In this episode of AHIC Talks, Matthew Weihs spoke with Amos Wekesa, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Great Lakes Safaris about the challenges African owners have faced over the past 18 months. Great Lakes Safaris, a brand synonymous with luxury leisure travel in East African destinations, has been severely impacted by the lack of international tourism. Amos shared how he dealt with the situation and how he was able to diversify his offering during the period. Looking forward, Amos also shares the opportunities he is looking towards in 2022.
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MATTHEW WEIHS: Hello everyone. Welcome to another AHIC Talks Podcast, I'm Matthew Weihs. I'm here with Amos Wekesa, the founder and chief executive of Great Lakes Safaris. Welcome, Amos.
AMOS WEKESA: Thank you so much, Matt.
MATTHEW WEIHS: It's a pleasure to have you with us today. Just give us a quick overview of Great Lakes, the portfolio that you hold and the locations and such like.
AMOS WEKESA: Well, yes sir. My first business was Great Lakes Safaris, which made 20 years on the 23rd of April. So we're excited about making 20 years in business as a business. It's from Great Lakes Safaris that Uganda Lodges was born. And Uganda Lodges we're talking about four national park, four accommodations at four national parks. So we're talking about the main lodge, the Kibale National Park, which is called Primate Lodge. This is a fantastic four star type of accommodation. Then we got Elephant Plains in Queen Elizabeth National Park, maybe four-star, four and a half star. And then we go to Simba Safari Camp and their New Saran MV Kazinga we're just joining the marine space because there's a lot of opportunities in the Marine Tourism yet, because there's no country on the African continent with as many rivers and lakes unutilized like Uganda has. So we are going into the marine space. We bought Uganda's best leisure boat right now that works on a Kazinga Channel. Kazinga Channel is a natural water body that connects two major lakes - Lake Edward and Lake George in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Even with COVID, we're seeing a lot of Ugandans coming and enjoying the boat. Then I run the whole of Budongo. Budongo is probably the second best place in the world to see chimpanzees in the wild. And nine other different species of primates, so many different species of butterflies, East Africans largest mahogany trees will be found in Budongo. So we run the chimpanzee role activities, we have accommodation in that place and it had started doing being extremely very well and then COVID came into play. But Matt because of COVID we have been forced to diversify because it's been a tough time but for those with a bit of resources.
MATTHEW WEIHS: That's what I was going to ask actually Amos, with the marine proposition there. Was that already in the pipeline before COVID or was this something that was prompted because of it?
AMOS WEKESA: No, we saw the gap. There's a lot of opportunities. And I can say, like I said, there's so much opportunity in Uganda in terms of marine tourism that has not been exploited. So that fastboat was bought in July, I was in Uganda in July 2019. So Uganda needed better equipment on the water bodies in order for it to -- as an inspiration. I do businesses as a transformational way to get people into this business. Being a local of course, a lot of the top businesses for a long time were for non-Ugandans but as a Ugandan being fairly very well, in many ways inspires other Ugandans to actually come into the game, which is, which is clear right now I can say.
MATTHEW WEIHS: So over the past 12 months, obviously, with the pandemic in mind, it's obviously been a tough market for you and Lodges, Safaris and such like. How did you react to the whole situation? And what's the actual current situation that you're working towards now with your properties?
AMOS WEKESA: In 2019 Matt, we had quite massive booking I can say for 2020 by agents from across especially the US, German and the UK. Our facilities were in advance really booked. It was shocking. I don't think we were going to have a year in the last 20 as good as 2020 just before. So when we started hearing about COVID, the first week of January, February, we thought it was something that will come and pass. So when they started looking up for example flights Uganda was one of the first countries to stop flights coming into the country, that was about March. I started thinking okay, maybe by July we'll be able to have business. So I made sure that we are able to pay our staff for seven months without any income because we had savings. We have been running a type of business where at any one point we're able to look after our staff for a year or thereabout. So I was not very, very, very concerned about whether we'll pay them until at least seven months. But when seven months elapsed, I started realizing we're actually having a very long way to go. And then we also had the bit where we had to do refunds for clients that wanted their money refunded. We have had lots of reschedules and as I speak, we had quite a bit of bookings that were to begin in June. But mainly because we work with the UK for example, many of them were supposed to make decisions on the 17th May, which is today. And that means that June trips were already being transferred to June 2022 which is a bit tricky. In terms of future, of course, we are expecting to probably break even in the last quarter of this year. So we're seeing a bit of bookings coming in, especially from September, October, November and December. But this is going to depend on a number of factors. But as more people get COVID jabs, COVID vaccines, we're seeing more inquiries coming in. But as far as we're concerned now, there is very little. We have a bit of domestic tools that can probably give us about 10% - 15% of our total costs. But that's not substantive enough for us to depend on that. But I think in terms of investment, in terms of preparation, we are very happy because as I speak right now, we are redoing Primate Lodge. We are putting in resources for it to look extremely brilliant, and that is coming out really good. We finished Elephant Plains during COVID. It's easier for us to invest now because of little business Matt.
MATTHEW WEIHS: Have you been able to diversify your customer base over this period as well? Obviously, there's a lot of talk about appealing to the local markets and such like. Has that happened for you have you just had to rely on time to see this through?
AMOS WEKESA: Yeah, the domestic tourists are piquing interest. A lot of the Ugandan tourists were majorly preferring foreign destinations, especially in Kenya, Dubai, South Africa, these are the destinations that many of them were going to. But because they're tied down to Uganda right now, it has made it easier for them to travel across the country. The challenge for us as a business is that especially for the two accommodations that are in Primate National Parks, especially primate Lodge and Budongo Eco Lodge, that are in chimpanzee accommodations have not had business because not many locals want to go and see primates because they feel that the forests that they have close to their homes that have baboons are probably the same as the chimpanzees. But where we have the mammals, Ugandans have piqued a lot of interest. And that's all saying places like Elephant Plains, and Simba, MV Kazinga have been able to raise money, especially during the weekends. And I hope that continues because it will then help and support us during our low months, which is good. So we're hoping that that continues, and we're excited about it.
MATTHEW WEIHS: So obviously your bookings are picking up towards the back end of the year. How are things looking moving towards into 2021 for you? Is it all looking pretty busy?
AMOS WEKESA: I think what is looking good towards 2022. I think 2020 might be a very good year, from the bookings we're seeing right now. We might be able to make some money towards the end of the year. But that's going to depend on a number of factors. If for example, you know that Uganda Airlines, which is a new airline, which started direct flights into London five times a week from July, that is going to play a very key role. Because we've seen that many of our agents, for example, in the UK work with big companies like Only Travel Group. They are preferring to have their clients go to destinations where there are direct flights to avoid challenges that are associated with COVID especially in transit. So we are hoping that when Uganda Airlines has to fly direct to the UK, a lot more business is going to come to our country from London and from the UK. And so we're excited about that. And that will continue. And of course 2022 will also still see that maybe they will have seven flights into the UK by mid next year. So we're excited about that.
MATTHEW WEIHS: I suppose in some respects the Safari, the idea of an isolation is a good one for picking up demand for the future. How else other than the marine investments, how are you looking to capitalize on the opportunity going forward?
AMOS WEKESA: Well, Matt just before COVID entered the tourism space and affected us, I had just invested in a lodge in Tanzania near Tarangire. Our aim was to try and diversify within the region because there's a lot of opportunities across the region, but for Uganda in itself, there is a lot of opportunities in terms of investment. Our rooms are very few, so we were targeting to build a lodge in Bwindi to a level of Elephant Plains. We had interest in building another four to five star lodge in Budongo. I had also acquired land in Entebbe near the airport to be able to have a Safari-like accommodation that would be able to cater for a certain group of clientele. But that has gone to sleep for a while. But I think we still pursue it, God willing, maybe next year as we progress. Like I said, of course, as an individual or someone in tourism, I've decided to put some money outside tourism going into agro-processing. So I'm actually teamed up with a company in the UK, someone in the UK, and we're just setting up an agro processing plant. But that is not going to take up as much of my time or my interest as much as tourism has and will.
MATTHEW WEIHS: Obviously, you're a big fan of the Africa Hotel Investment Forum over the years. What's your thoughts on firstly hosting the event in Dubai for the first time in our history alongside the Arabian, Saudi and the Restaurant events that we host? And what do you hope to gain from it this year?
AMOS WEKESA: I think what I see is that first, connectivity into Dubai is very good from across Africa. But at the same time having Africa Hotel Investment Forum hosted in Dubai will give us an opportunity to be able to see the different chains that are playing ball in Dubai. Because Dubai, I think every third or fourth building or fifth building is a hotel. And that we're able to see how Dubai has been able to make it and also look at opportunities across the continent, because the continent still has lots of opportunities. And especially a country like Uganda, you can tell from the number of rooms, I think we have about 120,000 sensible rooms, good rooms across East Africa and 80% of those rooms are in Kenya, the second highest is Tanzania, and Uganda doesn't have as many. So for those that are looking into investing in Africa, there is a lot of opportunities going forward. Because statistics also show that with aviation, for example, by 2032 Africa will be having about 300 million people using the aviation space, which means 300 million Africans will be moving within Africa. And that provides a very good investment opportunity for international chains of hotels investing across Africa. And of course, the countries across Africa fighting to improve the connectivity. Of course, you've seen the growth of RwandAir, the starting up of Uganda Airlines.
MATTHEW WEIHS: I was just agreeing in the sense that Uganda Airlines has also started up. I think it's a good sign.
AMOS WEKESA: Yeah, it's a very good sign. But I'm saying that, I mean, there's a lot of interest, you know, like, as usual, expansion of routes by Ethiopian Airlines, expansion of routes by Uganda airlines, expansion of routes by RwandAir, lots of interests in Africans traveling across Africa. In fact, there will be a lot more intra-Africa Business probably then has been in the last many decades in the coming few years.
MATTHEW WEIHS: It all sounds as if you're positively moving towards a good couple of years and well done Amos for obviously all your efforts there. And thank you again for being part of our advisory group for the event in September. And thank you for your time today.
AMOS WEKESA: Well, thank you so much for the confidence that you guys have put in me to be part of this great team. I've known that you've always done a good job. I have my 100% sure that you do a good job in September and I'm happy to be behind or supporting you wherever you need.
MATTHEW WEIHS: Thank you so much.
Thank you for listening to AHIC Talks, the podcast for the Arabian and African Hospitality Investment Conference. You can find a full transcript of this podcast on the content library on ahic.com, along with other reports and insights. We can't wait to welcome you and your colleagues live and in-person AHIC in Dubai from the 20th - 22nd of September 2021. If you haven't registered yet, go to ahic.com to purchase your pass today and save on the early bird rate. Feel free to email us with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next week, stay safe and keep well. Bye!
Published 27 June 2021