Lemonade). And in 2018, Great Plains sees a different theme and presentation. It’s a new game, which keeps me amused – and for the agent listening, it’s not like being Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.
“In the presentation, the buyer was in control: they could lift the arm of the turntable and drop the needle on whichever track they wanted to hear. That way, no two presentations were the same, and I didn’t get to sound like a broken record”
When you’re setting out to change worlds, you have to start with one person and one person’s idea: I feel very lucky and privileged to work in a culture where I have free reign in submitting ideas, good or bad. Ideas with an 80 per cent chance of success are considered too safe. It is those ideas that have an 80 per cent chance of failure and a 20 per cent chance of success that are the ones we like. So, in the context of the Great Plains’ Vinyl Revival campaign, there was a chance that many of those on the receiving end of the e-newsletter campaign and associated interactive, track-selecting vinyl record concept of a presentation would not understand it (perhaps because of my British sense of humour); but for those who did get it, engage, laugh and enjoy the presentation, then they were probably our target audience. If the Vinyl Revival campaign then helped the agents that we reached out to for support over the course of 2017 remember Great Plains – perhaps for being a conservation-focused, independent, slightly quirky company, who tell their clients about what they do to Change Worlds for the better through their conservation initiatives, and why they operate where they do – then that’s a good start. The award looks great under the spotlight on my mantelpiece, too.
What did winning a PURE Award mean to Great Plains Conservation?
Whilst the shortlist was being read out at the Sofitel Marrakech, I said to my colleague Hilton Walker that if we should win, we should be dignified in accepting the award. “Cool, calm and collected”, I said. “Be like the Jouberts (Great Plains co-founders and Emmy Award–winning wildlife filmmakers)”. After [we won], I went nuts and nearly fell in the pool. Hilton said to me, “What happened to cool, calm and collected… ?” It meant a lot to me.
“After [we won], I went nuts and nearly fell in the pool. Hilton said to me, “What happened to cool, calm and collected… ?” It meant a lot to me”
Winning has that effect, and it rubs off throughout the company. To win such a prestigious industry and peer-voted award means that we’re doing something right. Just to be shortlisted for selection in the first place, and the seriousness of which each application is vetted and critiqued by such a notable panel, means that each of the shortlisted companies and projects should be proud of their recognition.
What does transformation mean to Great Plains Conservation? How do you know when a guest is transformed?
First and foremost, transforming the environment and land use to the benefit of wildlife, habitat and communities. When we look at areas to operate in, the first question asked is, “How can we improve this area for the better?” For example, the change in land use from highly consumptive practices (hunting) to non-consumptive, sustainable practices (photographic safaris) is one of the core tenets of Great Plains Conservation. Dereck Joubert, CEO of Great Plains, has written a conclusive paper on how the transformation of the once-marginal Selinda Reserve – located in Northern Botswana – from a largely consumptive hunting reserve to a photographic safari spot provides over 100 times the income and benefits to the country and communities compared to what hunting previously brought in. In addition, no animal is taken out of the system by human greed to be stuffed above a mantelpiece (the PURE Award looks way better there, thank you), so wildlife has flourished, transforming the Selinda Reserve into one of Africa’s premier wildlife reserves – provided skills training for staff and greater communities and services are supported. We have already started this same process with a huge, former hunting reserve called Sapi, to the east of Mana Pools in the Lower Zambezi Valley, where we’re initially developing a mobile expedition, with permanent camps to follow.
Secondly, we are seeing increasingly that guests are really informed by their agents about why they have been sent to a Great Plains camp, and agents are asking, “How can our guest help in any way whilst they are there?” This could be by supporting our Great Plains Foundation work over and above staying at the camp (which, by the way, helps tremendously – just being there). We have a solar lantern project, which is helping to transform villagers’ lives in Botswana. Guests could simply buy them at our curio shops, and we will deliver them on behalf of the guest. But we have also seen agents arrange for their guests to buy a consignment of these lanterns, and fly the guests with the consignment from the camps and physically give the gifts to the appreciative families. It transforms the communities and the donors at the same time.
Thirdly, we arrange transformative activities, in which both agents and future guests participate. In May 2017, and again in May 2018, we will be operating a series of four-day mountain bike rides from Amboseli National Park to the Chyulu Hills called Ride for Lions. One hundred per cent of the entrance fee is tax-deductable, and will go to the Great Plains Foundation to support predator compensation funds and widen a wildlife corridor between the two national parks, which is the very area that guests will be riding through.
And finally, we find that guests who visit our camps and experience the wildlife and various activities in the reserves that we operate in become ambassadors for our brand – they repeat-visit, or travel to another one of our camps and tell their friends. They engage with us and we engage with them in order to spread the word that wildlife is under constant pressure from human population growth and encroachment into wildlife areas, poaching and hunting.
Does the high-end travel industry have a responsibility to protect our planet? What’s your advice on this – where should brands begin?
We all have a responsibility to protect our planet, individuals and the travel industry alike. China, for example, has recently announced that it will no longer process household waste from outside its borders, and has also banned the import and processing of ivory. The UK hastily reacted by imposing five-pence charges for the use of plastic bags, but has yet to ban all ivory imported pre-1947! The knock-on effect is happening – and while there is lobbying for a total ban, I just hope it happens quickly, and it starts with individuals becoming collective and lobbying authorities for change.
And, likewise, there is definitely a trend for environmental consciousness when choosing travel suppliers. Over the last few years in particular, I’ve seen tour operators grow their social and environmental responsibilities by choosing charitable projects to support and by being really selective when choosing the partners they want to work with. I recently received a ‘Supplier’s Code of Conduct’ document to sign from a leading luxury tour operator, covering aspects of environmental practices, human rights, labour conditions and slavery. It was absolutely right.
My advice for tour operators is to research those suppliers you already work with and those you are thinking of working with on how they score in such categories, and focus on those who meet exacting standards. It will win you business over agents/operators who have not done such due diligence. When you are talking ‘high-end’ travel, you are mostly dealing with educated and informed guests. Support charitable projects that are dear to your company’s heart, and publicise this on your website, brochure and social media. It’s brilliant PR for your brand, too.
“Support charitable projects that are dear to your company’s heart, and publicise this on your website, brochure and social media”
For suppliers, it’s a move towards sustainability; renewable technologies; sourcing locally as much as possible; and asking what they can do for the health of their local environment and communities. Start locally, but get help and advice from governmental bodies – in Botswana, there is the Eco-Certification System run by the Botswana Tourism Organisation. Kenya has a similar Ecotourism Kenya certification, and other nations will have similar systems.
How can high-end travel brands protect and empower local communities? Why is this important?
For us at Great Plains, community support and participation are essential ingredients for success in conservation and sustainable tourism, and we actively engage communities everywhere we work.
Great Plains now employs around 600 people directly, which in turn helps support seven others (children, spouses and often parents in the areas in which we operate). And then there is also the knock-on effect to the service industries that we rely on to operate our camps.
Employment, education and training are all vitally important means to empower the communities we operate in. I was asked in a session at PURE’s sister event, Conservation Lab, last May, “What do you [Great Plains] do for community education?” Many in the African tourism industry had been talking about how they have built a school and support it. We haven’t, but we do education in other meaningful and valuable ways. In Botswana and Kenya, we close one of our camps each year to allow groups of children from the local communities (from which the bulk of our staff originate) to spend several nights having fun, games, learning (while they’re on school holidays!) about the environment; enjoying what our guests would experience; and observing and appreciating the wildlife. These are our future wildlife ambassadors, staff, managers or directors.
We also have a dedicated community of liaison officers working with supplying educational materials, craft skills, solar lanterns, healthcare advice and other means of support. One was even selected by the US State Department to New York last year as part of the Young African Leaders Initiative.
Education through film and awareness is something that Dereck and Beverly Joubert’s latest film Tribe versus Pride aimed to achieve. It documented how, through educational conservation initiatives such as the Maasai Olympics and Lion Guardians – predator compensation fund and proper protection of livestock – communities in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania can co-exist peacefully with wildlife and predators, such as lions. This film has been translated into the local Maa language, and last December I was privileged to see local dignitaries, village elders and some of the stars of the film watch the documentary for the very first time at ol Donyo Lodge. It was followed by a very fruitful debate on grazing on the communities’ land of which we are tenants. This film is to be shown to many of their communities throughout the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem, which will hopefully spark debate and encourage talk of best practice in the stewardship and management of their land.
We also train our staff to be better and broaden their experiences. We have had a support staff member on a canoe safari become a chef, have a stint of working at Ellerman House, then become manager of a camp. Our guides from Botswana have trained and guided in Kenya, and vice versa. We have a dedicated former camp manager regularly visiting staff in both countries to train them in techniques, and to understand the company ethos. Executive chefs also do the same, and many of our chefs have had skills training in other Relais & Châteaux kitchens, and have prepared thousands of canapés on the Relais & Châteaux stand at We Are Africa, coming from kitchens where they’re used to cooking for no more that 14 guests, and having previously not travelled outside of their home countries.
In today’s information age, it’s harder than ever for brands to grab their audience’s attention. How should brands tell their story in a way that resonates?
I’ve just cut and pasted that question into Google, and I found an answer in Campaign Magazine that I think answers your question very succinctly: “Storytelling is in vogue, and there are a lot of people saying, ‘We have to tell stories and be on all platforms’ “, says John Sadowsky, author of Email, Social Marketing and the Art of Storytelling. “Few brands are doing it well or authentically. Good storytelling is more about listening than what people think. To tell a good story and involve your community takes a lot of groundwork – something that many brands aren’t willing to do. They just throw things out there. That is dangerous.”
It’s like that, other than I’d go for the more dangerous 80-per-cent-chance-of-failure stance I mentioned earlier. Actually, read that article link above – I think it’s very good, but I only got through the first 20 per cent…
To what extent does the design of a hotel or retreat impact guests’ experiences? What are the other important factors to consider in building or renovating a property?
Hey, I’m not the designer! However, what I can say on this subject is that any camp we have built is in wildlife habitat, and therefore such wildlife should be allowed to pass through as if the camps were not there. It is the wildlife experience that guests have come to enjoy, so let them in. This means all are unfenced, inconspicuous, environmentally friendly (almost all camps are solar powered, for example) and small – our largest camp has seven tents, but most are in the four-five tent range. The physical size of tents in our portfolio reflects the environment surrounding each camp. It is probably no accident that our most spacious camps are situated where there are wide, expansive vistas, whilst our smaller expedition style tents tend to be in more bushy or intimate environments. Yet those smaller tents and the camp public areas still retain the touches of the more expensive and expansive sister camps, so that the camp experience is in keeping with the brand, no matter what combination a client chooses.
“Any camp we have built is in wildlife habitat, and therefore such wildlife should be allowed to pass through as if the camps were not there”
The designers are Dereck and Beverly Joubert. In as much that they are the figureheads of Great Plains, the camps are embodiments of them. They have designed all of the camps to what their ideal of a perfect safari camp should be. The ethos of the design of our camps and lodges is that they all have soul and stories to be told. Reclaimed timbers feature heavily, and in the case of Zarafa from the Boxing Day tsunami and old railway sleepers, with a very light, ecological footprint in operation and impact on the environment. In the building of Mara Plains Camp, the rule of thumb was that any branch greater than a thumb’s width could not be cut, so trees grow through the decks instead. Furniture should look better with age: a dent or a knock into the wooden chests and brass bowls add character, and perhaps a story of how it happened (if the same happened to modern furniture, it would look like it should be replaced from the first chip/dent).
Who is your experiential travel hero and why? (This could be someone famous or completely unknown!)
Michael Palin and my father’s (Nigel Walter’s) travels have inspired me to see the world. My father filmed Around the World in 80 Days with Michael Palin, and in 1991, I got to meet Michael at my dad’s 50th birthday party and I asked him for some travel advice. He said, “Don’t drink the water.” The actor Jimmy Nail was also standing close by, and simply said, “don’t drink.” My dad chipped in saying to me, “There are only four words you need to learn in any language: my friend will pay.” I was getting sensible advice. They inspired my wanderlust, and Michael Palin became the patron of my undergraduate expedition to Zimbabwe in 1993 – my first taste of Africa. During those three months, I was able to recite all of the lines verbatim from The Life of Brian, Holy Grail and The Meaning of Life from listening to Palin and the other Pythons on audio cassette, played on a little red Coca-Cola boombox.
Want to join the maverickhood? Applications open in June – why not check out the PURE Awards categories so you’re ready to tell us how you’re Changing Worlds in 2018?