In an era in which speed is king, there are still those who long to travel at a far more leisurely pace, in super luxury. Rovos Rail founder Rohan Vos successfully positioned his Pride of Africa train in this niche sector, doing SA’s tourism industry proud.
He says Rovos is selling an experience, not a train journey.
While the weekly return trip between Cape Town and Pretoria is the backbone of Rovos’s operations, the venturesome rail group has spread its tentacles far further.
It undertakes regular 14-day trips, starting in Cape Town and meandering along a 6,100km route to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Among other destinations in the Rovos line-up are Durban, Namibia and Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. "We do not operate speed trains," says Vos.
Riding Rovos’s five-star, wood-panelled hotel on wheels does not come cheap. On the 51-hour Pretoria-Cape Town journey, the cheapest accommodation, a Pullman suite, will cost a couple sharing R17,495 each.
Go even further upmarket and the most expensive accommodation, a Royal suite, comes at R35,150 each. Go all the way to Dar es Salaam and you are looking at US$21,550 each. But then the suite does take up half a carriage. It includes a full bathroom, bedroom and lounge.
Vos says the US, UK, Germany and Scandinavia account for about 60% of guests, and Australia and New Zealand 20%.
While Rovos’s prices may appear steep, they are highly competitive in the world of luxury train travel.
"It is not easy making money out of a passenger train," says Vos.
To just break even, Rovos must sustain average train occupancy levels at 50%; it is aiming to achieve an average 60% occupancy this year.
Behind the glamour of the Pride of Africa there is a complex business keeping the wheels turning. "We employ 380 people," says Vos.
The company has a lot to keep it busy. "We now have five train sets and a train especially built for functions," says Vos.
The fifth of Rovos’ long-distance train sets was added in January when it acquired the privately owned Shongololo Express. Rebuilt by Rovos to a three-star standard, the new train has been put to work on slow-paced Southern African leisure routes. Shongololo Express is not a get-rich-quick venture and is expected to take three years to break even.
Though Pride of Africa has earned a reputation as one of the world’s foremost luxury trains , Vos says: "You have to bang the drum every day. You can’t presume people know you."
Keeping the train in the eye of travel agents and the public are 12 marketing specialists. "They are always on the road and we also have a full-time representative in Beijing," says Vos. "It is very costly."
For Vos, who by 1985 had already built a thriving motor-spares business in Witbank, his move into the world of luxury trains was quite by chance. It began with a steam-train excursion to Magaliesburg.
"I became a train widow that day," says his wife Anthea, who has worked side by side with him ever since to make his vision come true.