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Call of the wild: Murray Gardiner

As the CEO of luxury travel company Giltedge Africa, Murray Gardiner has been to some amazing destinations around the globe. However, the places that leave a lasting impression are those he visits with his loved ones. “My best travel memories are definitely when I’ve travelled with my family,” he smiles.

“I’ve just been to Namibia with my wife and children. There’s nothing better than being out in the bush away from the rat-race, city life, school and work, and having that quality time with your family in a beautiful, remote location on the African continent.”

This is the experience Murray strives to create for his clients when they book a holiday through Giltedge. “We always want to deliver unique, life-changing travel experiences,” he says. “We’re dealing with clients who want something different – they don’t want the normal, run-of-the-mill itinerary. They want something creative.”

“We always want to deliver unique, life-changing travel experiences.”

Inspired by his passion for travel, Murray helped launch Giltedge Magazine in 1998. He set out to create a luxury publication focused on travel in Southern and East Africa, but it soon evolved into a travel company. “A lot of the properties in the magazine were giving us room nights in exchange for advertising, so we were doing barter agreements,” he recalls. “We needed to convert that barter into sales to make money, so we started the travel business.”

Murray teamed up with Sean Kritzinger, who’s now the executive chairman, to found Giltedge Africa in 2001. From its humble beginnings operating out of Murray’s lounge room, the business has grown to employ 135 people.

With African safari holidays in high demand, Giltedge aims to provide its clients with authentic experiences off the beaten track. “It’s the bucket-list holiday for many people – they want to come to Africa and do a safari and see wild animals,” says Murray.

“People are looking for experiential holidays, such as gorilla trekking in Rwanda. That is certainly one of the top activities we can now offer. And, just recently, I stayed at a great place on the Skeleton Coast in Namibia called Shipwreck Lodge. We love sending our clients to really remote and different destinations.”

Murray points out improved air access both into Africa and between African countries is making travel easier. “A lot of the major airlines are now flying into not only South Africa, but also our neighbouring countries, as well as East Africa,” he says. “For example, Kenya Airways is now flying from New York to Nairobi. It’s very exciting that Africa is becoming accessible for a lot more people.

“Access between African countries is also becoming a lot easier,” he adds. “Kenya Airways is flying between Cape Town and Nairobi, and RwandAir is flying between Kigali and Cape Town, so suddenly you can link East Africa with South Africa. This improved air access has allowed us to create itineraries with more destinations than we previously offered.”

Another exciting development is an abundance of new luxury accommodation opening in remote areas. “There are some fantastic new lodges in Mozambique, where there’s been no access before, and there are unbelievable properties opening in Rwanda,” Murray adds. “These days, clients don’t always want your usual Cape Town, Kruger National Park, Victoria Falls itineraries. We have to be a lot more creative, as they want to explore different destinations.”

Although travelling itself is becoming easier, there are still plenty of challenges associated with running a tourism business in Africa, such as political instability and drought. “The political landscape is changing all the time, but I think we’ve become pretty versatile when it comes to managing these things. We’re resilient and we’ve learned to adapt to challenges and turn any negatives into positives,” Murray says.

“We’ve learned to adapt to challenges and turn any negatives into positives.”

“Last year, we had a big drought in Cape Town. The water crisis was obviously a negative, but in terms of the water-saving projects that are going on and the measures hotels have introduced to reduce water consumption, we can turn it into a positive. We try to send out the message that it’s still safe to travel to Africa, regardless of what’s happening here.”

Murray also says it’s crucial to ensure the accommodation and experiences meet the needs and expectations of the client. “Every time we speak to a travel agent who has a client coming to Africa, it’s important for us to get as much information as we can to understand exactly what that client needs,” he says. “If it’s a family, for instance, we need to know the ages of the kids and what that family wants to get out of their experience, so we can match them with the right property.”

Giltedge has been named South Africa’s Leading Luxury Tour Operator at the World Travel Awards nine times between 2010 and 2019.

The Giltedge team works closely with the company’s suppliers, including tour operators and accommodation providers, to make sure they are the right fit for their clients.

“We spend a lot of time with our suppliers,” Murray says. “We form our relationships by going out to see each property and experiencing it ourselves. Our whole team does that – not just me. We’ll go out and experience the properties. And they need to be high-end, because that’s typically what we sell.

We also need to offer authentic activities we want our clients to experience. For example, we don’t work with people who offer elephant-back safaris, because there’s a big push against animal interactions.”

Because Giltedge is based in Cape Town, it relies on a preferred supplier to look after its clients travelling in East Africa. Murray says the businesses have been working together for more than a decade. “It was important for us to find the right partner, because we can’t be there 24/7,” he reflects. “If our clients are in trouble, there is another company that can be our lifeline in East Africa. They’re our eyes and ears on the ground and look after our clients while they’re there.”

As Murray reflects on his success over the past two decades, he says a key turning point came last year when French hotel giant AccorHotels acquired a 50% stake of both his father, Adrian’s company Mantis Group, and Giltedge. “That was a great achievement for myself and my business partner to see that an international company was interested in a South African one,” Murray says. “I think it shows the value in the business that we’ve grown in the past 18 years.”

Additionally, Giltedge was accepted into luxury travel network Virtuoso at the start of this year. “It’s quite a prestigious network, so we’re really excited about that,” Murray says, adding this will play an important role in helping the business achieve its future goals.

“Our vision is to be the most-respected luxury travel brand in South Africa by 2022. We need to be one step ahead of the game and be able to offer our clients something new, plus know exactly what’s happening in the industry all the time.”

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