Over the past fourteen years it has turned into a 52-room boutique hotel, four conference venues, a private airstrip, a driving range, two restaurants and an amphitheatre – all this built up by a husband-and-wife team with “zero business training” (at least not of the formal kind).
Nan Roos remembers how her husband Lourens showed her a run-down little farm a few kilometres outside of their hometown Dundee where they ran an estate agency and auction business. He didn’t mention anything specifically about the place, but when she wondered aloud if it wouldn’t make a good spot for a B&B, he said: “So you see it too?”
What followed was a series of learning experiences that seem completely incongruous with the lush establishment that is Battlefields Country Lodge today, like Nan’s hand-written business proposal of sorts that she faxed to Business Partners Limited in Richards Bay, and which she believes they approved based on “a good feeling” about it.
“Now what?” was their own feeling just after they had fixed up six rooms on their new property. But their bewilderment didn’t last long. Nan quickly wormed her way into the Tourism Indaba in Durban and, in her natural way, started selling the lodge while taking in basic tourism lessons and advice from the friend she had made at the stall next to hers.
When she got back from the Indaba, there was a fax from Holland with her first overseas business enquiry.
Her first clients were 20 students from Singapore who came to South Africa on a geography tour. They were referred to her by another B&B which didn’t have space. She had to borrow beds to accommodate them all.
As green as they were, Nan and Lourens had a very solid grasp of the potential of Battlefields Country Lodge. Here was an area with seminal South African battlefields – Isandlwana, Rorke’s Drift, Blood River and Talana Hill. The centenary for two of the battles were coming up, and the tourism infrastructure in the area was very undeveloped. Today it has the best museum in South Africa, says Nan, who was honoured as the 2005 Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year Regional Winner (now co-sponsored with Sanlam).
Soon she realised that a huge amount of business traffic passes by the lodge, and that Dundee, as the hub of the region, needed conference facilities.
The growth of Battlefield Country Lodge happened organically as the couple saw opportunities arising and throughout the years Business Partners have financed the expansions.
A good example of their entrepreneurial approach is the small airstrip that was built on the property as a service to emergency fire-fighting planes. Soon the couple organised an annual “Fly In” air show that draws in dozens of aeroplane enthusiasts from all over South Africa.
It is often said that business owners need to sell themselves rather than their product. Nan and Lourens represent a very natural embodiment of this idea. As Dundee natives, they have built their lodge as a seamless extension of the community and its rich history.
“Arrive as a stranger and leave as a friend” is more than just an old tourism cliché for Nan. She often finds herself hurrying back from sport tournaments – she is an avid bowls player and golfer – because she is expecting a long-standing customer to arrive, even though her staff are perfectly capable of receiving them.
Their 35 staff members are virtually all locals trained and groomed by Nan in the same mind-set of inviting guests into your own home. This is only possible if the staff feel as cared for as they would in their own homes. Empowerment and excellent pay levels are therefore part of the culture at Battlefields Country Lodge.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. In 2009, a year after the recession knocked tourism globally, many provincial government conferences were cancelled. About 30% of Battlefields’ clients are government officials on overnight stays or conferences.
“It was scary,” says Nan. The crunch forced them to relook at their marketing strategy, and helped them to emphasise domestic tourism more in their marketing mix.
Clearly, it must be working, for they are about to expand yet again, driven as usual by continuous demand. At Battlefield Country Lodge, they never like to turn anyone away.