I am often asked how Dragonfly came about, and why it is so named. I was fortunate to have been bought up in Chelsea, London in the wonderful sixties era. In those days there were frequent sightings of the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Jimmy Hendrix walking around Kings Road or eating in the local restaurants there.
In 1976 I was lucky enough to be working for a large advertising agency – Leo Burnett – I did a six month probation period in the mail room. I was then, after some years offered the opportunity of a transfer to their Johannesburg office. This I readily accepted and so began a new life in Africa. In 1979 my wife and I took a weekend break to a small hotel quite near to the famous Kruger National Park. The Hotel was called Cybele Forest Lodge. It was the closest thing to an English Country Hotel that I had seen in South Africa.
Within a matter of months, we had taken out a lease. And subsequently we bought the property which was 120 hectares (300 acres) in extent in the middle of a forest with a river and waterfall. There was a lot of work to do and renovations and improvements to the product offering were ongoing for over 30 years. In 1983 Cybele Forest Lodge and Health Spa became the very first hotel in South Africa to be invited into the Paris based Relais & Châteaux chain.
As if I didn’t have enough to keep me busy at the lodge, I realized that we were located in one of the most beautiful and unspoiled parts of the country. And so in 1982 Dragonfly Helicopter Adventures was created. We worked out a stunning aerial routing that would culminate in a luxury champagne picnic on top of a mountain overlooking the Kruger National Park. The trip was named Mountain Magic. We would send a chef on the flight to set up and serve the lunch.
And the Dragonfly name evolved from the similarity between a helicopter rotor blade and a Dragonfly.
We hosted many well-known personalities at the Lodge over the years, including Tina Turner, Priscilla Presley and John Cleese. And at about this time, I realized that whilst we had a quality end hotel product that people really enjoyed, the real draw of Africa is going on a safari and seeing the animals. So I began putting together packages with one of the nearby lodges within the Kruger Park area – Londolozi Game Reserve – and offered travel itineraries featuring the two products.
The market really took to these combinations – which I had actually mapped out in my bedroom at Cybele – and before long we had opened up an office in the nearby local town of White River. From these early packages, our travel business began to expand. People were asking us for other destinations throughout Southern and East Africa. And, without really intending to pursue this rather unknown territory, Dragonfly Travel was born specializing in tailor made travel itineraries. The business grew and a Johannesburg office was opened.
In 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected as South Africa’s President. Democracy at last. Dragonfly managed to secure the contract for all of the transport for Heads of State, VIP’s and other visiting dignitaries for the Inauguration Ceremony in Pretoria. Two days prior to the Inauguration I had the first taste of a need for contingency plans, or rain plans as they are called in the incentive industry.
Our very new and modern office block caught fire and was seriously damaged. My intrepid brother who was running the Johannesburg office managed to sneak past fire fighters and recover most of the radios / walkie talkies and documentation relating to our plans for the Inauguration. At around this time, we realized that incentive reward travel would now begin to consider South Africa whose previous apartheid policies made it a no-go area for many people.
Incentive travel is the concept of recognizing and rewarding staff who have achieved exceptional goals – usually sales based. If they can achieve certain targets that are pre-set, both they and their partner will be taken to a fabulous destination with their colleagues and company management, and will be shown a great deal of respect and reward for the efforts they had made in the previous financial year. These incentive trips can comprise 10 people or over 1000 depending on the scale of the incentive program.
Our first true incentive program was a USA based company and was 120 people at the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town. It was, as was often the case, a competitive bid with another destination management company based in South Africa.
We had previously been used to making travel arrangements for two people. Or perhaps a family. To my astonishment and, indeed extreme shock, we were awarded the business. And we grew and learnt from there.
I believe the success of the company is a combination of factors. Attention to detail, vigorous maintenance of sales and marketing activities around the world, the presence of representative offices in the countries where we operate, investment in our staff and their futures, respect earned from the clients we have worked for. And respect given to all whom we deal with at any level. And very importantly the exceptional relationships that we have with all of our suppliers.
Whilst we have become the foremost Destination Management Company in South Africa our philosophies have not really changed since the very early days. There are now 7 shareholders in Dragonfly Africa and Green Route Africa. The last few years have been spent structuring a Management Buyout. A most complicated process. But a very rewarding one.
When I step down as Executive Chairman, and the majority shareholder of the group in the years ahead, 6 of my Co-Directors who have been with the company for many, many years, will become the owners of the group. To me that will be a very satisfying conclusion. The very people who helped me build the group will become the owners and guardians of the group.
It’s been a wonderful journey. But as you will gather from the story above, my life has not quite turned out to be what I probably had in mind when I was a schoolboy in England!