"Turning your nip n tuck into an African adventure"
"Top South African plastic surgery combined with five-star holiday treatment for Americans and Europeans makes for a lucrative business"
Writes Christina Stucky
In one key respect, Lorraine Melvill, founder and managing director of Surgeon & safari, is everything her European and American clients are not: she oozes such boundless energy and self-confidence that you could never imagine she’d ever bother with plastic surgery, nor is she the "if only…" type.
The 42-year-old divorcee launched the successful "scalpel safari" concept, which simultaneously put South African plastic surgery on the map and gave the country’s tourism industry a major boost.
But she distinguishes herself from other successful entrepreneurs in many obvious ways. With her warmth and people-oriented philosophy she skirts the realm of the "touchy feely", which generally does not sit comfortably in the world of business.
Many might feel inclined to dismiss this vivacious, outgoing woman who prefers jeans over power suits. And yet they are probably kicking themselves with their FTSEs in their Masdecs for not having come up with the lucrative concept before her.
In 1999 her uncle in the United Sates wanted to get a facelift. She immediately suggested he get it done in South Africa. The uncle opted for surgery in Johannesburg and the idea of combining world-class surgery with first-class postcolonial African adventure was born. She launched Surgeon & Safari at the end 1999 and opened her website in January 2000. Soon she received and e-mail from an interested American woman who became Melville’s first client.
Today Melvill handles 20 to 30 clients a month from Europe and the US. They come to Johannesburg or Cape Town, get operated on by a handpicked team of top surgeons, recover at the Westcliff or Mount Nelson and go on safari, on a wine tour or ride the blue train or Rovos Rail. Some even venture into Soweto.
During the average two-week stay of the Surgeon & Safari client in South Africa she or he (about 20 percent of her clients are men) spends between R 100 000 and R 150 000.
"A fraction of that goes to the surgeon," says Melvill. Her laughter tings through the Polo Lounge at the Westcliff as she admits that she has long stopped counting her clients and doesn’t know her average monthly profit off the top of her head. She acknowledges that there has been a steady increase in customers, largely thanks to the international media – which she refers to as her "marketing department:.
When Surgeon & Safari made it onto page 2 of TIME magazine she had had the grand total of one client. Her website has up to 3,000 hits after publicity overseas. Again her laughter rings out. Partly out of glee, partly because she can’t believe her luck. But her winning formula "now much copied, both legally and illegally, around South Africa" has little to do with luck.
When Melvill got divorced seven years ago, she found herself with two young children and without a source of income. She felt she had a choice. Either she could wallow in self-pity and remain the eternal victim or she could take control of her destiny. She chose the latter route and has gone from strength to strength, from success to success. She feels a certain responsibility towards other single mothers and wants to convey her personal philosophy of life, which also forms the basis for her company’s philosophy.
The underlying principle, she says, is to shift a negative into a positive experience. It forms past of what she calls her "personal commitment to South Africa."
"I’m passionate about my country. I’m not going anywhere. But we are allowing ourselves to be victims of negativity. Being African and living in Africa, I/m tired of being a victim, of all the negative press."
Surgeon & Safari is designed to show the world what a wonderful place South Africa is and to counter the Clinches "to demonstrate that the country is not all about crime and third world standards", she says.
Choosing the best hotels, tours and surgeons is part of the concept. Offering one-on-one care and competitive prices is another.
Most of the clients come to South Africa because they can enjoy complete anonymity after their plastic surgery: "no walking around at their local supermarkets with bandaged noses and stitches in their faces. And because South Africa is incredibly cheap. For a Breast Augmentation a woman would pay around £ 3 500 (about R 52 000 ) in Britain. Here she pays about £ 1 600 for the operation and about another £ 1 500 for a seven day, five-star holiday."
Melvill’s clients have ranged in age from 24 to 69, from chief executives of international companies to models and even included a woman who was on the dole in Britain and borrowed money to come to South Africa for a "Boob job"
Regardless of the apparent diversity of Melville’s clients, they share an odd combination of vanity and lack of self-esteem. Some admit that they hope to feel more self-confident after their surgery; others argue that societal and professional pressures give them no other option but to seek eternal youth. This combination makes for difficult clients. Melvill admits that some of them are extremely sensitive and hard to handle.
Others just experience post-operative slumps, which Melvill is adept at getting them through. Many of the clients say that Melville’s personal touch is a key factor in making their experience in South Africa enjoyable.
Some ay Melvill plans to sell the company and use some of the money "for the future of South Africa"
She wants to start a Kibbutz-type orphanage for children who are not HIV-positive but who also need to be nurtured. Her concern, she says, is with the next generation.