Positive Impact Pioneers: Julie Cheetham & Sean Privett, Grootbos Private Nature Reserve
Perfectly poised on the headland between two bays and at the heart of what is considered the ‘whale watching Mecca’ of the world, the 2,500-hectare Grootbos Private Nature Reserve is renowned for its commitment to making a positive impact through various projects.
From the 308,000 acres of protected Walker Bay Fynbos Conservancy to an organic farm providing women from local townships with skills for the future, Grootbos is really making a difference to both its local environment and its local community.
We caught up with Managing Director Julie Cheetham and Conservation Director Sean Privett to delve a little deeper into how Grootbos has achieved positive impact pioneer status.
Can you explain a little bit about Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, and why you think it’s important from a conservation perspective?
Julie: Grootbos was not originally purchased as a biodiversity project, but then over time we realised that biodiversity is part of the fabric of Grootbos. Over the past 22 years, we’ve spent time exploring the surrounding biodiversity and we’ve found that the surrounding Cape Floral Kingdom is a real gem.
Sean: There’s an incredible 10,000 species of plants across the Cape Floral Kingdom, which is equivalent to the amount of plant species across the whole of Europe. There’s also a lot of insect life – 827 species to be exact, with 6 of them completely new to science. All of Grootbos’ grounds used to be private farmlands but have since been restored and rehabilitated. We think Grootbos’ position and the surrounding flora and fauna are really what makes it vital for conservation efforts in the region.
What’s a typical day like as a conservationist?
Sean: As my role is so varied, there’s not really such a thing as a typical day! No day is ever the same but a large component of my role is mentorship, such as working with researchers and other private land-owners to change the way conservation is done in the local area. As Director of Conservation, my role is more about fostering relationships with people, as opposed to the on-the-ground elements of conservation. When I am out in the field, I’m doing surveys or looking for plants and animals to survey. Beyond that, I also spend a lot of my time coordinating the rest of the team and liaising with various partners.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced on your journey towards becoming a Long Run GER member?
Julie: Getting accredited by The Long Run is a fairly challenging process, as there’s quite a lot of administratively hard work you have to go through in the first instance. However, this has really helped us think more strategically about our work and it’s a nice mechanism to build into the KPIs of staff members. The Long Run also encourage their members to be extremely ambitious, which is good as it helps to keep everyone on their toes.
Of course, each property has natural strengths and weaknesses, so whilst it’s been a challenge to satisfy each of the 4Cs, it’s made the reach our positive impacts are having as a business far more balanced. The Long Run is also a great network to have access to, as there’s constant sharing of ideas. Next, we’re looking into carbon offsetting for guests and making our positive impact solutions hyper-local ones.
How has Grootbos helped the local community through its conservation efforts?
Sean: The Grootbos Foundation has helped the local community on various levels, but one of our most rewarding projects is running the Green Futures College. The Green Futures Education programme relates to learning initiatives with a core conservation focus, and so far we’ve trained up to 200 people to prepare them for futures in the green economy. Our programmes range from helping women access gainful employment to getting children to engage with the local environment on canoeing trips.
Why do you think travellers should choose to stay at Grootbos?
Julie: I think there’s a myriad of reasons why travellers should choose to stay at Grootbos. First of all, Grootbos is an incredible property which offers amazing service and wonderful food, all set amongst acres of indigenous forest. I think what really sets Grootbos apart though is the real foundation and depth with which conservation – both on a social and environmental level – is an integral part of the Grootbos ethos. Of course, we’re aware of the general negative environmental impacts of the tourism industry. However, we also believe that the right kind of travel – travel with purpose, whereby travellers visit places like Grootbos, is helping to keep cultures around the world alive. What’s more, anyone who visits can take comfort in the fact that they’re supporting a property that is doing good for both nature and communities.
During your membership with The Long Run to date, how have you found that members knowledge share and exchange relevant industry information with one another?
Sean: When it comes to the conservation side of things, our membership of The Long Run has allowed us to think strategically and connect with NGOs and other big players in the conservation world. We’ve also just finished a consultation process with fellow Long Run members, during which we asked for feedback around the Walker Bay Fynbos Conservancy that we could work into our strategic five-year conservation plan.
Julie: The Long Run also has a formal regular knowledge exchange programme, whereby properties receive people from other members and vice versa. Grootbos is an open environment for this sort of thing, and we’ve really learnt a lot from the other members who we’ve invited here. Through the relationships we’ve built, we have managed to develop our marketing strategy and find research areas that both partners can benefit from.
What are your plans for the future?
Sean: From a conservation perspective, we’ve spent the last 20 odd years developing partnerships with private landowners whose land is not statutorily recognised or conserved beyond the current owners. If children were to inherit the farms, they could look at running other activities on the land, so it’s an opportunity for us to formalise areas of land beyond the Grootbos boundary. Within the next three years, we ideally want a formally recognised protected area of land both in and around Grootbos. Our other main focus is continuing to understand the biodiversity of the area, by collaborating with researchers. The more we learn, the more stories we have to tell our guests about the surrounding biodiversity – after all, you can’t manage something if you don’t know how it works.
Julie: From the guest experience perspective, the next layer for us is really exploring where conservation and nature intersects with wellness. We’re doing lots of workshopping around wellness, coming up with ideas as to how we can go beyond just having a spa to frame the future guest experience. We’re also constantly looking at how we can sustain and develop the Grootbos Foundation, so we can continue to make a meaningful impact.
Do you have any advice for hotels located in urban environments, that are looking to create a positive impact on more than just an environmental level?
Julie: I think whether you’re running a hotel or producing a retail product, it ultimately comes down to ethical business practice. In my opinion, the main things businesses should be looking at are creating shared value for their stakeholders – consumers, local communities, and staff – and sourcing products and services ethically. Ideally, businesses should be looking at hyper-local solutions to their sourcing needs, and consider whether things like their entertainment or food offerings are coming directly from the local community.
We’re lucky at Grootbos because of our environment, but you really don’t have to be stuck in the middle of rare wilderness to be making a difference. Even if you start by making very basic changes – as long as you’re transparent about where you’re currently at and what you’re trying to achieve – it’s a good a start as any.