Mantis CEO Gardiner has eco-warrior brand visions

Paul Gardiner wants Port Elizabeth, South Africa-based Mantis to become “the global eco-warrior brand.” That is part of the reason his family-led eco-lodge business sold half of its share to Accor about three years ago – to offer other eco-lodge developers and owners around the world access to Accor’s distribution might and loyalty program, either through a Mantis franchise or management contract. It seemed like a great idea at the time, but shortly thereafter came COVID, and the momentum screeched to a halt.

By mid-summer of this year, the conservation-focused hotel group with some 25 hand-picked luxury hotels, eco-lodges, waterways and impact experiences (a few owned by the Gardiner family), had reopened it properties and revived its aspirations to become the leader in eco-lodge expansion. Business is slowly coming back and just before HOTELS interviewed Mantis CEO Gardiner in October, he spent two days with Accor leadership to reenergize their initiatives to integrate more lodges into the Mantis [Man and Nature Together Is Sustainable] system.

The pilot project to gain critical proof of concept for the Mantis-Accor partnership is the original Gardiner family lodge, the Mantis Founder’s Lodge in South Africa, created by patriarch Adrian Gardiner, which has always been used as the model for Mantis’ expansion. The nine-room property is located adjacent to the Shamwari Game Reserve – the first Big Five reserve in the Eastern Cape – which the Gardiner family sold in 2010. In addition, Paul Gardiner said he has already recruited The Lodge at Feline Fields in Botswana as a franchise, as well as the eight-key Origins Lodge in Costa Rica. Both lodges will retain their identity and tack “by Mantis” to the property names.

“I think that the advantage of having this big brother (Accor) behind us is certainly going to be a differentiator for us. The loyalty, the distribution and our vision for recreating a better planet – we plug all of that in and it can give us a lot of bang for buck.” – Paul Gardiner

“A lot of these eco-warrior lodges have amazing owners with big aspirations to do things right. They’ve got the money to do that, too,” Gardiner said. “So, I think we’ll be in good hands, but we just have to watch very carefully what we do.”

The bigger plan with Accor calls for a portfolio that is about 80% eco-driven lodges and 20% gateway hotels. For example, Mantis already has the 35-room Draycott Hotel in London, which can act as a gateway to other Mantis properties in the Scottish Highlands. “We are busy doing a couple of interesting eco-properties in and around the UK (Chester, Oxfordshire and on the Isle of Wight),” Gardiner added.

The partnership also gives Accor a real opportunity to make a difference in the eco-tourism world, said Gardiner, who got his start in the business as a game ranger at Shamwari in 1996. “I think it’s going to do them good, because if you look at all the big boys, none of them really have an eco-warrior brand – perhaps IHG to a degree with Six Senses… I think Accor realizes they’ve got this green flag that they need to be waving absolutely everywhere because it gives you a lot of credibility today.”

Growth plans

Looking ahead, Mantis in October announced a deal to reposition and manage a property on Bahrain’s Hawar Islands to a 72-room lodge-focused resort, which is owned by the country’s ruler.

In Ras Al Khaimah, the northernmost emirate of the United Arab Emirates, Gardiner said the ruler and his daughter have signed a deal to create a 50-key lodge by Mantis in the Jebel Jais mountains, home of the world’s longest zipline. Similar to all Mantis outposts, the focus will be all about the guest experience, such as hiking, mountain biking and a farm-to-table F&B concept.

Siringit Migration bedroom and bathroom

Mantis is also developing a master plan on the east coast of Barbados; in Iceland, where it will use the geothermal baths and glaciers as points of discovery; and in the fjords of Norway, where it is conceiving a floating hotel. There are also inquiries coming out of Saudi Arabia, where Gardiner said Mantis has two projects in planning stages.

The other market Mantis loves is Rwanda. “They call it the Singapore of Africa. It’s a very interesting place,” Gardiner said. “I think a lot of Americans are starting to travel there, and I’m sure we’re going to start seeing more and more flights from America to Rwanda. Obviously, it had that haunted perception of genocide, but that was 25 years ago. It’s turned over a new lease and it’s an amazing country to visit. It’s the cleanest country on the planet.”

A lot of Mantis’ competition is already in the market with lodges at Volcanoes National Park, but Gardiner says Mantis hopes to find something there very soon. It already runs government-sponsored hotels in the country and is currently building the Mantis Kivu Queen uBuranga luxury cruiser, which will sail up Lake Kivu first to see the chimpanzees, then interact with the pygmies up river and finally reach the north to see the famous gorilla population. Mantis also manages the Akagera National Park, another of the Big Five parks where it updated the lodge.

“We enjoy taking the DNA that we developed at Shamwari Game Reserve all those years ago and taking it to different parts of the world,” Gardiner said, adding that the group still has aspirations to grow in Africa. “We have a team of South Africans that will connect with the locals. We’ve been doing this for 30 years and take a lot of that knowledge from Africa, in terms of the guest experience, and then adapt to all the destinations.”

Mantis will call on Accor, as well, for further creativity. Gardiner pointed to a creative person on Accor’s team in Paris who dreams up new spa concepts and is working with his team to develop a wellness concept surrounding African mythology with witch doctors and spiritual healing. “That’s kind of the direction we want it to go; we’re not going to just offer the regular thing,” Gardiner added.

Accor’s mission with Mantis is also to spread the word and help identify investors that would like to invest in an eco-lodge.

Siringit Migration camp sundowner

While franchising an eco-lodge concept is somewhat foreign to most investors, it is the route Gardiner sees Accor wanting to go more often than taking management. Gardiner expects more franchising to initially happen with Mantis’ urban developments, as there still has to be a lot of education at the lodge level. “In the next five years, once we have a few good examples of how a franchise can work, if we can go to a lot of lodges with a model that is very effective that they’ll not pass on it because obviously it’s a cheaper model to embrace,” Gardiner said. “There are a lot of things that we’re working on (such as plug-in software) to optimize the franchise model and bring the cost down. And I think it’ll be a winner – long term.”

The other piece of the Mantis puzzle is its charitable work now done with Accor. They have

created the charitable foundation, Community Conservation Fund Africa (CCFA) to address social and environmental imbalances, and to find a workable solution to the growing conservation crisis. It does so through grant-giving, education and working in partnership with local communities to implement management systems on the ground, which will protect the wildlife and the wilderness areas. A key objective is to ensure that tourism is instrumental in changing the conservation crisis, as without wildlife, there will be little to no tourism into Africa.

Big picture, Gardiner could see Mantis growing to between 50 and 75 units, mostly organically, in five years to 10 years. “Accor may have different aspirations, but I think dad (Adrian) and I would be very happy if we could achieve that.”

And it is not like Mantis doesn’t have competition coming out of Africa, with Gardiner citing the likes of Singita, andbeyond, Wilderness Safaris and Great Plains.

“I think that the advantage of having this big brother (Accor) behind us is certainly going to be a differentiator for us,” Gardiner said. “The loyalty, the distribution and our vision for recreating a better planet – we plug all of that in and it can give us a lot of bang for buck.”