“When Surgeon and Safari clients walk around everybody hops, and it's not because we're wielding a big stick, it's because they want to - because they are a part of the wheel,"

Lorraine Melvill


Surgeons and Safaris: a South African success

Andrew Miller

The central dilemma facing marketing specialists (and the businesses they sell their services to) is how to quantify a return on marketing investment. ROI is an age-old marketing issue, one that becomes particularly thorny in a recessionary environment.

With this in mind, South African businesses would do well to sit up and take notice of a South African company that is rapidly becoming an international brand name - without spending a cent on marketing.

Lorraine Melvill is the driving force behind Surgeon and Safari (, which began life at the beginning of 1999. A year-long period of intensive research preceded the launch of the web site in January 2000. The company hasn't received much publicity in South Africa, but internationally Surgeon and Safari is hot stuff.

For the uninitiated, here's how it works: Foreigners come to South Africa for surgery (of any kind, although generally cosmetic). They are greeted by a "friend away from home" at the airport. They stay at the Westcliff (Jo'burg) or the Mount Nelson (Cape Town). They enjoy the skills of a world-class surgeon. They recover in absolute comfort and privacy. Once they're ready to get out and about again, they go on a five-star safari. And then they go home, a new person - in more ways than one.

It's simple, but the concept has captured the attention of the world. Surgeon and Safari's list of media clips reads like a PR agent's ultimate sales pitch. Consider this random sampling taken from an extensive list of recent media coverage: Time, Newsweek, Daily Telegraph, Harpers and Queen, The Travel Channel, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Korean National News, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC Online, American National Public Radio... To this list, add recent approaches for TV documentaries from the biggest media hitters in the USA and the UK and you have astounding marketing success, achieved in over just two years.

It is not difficult to gauge the source of Melvill's success. Driven by an efficient web site (enabling global accessibility to the Surgeon and Safari service) she runs her business meticulously, and personally, focusing on an anti-traditional business model.

"The Surgeon and Safari business model is a wheel (with Surgeon and Safari at the hub, acting as facilitator)," she says. "It's the converse of a conventional business model - which is based on a pyramid of profit and which thrives on ego."

The concept of mutually beneficial associations lies at the heart of the Surgeon and Safari business model. Having established a tenuous partnership with the Orient Express Group (owners of The Westcliff and Mount Nelson hotels) as she started her business, Melvill quickly harnessed the international network offered by the group. In a short time, the international media took hold of the Surgeon and Safari story, beginning a snowball of international coverage that benefited both Melvill and the hotel group.

"Respect and opportunity is key when dealing with hotels, receptionists, the tour guide, the chauffeurs and the surgeons," Melvill continues. "Obviously the money has to be there, but it's also about forming relationships that work for everybody and that move beyond the victim mode. So yes, I tip everybody well - but the waiter gives great service because he is part of the business and he is respected as a person within that role."

"When Surgeon and Safari clients walk around everybody hops, and it's not because we're wielding a big stick, it's because they want to - because they are a part of the wheel," Melvill says. "They do a wonderful job, they are told this and respected for it. Mutual respect is the key to forming business associations that work for everybody."

The Surgeon and Safari web site is simple and efficient, and provides all possible information for potential clients. It also provides a multitude of enquiry and booking forms. Melvill deals with all Surgeon and Safari correspondence herself. In an age littered with monolithic, non-communicative web sites, this sort of personal service makes people sit up and notice.

Clearly it is the nature of Melvill's product that has afforded her the opportunity to harness viral networks, particularly when it comes to the international media. If she were selling toothpicks, the going would undoubtedly be a lot tougher.

Nevertheless, accolades must go to Melvill for developing a unique product, packaging it and selling it to the market before anyone could compete. Now that competitors are starting to emerge, Melvill has already established her company as the benchmark provider of any Surgeon and Safari service. In order to concretise her position in the face of compounding competition, Melvill has trademarked the phrases Surgeon and Safari (along with other derivatives), creating an exclusive trading domain.

Melvill's success with Surgeon and Safari offers valuable lessons for South Africans looking to break into the global market, regardless of their product.

"I didn't want to fall into the classic South African victim role again," she says. "I wanted to ensure that at Surgeon and Safari we serve quality. Yes, we have a favourable exchange rate - but we're still going to offer the best product we possibly can. Surgeon and Safari isn't cheap. It's value for money. There's a big difference."

"I felt very much like a victim in South Africa," Melvill continues. "A lot of black people find this difficult to understand, but I think we were all part of the victim archetype (after the 1994 elections) - the exchange rate, the crime - South Africa became a big dumping ground for everyone's negativity. I'm a great believer in openness and honesty to change perception - and changing perceptions has formed a big part of the Surgeon and Safari business. You have to overcome the victim role to empower yourself and to be able to sell the country and the concept."

Her overwhelmingly positive approach to business clearly works. And she has another, equally important lesson for local businesses.

The Surgeon and Safari success story shows us that marketing should not be an adjunct to a business, and that the concept of return on marketing investment is essentially flawed - because it invariably treats marketing as a business add-on. Surgeon and Safari has demonstrated that the opposite is true. Marketing should be a natural, everyday part of the business process, of the product, of dealings with clients, the media and the general public. Marketing should form the heart of any business, and strategic marketing intent should be visible in every aspect of business life.

And it doesn't take an army of marketing consultants to achieve this. All it takes is a strong vision, a belief in the product and the will to treat every person involved with your business as if they really matter - which they do.

Andrew Miller is a full time freelance writer. He is Editorial Manager at Aardvark Consulting and Communications - a Johannesburg based PR and Marketing consultancy - and contributes regular freelance material to a variety of print and online publications. Find him online on the Freelance Writer Showcase


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