When Alison, 56, was retrenched as marketing director at a high-end financial corporate in London, she and her husband Lawrie, 60, who also spent his whole career as a corporate consultant in London, decided to make a change. They exchanged corporate employment for small-business ownership, the global financial sector for the hospitality industry, and cosmopolitan London for an idyllic farm on the other side of the world.
For the past year, Alison and Lawrie have been running their start-up Essere Lodge, an eighteen hectare plot with eight guest cottages on the bank of the Boontjies River near Tulbagh, an hour’s drive from Cape Town.
Terrifying, frantic, fun and rewarding is how Alison summarises their experience since buying their one-way ticket to South Africa in October last year. Up to that point, they had spent about a year preparing the launch of a guest house in South Africa.
Alison, through her work in the banking sector, first came to South Africa on a business trip about 20 years ago, and started a life-long “love affair” with the country. The feeling is shared by Lawrie, and for the past ten years or so they have been taking increasingly longer holidays in South Africa.
They dreamed of a retirement as “swallows” who follow the summer between the northern and southern hemisphere, and the couple decided to set up a guest house in South Africa as a first step.
Although they had no previous experience in the hospitality industry, their extensive travels gave them deep insight into what works for tourists, and they certainly did not lack business and management skills.
To help them navigate the intricacies of doing business in South Africa, they set out to partner with friends they had made locally, and together they identified the small farm near Tulbagh which had been run as a guest lodge but had closed down two years before.
They decided on the name Essere, Italian for “to be”, because it reflects the idea of a peaceful getaway where visitors can relax and be themselves.
Most of the infrastructure was already in place when they bought the land, but a lot of fixing and restoration had to be done.
The business partnership with their friends did not work out, and in the end Alison and Lawrie had to find their own way through the business landscape. It was difficult to “find out who does what” in a strange business environment, says Alison, but also very rewarding. “We’ve met some fantastic people. It is amazing to see how much support there is when you reach out,” she says.
She includes Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS) in the local business support network that they have managed to build up so far. Business Partners financed about three quarters of the purchase of the land, which Alison and Lawrie own in a company separate from that of the operating company.
Alison says they prefer BUSINESS/PARTNERS finance over that of a bank because of the company’s openness to entrepreneurial ideas and the emphasis that they place on the needs of the entrepreneur.
Alison says occupancy rates at Essere Lodge have been largely on track since their launch in December, with most weekends fully booked, including the first weekend and even throughout the winter.
Next for Essere Lodge is a number of log cabins that they are planning to build across the property. They are also clearing the river of alien vegetation and establishing indigenous vegetation.
Alison has started marketing Essere Lodge as a team building and conferencing venue for the corporate sector in order to increase mid-week bookings.
Given her background, Alison naturally slotted into the role of marketer. She also manages the front desk and the day-to-day operations, while Lawrie manages the finances and the infrastructure development. Apart from the two owners, the Essere Lodge currently employs four staff members.
Alison says apart from all the other changes that they have been through, it has been fun getting used to each other as business partners.
Even though they have not been completely able to escape the traditional tension between the marketing and finance divisions of a business, at the end of each day they manage to slip back to being husband and wife - who just happen to be on the adventure of a lifetime.