As a child, Alex Rutherford didn’t get the chance to explore Africa. During the 90s there was a trend for South Africans to travel to Great Britain after they finished university in search of adventure and travel. For countless saffas, the UK was the default option for these young adults. This was an option that Alex found himself taking but it wasn’t long before he made the decision to step off the well-worn-trail followed by everyone else and cut his own.
“I desperately wanted to see Africa,” he reflects, “And so I decided that the way to do it would be to drive from London to Cape Town.”
THE FIRST BIG ADVENTURE
After a couple of false starts to his journey, which taught Alex a great deal about vehicle maintenance, he was finally underway along with two other adventurers. Together they’d raised £3000 for the trip which would see them travel across the entire length of the African continent.
Alex admits that in comparison to the research that can be done today, they really were stepping into the unknown. This was in the early 90s, a period where GPS guidance and internet maps were toys for film characters and the super-rich. Alex and his friends were delving into deepest, darkest Africa with a car, some supplies and a general direction (south) for which to aim. The adventurer now admits that it was actually a pretty grim experience at the time which soon became less about enjoyment and more about completion. However, looking back, he reveals that it set the scene for his entire career and established certain characteristics that he values. Such as self-reliance, optimism, solution-finding and the importance of being unflappable.
“When your vehicle breaks down in the middle of nowhere you have two options,” he says, “You either sit and wait for a miracle or you make one happen yourself. I learnt that there is always a solution as long as you know where you need to go and there are always people willing to help you along the way, irrespective of which country you are in…. Or think you’re in at the time.”
It was also during this period that Alex was introduced to the safari business. Having grown up in South Africa, safaris and bush tours was an industry that was instantly recognisable and always on the periphery, but he was appalled at the quality of the tours available.
“I was frankly mortified at the way that some of the old-style companies were doing these trips,” he explains, “It was an absolute free-for-all where businesses would rip off foreign travellers and provide them with safari tours with next to no standards under the guise of offering them an “authentic” experience.”
At the time as well, he reveals, the guests would also be in charge of the food budget so often they would end up literally going hungry during their tour.
“There was a lack of standards and a lack of accountability,” Alex says, “I thought that there had to be a better way of doing this.”
At the time, Alex had studied psychology and economics, two subjects he had chosen almost purely for the benefit of passing exams. So, to launch his safari business he had to fall onto his skills as an entrepreneur. His first business idea was purchasing non-shelf shoes from large shoe manufacturers and selling them in town ships at a massive discount for those people who needed them. And, his initial trip from SA to UK was funded by another venture with his best friend called Maverick Enterprises where they purchased items from auction and sold them off for a profit. He fondly remembers those days of trading everything from grand pianos to mousepads!
Business was certainly something that he took naturally to and their first official safari was in 1997. They started as they would continue, by setting a pioneering example of what would make the guest-experience better and this included launching a new vehicle that had steel sides and provided additional security for the guest.
“All of the safaris were at the same level at the time,” he reflects, “To stand out from the crowd we just offered a better service to start with and partnered with businesses that cared about their guests and clients.”
Nomad Adventure Tours and Holidays was the original name. This mouthful was chosen because they didn’t want to pigeon-hole themselves and they were aware the market may change down the line. Since then the name has changed over time because they’ve become known more as Nomad Tours or Nomad Africa.
Today the company has different safari departments offering select kinds of tours. For scheduled tours they have their Nomad branded dated departures. These are very popular, and they run around seven hundred a year, which include fixed itineraries and fixed prices for those newcomers to safaris who want the best experience at the fairest rate.
In addition, they have a charter departure, where they run trips for companies outside SA that want to run tours in Southern or Eastern Africa. These are then branded for these companies and run for them.
Accommodation during the safaris are ranked in stars. Two stars covers your good old fashioned basic tent and sleeping bag camping. Three stars covers basic rustic lodges varying from a bed under a roof and variations of that including chalets, rondovals and lodges. They also do a small group department for a maximum of fourteen and those are in the better quality lodges with more reliable facilities. Then they do the private individual tours with 5-6 star accommodation and these can include resorts, stand-alone high luxury safari tented camps and boutique accommodations with full WIFI and hotel amenities.
And not all of the tours are purely focussed on safaris in the wild, they also do trips focussed on speciality fishing, cycling and hiking.
“People are often drawn to Africa to explore their passions,” he explains, “For these kinds of tours we always partner with experienced professionals that offer the highest standard and can also keep the guest safe.”
While keeping his business up-to-date is important, Alex does think it is unfortunate that some styles of safari are on the decline. Camping for example. Modern media and the influence of so called “travellers” on social media have changed the attitudes of many who come to Africa automatically expecting to see the continent’s wild side while still enjoying hot running water for their showers, a comfortable mattress and WIFI.
“Of course, the industry today has moved with these expectations,” he says, “But the average tourist today is a bit soft. Camping is on the decline across the board. Anything that isn’t predictable is a problem and they don’t want to camp because they don’t like bugs and they don’t like the wet and they stress out over the small details. Camping is all about the small details though and some of the best and most memorable experiences to be had are when things are unpredictable.”
BITTEN BY THE BUG
Speaking of getting bitten by bugs, a big part of Nomad Africa’s success is their return visitors. Many of the guests return. They have people who have travelled with them for over a decade. One lady has enjoyed seventeen trips with them and has never had the same experience twice.
“No two trips to Africa will ever be the same,” Alex explains, “Even if you grew up here you always feel that there is something more to see. Something just beyond the horizon that you’ll have to come back to look at.”
And, Nomad Africa has been built on value. Alex’s whole mission is to have no one ever say that it wasn’t worth the money spent. He doesn’t believe in low volume high cost tourism and in his experience, catering to the five star market is way more detrimental than having a lot of feet through the door.
“Very rich people require ridiculous resources, what you need for one client and the mess that goes with it is quite high,” he says, “It’s not about how people travel through space it’s how they are managed. The more people who visit the better, for awareness and to fall in love with the place as long as these people are managed well.”
Alex has seen first-hand the infrastructure required to ensure aircons in the middle of nowhere, to transport luxury food products and drinks and to haul wardrobes of clothes for those “perfect Instagram pictures”. It is wasteful of resources and can be easily damaging to the locations visited.
“We’re more for the mid-market people,” he says, “For the people who have dreamt of coming to Africa and want to be able to visit and see things. Accessibility to Africa should be managed but open to everyone.”
LOOK AFTER YOUR FAMILY
Alex believes in staff loyalty and in particular, being loyal to your staff. Nomad to him is his family. The Covid-19 Lockdown struck the travel and tourism industry the hardest and he reveals that they shut down on March 15th and have not run a tour since. However, their story has been interesting, as he explains.
“We sat around for a week or two to see where things were going and realised that this was not going to be a short haul thing,” he says.
He then spent his time gathering data and reading papers from both sides of the line to form as comprehensive an understanding as possible. Then, as a company Nomad Africa sat down and had some seriously long meetings on the position they were going to take.
“We are optimistic,” he says, “But there is no doubt that it has been brutal and from my point of view I don’t think we will be running a tour for the remainder of this year. What we had to decide was how do we survive as a family.”
With over a hundred and fifty people employed by Nomad Africa and thousands of clients to consider, Alex and his team spent as long as needed to gather as much information on how to handle the situation. Liaising with dozens of companies, scrutinising as much data as was available from both sides of the line and discussing it with themselves they came to a decision that will define them as a company.
“We have to protect our staff,” he says, “That is what we decided. We have to protect our family.”
During a time of crisis, the choices that a business makes will always define them. According to Alex, several of Nomad’s biggest competitors just laid off their staff with no work and no pay, cancelling on thousands of clients and guides together. Refusing refunds and generally approaching the crisis with a big shrug.
“While some of our clients were happy to reschedule their bookings with us, we have not fought refunding other clients their money in full,” he says, “And we will continue doing so and we are one of the only businesses in our industry that have done that.”
As far as staff is concerned, Alex relates how they paid everyone right up through March, April and May while the Lockdown continued. Then they took out a GoFundMe project for funding, which they matched, and this enable them to continue paying the guides who rely on Nomad entirely for their income. Nomad Africa employs 85 guides that they have continued to support, even if it’s with a food voucher system so everyone will get the minimum requirement of food.
“Food is the big thing for a third world country,” Alex says, “And we are supporting 150 families. We have no money coming in, so I’ve accessed personal funds, bonds, properties and loans to keep the wheels turning and I’ve factored working throughout this year with no revenue. Then going in the first and second quarter of 2021 we’re looking at having 50% usual revenue. For now, until business comes back, our priority is to look after our people in South Africa, Kenya, Botswana and Zimbabwe.”
Like many other businesses, they had big plans for 2020 and were just in the process of starting them when everything stopped. This enforced quiet period has given them the chance to refine plans for the remainder of this year and 2021, come up with new ideas, innovations and make sure that everything is in the right position for when things open again.
“Our data says that people aren’t really interested in new stuff at the moment,” Alex tells us, “Everyone is going for our stock-standard itineraries and that is what people are interested in. People come to Africa to see Africa, to experience the safaris, the culture, the food and the sights. So as far as the actual safaris are concerned, we just need to make sure the vehicles and equipment are well maintained, the guides are well trained, and our partners are up to spec.”
Nevertheless, from the office point of view development is ongoing. They make sure to keep themselves abreast of the best developments for booking and convenience, they are regularly expanding their reach to offer new and interesting locations to their clients. They are investigating new private safari style travels which could be useful post Covid tours and are also looking into developing camping.
“We are on a mission for the camping tours, the reason is because it’s been in decline and funnily enough the current vibe of people is not wanting to be in cities,” he says, “People have been cooped up for a long time and want to have a change of perspective. Imagine how liberating it could be to be in the Namibian desert, on a sand dune and surrounded by an endless ocean of sand. That’s a solid way to get over your lockdown cabin fever.”
THE BEHIND THE SCENES TRIUMPHS
One of the strengths of Nomad Africa is that they are light on their feet and active in their selling. Alex reveals that there is a Field of Dreams misconception in tourism that “if you build it, they will come”, but this isn’t the case at all. His experience has taught him that sales is in everything and he has had to learn how to sell for the sake of his business.
“Just because you run a good show doesn’t mean you’ll have guests,” he says, “You have to know how to sell it.”
Admitting that he is an operator and a doer, a quintessential Jack of All Trades but not a natural salesman, Alex reveals that he has had to overcome this and align himself with the strength of selling. Not just products and packages but ideas and the story. Leadership is largely down to selling your team on an idea and a vision.
“A great deal of work is going on in the background to protect everyone, but it only works if your whole team believes in what you are doing,” he says, “They have to trust your leadership and have faith in the vision that you are sharing. My family is my business and I have no kids, instead I have guides, office staff and trucks.”
Price: Per day 2-60 days. Daily rate: £70/day camping side. Up to £120 mid-range. £170.00.