The story of Hilton and Jacqui Loon's 33 years as owners of Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve is one of continuous investment in SA, through one of its most turbulent periods in history.
Hilton, who describes himself as more of a financial man than a hotelier, previously worked for City Merchant Bank (later Senbank). The Loons bought a struggling property called Sabi Game Lodge in 1980, with partner Peter Milne.
The lodge was originally built by two families to take advantage of the influx of Argentine tourists to SA in the late 1970s, fuelled by the strength of the Argentine peso. When that collapsed, businesses like Sabi Game Lodge battled to make profits.
Thirty years ago luxury safari lodges were relatively few. The stand-outs were Mala Mala, Londolozi and Sabi Sabi.
The first few years were tough. Hilton bought out his partner in 1982 but the business, undercapitalised and with a strong local currency, didn't make money until after PW Botha's Rubicon speech knocked the rand, encouraging a flood of foreign tourists.
Even now, despite Sabi Sabi's well-established brand, "safari lodges aren't a great investment proposition," Hilton says. "From an investment point of view you'd probably be better off putting your money in the bank."
Owning a business, he adds, has to be about both fun and profit and Sabi Sabi is, for him and Jacqui, a passion: for the community, the conservation and the guests.
There's been continuous investment over the decades. Sabi Sabi had two lodges at first, River Lodge and Bush Lodge. Part of the property was freehold and part was leasehold, and Loon wanted to acquire more freehold property before putting substantial sums into lodge development. So over the years he has bought surrounding properties, including the site on which Selati sits, which was owned by opera singer Mimi Coertse's family. The Ivory Suite was originally three humble family bungalows. Selati was bought and built in 1985 and rebuilt again in 1994.
After the 1994 democratic elections the economic climate and resurgent tourism encouraged investment. Also in the 1990s, agreement was reached with Kruger to remove the fences between the park and the private properties in the Sabi Sands to encourage free movement of game. After a devastating flood destroyed River Lodge in 2000, more millions were spent on building the newest property, Earth Lodge.
Loon says the original safari lodges offered more basic accommodation than today. Now it isn't enough to offer comfortable accommodation, great service and game viewing: the experience has to include first-class food and wine. That is driven by the fact that the main marketing channel is the travel and tour operators around the world and they compare up-market safari lodges with the world's most luxurious hotels.
Sabi Sabi's biggest market is the US, followed by SA, but its guest book even has comments in Chinese.
Winning top slot in the Condé Nast Traveller Reader's Choice awards for best safari lodge in Africa is probably due to the consistency in the service offered and the effort that has been put into training the staff and ensuring they understand the product Sabi Sabi offers, MD Rod Wyndham says. It can be hard to motivate staff in a big city, but the intimate bush setting helps to make everyone feel part of the family. The rangers, in particular, are very excited to work at Sabi Sabi, he adds.
Sabi Sabi also maintains a close relationship with its surrounding communities, whose prosperity is linked to the success of the lodges. Sabi Sabi employs 267 people, the majority of whom live in neighbouring villages, and it has donated funds to various community facilities, with an emphasis on education.
Sabi Sand Wildtuin landowners have formed the Sabi Sand Trust, chaired by Sidney Frankel and including Cheryl Carolus as one of the trustees, to co-ordinate their efforts in community projects.
Apart from the tribute by Condé Nast Traveller readers, Loon says he is most delighted by the lodge receiving the Fair Trade in Tourism accreditation. Fair Trade undertakes an exhaustive investigation into working conditions and respect for human rights. Sabi Sabi was one of the first companies in the world to secure the Fair Trade tourism certificate and its significance is appreciated by many of its foreign visitors.