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Your chance to ask the questions: Alex Walters - Great Plains Conservation.

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Alex Walters, European Sales & Marketing Manager for Great Plains Conservation
A Short Bio:
41 going on 21, half-Swedish, half-Welsh = 100% organic (think swedes and leeks). Married, 2 daughters, 2 ponies, GSOH, would like to meet Safaritalkers.
To sum up my career in travel and Africa in one paragraph: Sales and marketing manager since 2010 of one of the world's leading social and environmental enterprises, Great Plains Conservation, preceded by 15 years working at various tour operators, preceded by two years managing grant schemes and interviewing expedition teams at the Royal Geographical Society, where I remain a Fellow to this day. Travelled throughout East and Southern Africa countries over two decades. World-expert on 'termite mound distributions in and around dambos', after my 3 months undergraduate dissertation based in Zimbabwe's communal lands in 1993 - they gave me a First for that project, I think because no one had ever done it before and were not sure whether what I written was utter rubbish or not, which was the start of my sales career and love of Africa.

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As Alex has already updated us about the new Mara Toto camp, this is your chance to put specific questions to him about it, as well as the Great Plains conservation philosophy in general, other camps etc: so, I will set a deadline of two weeks for question submission after which I'll forward all questions to Alex for answering. Please submit your questions in the usual manner by replying in the comments below.

 

Note: as a prize for the best question submitted, Alex and Great Plains are offering a copy of Eye of the Leopard, signed by Dereck and Beverly, so get thinking caps on. Alex will be the judge of this, not me - but if you wish to try and bribe me, I accept bottles of red wine, though it will have no affect on the outcome of the decision... ;)

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Posted (edited)

To an average consumer, say a person who will only go on a couple of safaris in their life, what separates the Great Plains Conservation from the competition? Why should they travel with you, over an other organization?

 

For us regular Safari people, what in particular will separate Mara Toto from the hordes of competition in the Mara and surrounding area? What does the Mara Toto want to be known for?

 

It mentions, new "custom designed" safari vehicles at Mara Toto. Can you provide some additional information? Pictures if possible. Will the camp be able to accommodate private vehicle requests, and at what approximate cost?

 

Do you sell directly to consumers? If not, do you see a future for the organization to sell directly - say for example to return clients? Like many here, I usually try to do my own bookings, and if there was some financial incentive (especially for longer stays), I would be more inclined to go back to a camp again (and again!!).

 

How does one become a "sales and marketing manager" for an organization like Great Plains? Any chance you need someone in Canada??

Edited by Tusker

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Hi Alex,

 

Just a quick hello to say that I loved my Mara Plains experience last year - I think the crew at camp is what makes it absolutely top-notch ........... Lorna and Richard really are amongst the best hosts in all of Africa!!!

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Hi Alex. First the camp looks beautiful. I had the opportunity to stay in some of the GPC camps in Botswana where i had amazing experiences. I have been impressed so far by the safari experience and vision of GPC in Botswana.

 

However I am a bit concerned with this new addition in Kenya. Maybe my concerns are not founded. Is the Mara Toto camp a new camp in the Mara? Or is it the "takeover" of an existing camp/concession and rebranding of such a camp? If it s a new camp among the hundreds of camps already available in the mara, I am wondering if it is not a paradox for a leading environmental enterprise to open another camp in this already overdeveloped and overused/abused"national park". We, I believe, agree to say that so many camps in the mara don t look sustainable. I am maybe naive but I would have preferred and found it more logical for GPC to open camps in underdeveloped areas in Africa with huge potential (for example Katavi for which Dereck Joubert expresses his "love"on this forum, Ruaha, Selous, North Luangwa, some parks in Mozambique) or to turn existing hunting concessions in Botswana into photographic concessions (sthg that would be needed following the recent ban on hunting in Botswana if we don t want to see the wildlife in those concession to be depleted. The Joubert were big supporters of this ban hunting initiative by the way). All those places are in need of more camps and infrastructure. My feeling is that a place like the mara don t need more camps but less and better camps whereas there are lots of places in Africa which need more tourism to remain viable. On the other hand, if it is just a rebranding of an existing camp (and improvement given the quality associated with GPC), it s great news.

 

I hope that you understand my concerns and feelings which i think may be shared by others. Looking forward to your answers.

 

regards

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Many thx Pault,I had not seen that forum. it s very useful. I had bad experience in the Mara (I was digusted by the number of cars/camps and behaviour of drivers in the national Park). That explains why i m maybe not neutral on that topic. I understand that the conservancy is out of the park. I appreciate a lot what GPC is doing inBotswana. Maybe one day I should give a second chance to Kenya and to a concession like the MNC to experience it by myself. Reviews seem very good. But if I compare simply the number of camps in the Mara North conservancy (74,000 acres for the MNC) and in a concession like Selinda in Botswana (320,00 acres for Selinda) where GPC is managing camps, I still feel perplexed. I know that Botswana is the exception in Africa and would like msot of the african safari destinations to be more Botswana like.

 

According to what I see, the camps in the MNC are the following: Alex Walkers Serian, Elephant Pepper Camp, Exploreans Mara Rianta Camp, Karen Blixen Camp, Kicheche Mara Camp, Mara Plains Camp, Nomadic Encounters, Offbeat Horse Safaris, Offbeat Mara Camp, Royal Mara Safari Lodge, Safaris Unlimited, Saruni Camp and Saruni Wild + now the Mara Toto Camp. So a total of 14 camps.

 

To compare with the Selinda Linyanti concession which has 3 camps (Selinda, Zarafa and Selinda Explorer) for a concession 4 times bigger. Also I think that the average number of guests for the camps in the MNC is much higher than camps in a concession like Selinda.

 

It s just a thought, maybe the ecosystems are completely different and MNC can welcome more camps. The camps/ecosystems are certainly better managed than in the Mara according to what I read. I admit that it s not always easy to compare 2 national parks.

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You have to consider that Mara Plains (even if a founding member of MNC) is not in MNC, but in Olare Orok Conservancy, which is ess congested by camps than MNC.

 

As you say, the two ecosystems are very different.

 

And, as far as Kenya is concerned, there are a few areas in the north of the country where the wildernesss feeling is as strong or possibly even stronger than in Botswana's private concessions

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Paolo; let's remember this isn't a discussion topic but a place to ask questions...

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You are right Matt. Sorry.

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Could you tell us more about GPC's conservation related activities, Alex? I'd be interested in hearing both about the work that GPC does on the ground as well as the type of funding it provides to these projects.

 

I read somewhere that GPC contributes $25/guest to conservation causes. If that is correct, then it seems to be quite low? Also, could you tell us what percentage of the profits are actually netted by ROAR from the Joubert films, provided, of course, that these movies a part of GPC (and not a personal enterprise whose affairs are none of my business!)

 

Also, is there a particular type of conservation activity that GPC favors over others? If so, what would be the reasoning behind it? Thanks!

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Posted (edited)

1.) Do you believe your set of offerings in Botswana is now complete or is GPC looking at acquiring/expanding further in Botswana? If you could pick one further concession (existing or new from the hunting blocks)/park/area to add to your portfolio, which would it be?

 

2.) What are your plans for Tanzania now? Are you completely out of the country given the experience with Lukula or do you believe a different area, a different wildlife administration body could make a difference?

 

3.) What have been the biggest differences, you faced, in operating in Botswana versus Kenya?

 

4.) Why didnt GPC build a camp in MNC all these years given your association with the conservancy? Do you find it challenging to work around conservation issues with many operators and many differing voices? What is your view on the positives and negatives of how MNC is being run and how would you compare it to OOC?

 

5.) What next in Kenya? Have you thought of further expanding into Northern Kenya? Would the model be similar to being in places with some tourism presence (in the form of permanent camps) existing already or would you look at places completely untouched with any existing permanent tourism offering except say very expensive chartered flyin mobile camping?

 

6.) Any business looks at the risk-return aspect even if the focus is conservation through profit. Do you believe that GPC has a critical mass where it would take on riskier ventures (like W-S in Congo, or Asilia in Gorongosa, Singita Pamushana etc)? If yes then which are some of the places you would look at? If no, then where do you see that critical mass coming in? You did experiment this with Lukula but am wondering if either that was a.) a one off, b.) the experience changed a GPC strategy with respect to riskier ventures or c.) there are plans for the same that you could share.

 

7.) Realistically what can an operator like GPC do to improve things in Mara-especially in the Narok side of the reserve. You have now been present there for 3-4 years through OOC and now in the main reserve too with Toto. Do you think you could have done more in terms of rallying support/authority intervention/stricter rules etc to discipline the kind of behaviour we see in Mara? What did you do and what have been the results, the frusterations and the successes?

 

8.) How does a formal EIA process differ for a new area versus an area like Mara with dozens of camps? As conservationists more than an operator, how would you regularly monitor the environmental impact of all the camps and tourism activity on the Mara reserve? This is not specific to Toto but I believe GPC would be sharing the same concerns about Mara that many STers have voiced here and given your strong linkages with conservation and the reserve now, my question is more to an expert in terms of understanding the critical danger to the ecosystem and how you perceive this load would impact and manifest itself in the next 5 years?

 

9.) How do you monitor competition in terms of product offerings, special offers, introductory offers, suppliers and the entire package? How much, would you say, of GPC's product offering or strategy, is reactive to whats being offered? Do you believe that even though there are subtle differences the big part of the product is now standardised across the industry? If yes, is that a good thing or bad thing?

 

10.) What are say 3 changes in the safari industry (lets say in Botswana where you have had the longest association), in the last 10 years, that you wish you could unwind and take it back to what it used to be? What are 3 changes, in the same time period or thereabouts you think have been for the better?

Edited by Anita
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WOW Anita, what a great set of questions!

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What percentage of former hunting blocks would GPC consider viable for photographic tourism? Is GPC looking into exploit any of those NGs?

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Talk us through the EIA process for the new Mara Toto Camp.

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Topping this one: who wants to ask a question and be in with a chance of winning a signed copy of Eye of the Leopard?

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Walking tours and the like have become more and more popular over the last few years. Do you think that the increased poaching might affect this experience due to aggressive animal behavior towards people?

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Topping this one: anyone else with a question?

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Closing this topic now as I've sent the interview to Alex. Thanks to everyone who submitted questions.

 

Matt

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