As Victoria Falls Safari Lodge celebrates its 25th anniversary, we asked Ross Kennedy to reflect on the lessons learned in building a successful hospitality business in Zimbabwe, and his hopes for the future
areers are often ignited by role models and it was no different for Ross Kennedy, who was mentored by Jan de Haast at the Jameson Hotel in Harare: “I instinctively do things in my professional life today that Jan taught me 47 years ago, and there have been other hoteliers like Clive Bennett and Nick Martin who guided me to better practices.”
And Ross himself has become a mentor to so many young Zimbabweans progressing their own careers. One of his key motivations is to recruit, develop and guide a new generation of hoteliers and to see them grow into first-class hospitality professionals.
“It is through tourism that both the nation and visitors can identify with an identity of a country,” he says, “and that enhances the overall perception of it. Tourism has an even greater role in providing employment and human resource development. In Zimbabwe our human resources are one of our finest assets!”
Success in creating a trusted brand does not happen overnight, however. For Ross, consistency, honesty and integrity have been vital in growing and maintaining strong, respected and sincere relationships with the trade, media and the authorities. “It is through the tough times that these relationships can assist, advise and offer a supportive role,” he says.
Operating in a challenging environment in Zimbabwe over many years has not been easy: “Perseverance and maintaining standards, quality and service despite stretched resources has been key, but there have also been times when tough decisions have had to be made, be it with cost controls, staff reductions or wage cuts.”
On the positive side, these challenges have often been overcome by adaptive and innovative thinking and planning: “Adversity usually leads to collective thinking and cooperation, such as with the destination campaign we launched in the early 2000s, GotoVictoriaFalls.com, which was a major success in lifting arrivals against the odds.”
Ever positive, focused and motivated, Ross sees the tourism sector in Zimbabwe stabilising for a few years as operators and investors take stock of the political and economic climate, locally, regionally and indeed globally.
“There are opportunities of course,” he says, “but cautious research and investment is the wise way. I foresee slow but steady growth for the next five years. As a sector, we are indefatigable, ambitious, proud and innovative. Ours is a fluid operating environment and that requires creative management styles.”
Ross has tried to instil key principles to drive success at each Africa Albida property: professionalism; value for money; reputation building; delivering experiences and memories; contribution to community and conservation, and creating responsible, profitable operations.
He believes that Zimbabwe’s tourism sector has successfully managed to maintain these principles even through the toughest of times and will contribute to positive change in the region: “It is a country of such rich natural resources, remarkable people, a diversity of landscapes and destinations, all of which offer experiences and engagements that can alter the lives of visitors and residents alike. It’s sheer beauty, it’s remarkable features and its range of accommodation options, all make Zimbabwe an attractive option for those visiting Africa.”
Of course, iconic destinations do have the potential for overcrowding. “Whilst Zimbabwe is a long way from that threat, it is important that responsible parties – including government (national and local), Zimbabwe Tourism Authority and the private sector – all plan, act and behave ethically and in concern to protect the proverbial golden goose,” he states.
By Shelley Cox
Everyone has a story
From the owners to camp staff, Africa’s travel companies and lodges are run and staffed by some great characters. In this series, we meet a selection from across the continent to provide insight to the people behind your safari experience.