Discover ROAR AFRICA & Its Inspiring Founder Deborah Calmeyer
I am woman, hear me roar! This is what first crossed my mind when I heard about ROAR AFRICA and the ultra-luxe African safari brand’s founder Deborah Calmeyer. Uplifting women, saving wildlife and supporting the wellbeing of her home country of South Africa, Deborah Calmeyer is a woman on a mission. Through exceptionally thoughtful planning, a dose of psychoanalysis, and an unparalleled network on the ground in Africa, Deborah and her ROAR AFRICA team designs bespoke trips which are as enriching and eye-opening as they are adventurous and entertaining.
And what better way to use the power of luxury than for good. Deborah loves luxury and her services are perfectly tailored for the most discerning clientele. But at the root of ROAR AFRICA is her desire to make Africa a better place. To support the wellbeing of South Africa where American tourists support the majority of the ecotourism industry. To preserve Africa’s stunning landscapes and wildlife. And to provide women with jobs they may have never ever considered possible.
So without further ado, read on to hear what Deborah Calmeyer has to say about starting and growing ROAR AFRICA; amazing trips she has planned (wow!); what she believes is a silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic; and the fabulous work she does empowering women to reach their fullest potential in a country where this is far from easy!
ROAR AFRICA Comes to Be
About 20 years ago Deborah Calmeyer moved from her home country of South Africa to New York. And as she made the city her home the idea of ROAR AFRICA emerged.
“People would hear my accent and tell me they wanted to go to South Africa. They would ask for my help, say this is my itinerary, could you have a look at it?” explained Deborah. “I started to sense the value of talking to somebody who is from a place when you are about to travel there. It’s one thing booking through a travel agent, they’re selling a destination but they’re not from there. And I started to really get the sense from the people around me that time was really precious, a nonrenewable resource. Americans work so hard, their vacation is probably even more precious than it is to other people in the world who get much more of it and take life a little bit more slowly.”
It was these realizations and experiences that led Deborah to start ROAR AFRICA. But the business was also a solution for her dad, a retired animal scientist, with no work, and unemployable as a white male in the new South Africa. Deborah suggested her father get his guiding license and she would send him a couple of trips a year. “I knew that would be enough of a little income to keep him going and give him something to do,” said Deborah. “He is super high energy and loves people and so that’s what it was, a solution for him and his retirement and being cash strapped and needing something to do.”
Deborah soon recognized that people were looking for more intimate experiences. She looked at current travel options and saw that most didn’t really show the best of the country to visitors. “I realized that when people aren’t selling their home it doesn’t come loaded with the pride and the care of the definite things one wants a visitor to experience,” said Deborah. “It’s more sort of a packaged fly and flop experience.”
“So that’s what happened,” Deborah continued. “I started this little website, it cost me $2,000 to do. And then I had a little launch party in my apartment in New York. And so, oh, ok. I started this company, ROAR AFRICA. And if you want to go to Africa then let me know and my dad will guide you.
For the next six years, Deborah carried on her regular sales job. Each day heading to the office with two computers and two phones. Then she started to realize the power of the incredible network she had on the ground through her family having been in South Africa for 300 years plus. She realized they had access to archives and interesting people and places that maybe others didn’t even know existed.
“From there people just started to find out about us through word of mouth,” said Deborah. “I had no budgets, no investors, and this mini mickey mouse website. I started to donate safaris to charities and just try to get the word out there. And it was difficult. Our first year we did just 4 trips. And this year we had maybe 300 trips on the books, mostly from word of mouth still.”
Why ROAR AFRICA?
“We custom design every single trip around the person or group traveling,” explained Deborah. She begins the planning of each trip with a face-to-face meeting. And while video works, she’d prefer to hop on a plane if possible. “We work like architects from scratch with a blank page. It is very difficult to design something without meeting people,” said Deborah.
“Face to face is best as there are many signals that you can’t pick up on a phone. Sometimes face to face is not possible, and we can of course work with this too. But we don’t have an itinerary to show. I always have to go through an extensive conversation. Learning about you. What you find beautiful. What luxury is to you. What’s going to be most meaningful to you from this trip. All of those funny questions that are not about just what dates, how many days, how much money, how many people. We try to escape that as fast as possible and get into the psyche of the traveler. We want to really understand what it is that’s going to feed their souls and open their eyes. Discover who they are as people.”
More than just travel, a larger philanthropic mission
“I am trying to bring the right people to Africa,” said Deborah. “I have a much bigger purpose than just providing these luxury trips. My goal is really to have an impact on saving our wildlife and wild spaces. But also most importantly I am trying to engage as many African women in tourism as possible. And that means I need to cultivate a certain client. The type of client that is very discerning, very caring, and loving, that this experience that I am creating for them is going to really mean something and hope I have a knock-on effect.”
The ultimate bespoke experience
“My initial interviewing techniques get to things like do they like big chain hotels, do they like small boutique hotels,” explained Deborah. “Trying to sense everything, do they not drink or do they have a peanut allergy or a sleep apnea machine. This helps filter through properties. We want each activity to be better than the next to keep our clients moving.”
Deborah went on to explain the importance of the very first moment her clients leave their homes. “Because of what we endure in American airports people are very stressed by travel. They go from 14 hours in a tube to a place that terrifies them. The initial unwinding of the group, the mother, the mother in law, is essential. Taking them from that place of fear and anxiety. Moving them off the flight, and meeting them with a sign with their name on it at every airport. Transferring them all the way through their trip is a feeling of comfort and safety that goes beyond words.”
The psychology behind designing and executing ultra-luxury bespoke safaris
Living in New York and having a natural flair for “getting” people gave Deborah a clear advantage when it came to building ROAR AFRICA. New Yorkers in particular, and Americans in general, have unique tolerance levels for different types of services. What makes one person feel at home or special, is completely different from another. Translating this into African culture (i.e. this may not be important to you, but this is how this person sees it, this is the environment and world that this person is coming from), so that her team understands the needs of ROAR AFRICA’s clientele, is paramount.
At first, Deborah didn’t really pay attention to the importance of psychology on her business. But as she worked with more and more people, all with different, and often strong personalities, cultures, and desires, Californians, tech billionaires, CEO’s, the mom on Park avenue, she learned so much from the cross-section of human beings she catered to. “I had to impart so much psychology. I should have a doctorate in psychology,” Deborah added with a laugh.
Have a dream trip? ROAR AFRICA can bring it to life!
From perfectly articulated luxurious safari adventures to amazing weddings and exceptional birthday celebrations, like an Out of Africa White Mischief Party in the middle of the Serengeti for a 40th, ROAR AFRICA creates amazing adventures for their clients.
To date, Deborah’s favorite production was her own celebration for ROAR AFRICA’s 10 year anniversary – Downton Abbey comes to Africa. And after viewing the video of the event I can certainly see why, wow! An invite-only list made up of all those who helped her build the business spent 3 days of Downton Abbey-style dress up and events all out in the bush full-on with black-tie parties, casinos evenings, and all sort of really over the top fun!
And while Deborah created the trip to say thank you to her team, it also served as a way to show clients just what ROAR Africa can do! “The one thing about doing events in Africa is it is really really inexpensive,” explained Deborah. “You can do the most off the charts events, some really amazing productions. And it is not that bad. You can take over a full lodge and really go to town for under $100,000.”
The Greatest Safari on Earth
In August 2021, ROAR AFRICA in partnership with Emirates will launch The Greatest Safari on Earth. According to Deborah, their most exciting adventure to date! The journey begins on Emirates executive private jet, a huge airplane that would normally take 150 passengers that is now fitted out for 10 people in luxury first-class suites.
Over the course of 12 days, guests are taken to Africa’s four most iconic places: Kenya’s Great Migration (the greatest wildlife show on earth), the world’s last wild Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda, Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls (one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World), and the Okavango Delta in Botswana (the largest inland delta on the planet).
While the trip was almost sold out before the pandemic, Deborah is not sure if this will still be true by the time they get there. But she remains hopeful as the desire for private travel in wide-open spaces is set to increase! Especially as the team just decided that they will give 100% of the profits from the trip all back to the Great Plains Foundation who focuses on wildlife and conservation. “I am so excited about that decision. It will make a massive impact and those travelers will be contributing in a huge way to the restoration and regeneration after this time, of everything that has become so vulnerable,” said Deborah.
A passion for empowering African women
“It’s a very interesting business model we have at ROAR AFRICA,” Deborah explained. “It is really built out of identifying fabulous women. It hasn’t been a case of you can’t do this job because you can’t get to the office every day and you’re not sitting in Cape Town. The whole company started with me and a laptop doing another job. The second employee was a woman who was about to leave a hotel I was using for our guests. She was pregnant and she needed to be near her family to help with child care. So I said to her, well that’s fine you can still work for ROAR AFRICA. If you have to move home, I don’t mind. And so she did.”
Today Deborah’s company is 85% female, many single women, working in towns where they would never have a job, where they would never be the breadwinner. “If they’re lucky they may be the school teacher or the soccer coach or something,” she explained. “But they would never have big New York corporate jobs, on corporate salaries, with these kinds of benefits, exposed to international clientele working on a luxury brand. I am so proud of that because my team is a beautiful example of empowered women from all different diversities, religions, everything, just totally women that have been uplifted and empowered. Financially enabled to do stuff like own homes, support their families, and call the shots. It makes me so proud that I have been able to give those women that.”
ROAR AFRICA Women’s Empowerment Trip
In addition to empowering her female employees, Deborah is passionate about empowering as many African women as possible. A quest that led her to launch the Women’s Empowerment Trip in 2019—a retreat that she plans to continue each year to drive the conversation of having more women in typically male jobs in the safari industry.
“The Women’s Empowerment Trip was designed to help me try to change the landscape,” said Deborah. “Given the empowerment I have felt by living and working in New York by American women. I know we think it is unequal and it still is very unequal, but it’s so much better than Africa. The safari industry is the most male-dominated industry in the world and there is nobody driving that conversation. So these trips are meant to try to change that.
“What I do is get female pilots, female guides, female rangers, female trackers, conservationists, everybody female in a lodge, so we can see what it would look like if women ran the safari industry. And it’s not that we are trying to take it over, it is just that we want an equal opportunity.
“I am so tired of going to lodges that are owned by men, run by men and the women are making the beds and cooking the food and that’s the end of their career path. It started to drive me completely crazy. Then one day I saw two women pilots who were about to fly me somewhere. It was a pretty technical airplane, and I was so excited. I was like ok this is it, this is it, next year your working with me, we’re going to do this, and you’re my inspiration and they were so excited.
“It was such an unbelievable trip, and I got speakers from around the world, different women doing different things in Kenya, in the Congo, in India. Everyone came together and it was this great platform to share success stories of amazing projects that women were running. We highlighted what it looked like to have women trackers usually only ever done by men and women guides, opening the eyes of other local women to these career possibilities. It is so much easier to become a tracker locally when you live in a rural village than a hairdresser in a city 3 hours away.”
Currently, the 2020 Women’s Empowerment Trip is set to take place in September 2020.
Deborah hopes a silver lining in the pandemic will help her mission
“The silver lining, I hope, is that people will finally understand that saving the life of a rhino actually depends on their own survival. This was a message we’ve been crying about for years and years. It’s more than a moral obligation for conservationists. I spoke in China 5 years ago about the illegal trade of wildlife. But the one piece I never ever envisioned and maybe the reason why it never ever hit home, is that we knew these viruses were all there. They have come many times before, but what we never thought is that it could bring the word to a financial standstill and become a global health issue.”
“When it’s passed we are all going to be asking the question why. So the positive thing for me, the silver lining, is that we will understand the value of wildlife. That we are totally interconnected and dependent on one another. And it doesn’t matter if you are sitting in your living room in New York, you have to care if a rhino lives or dies because otherwise, you will die. So finally, that connection can be made. China is already jumping all over it. They are closing those markets, legislation is being drawn, law enforcement put in place, penalties put in place. There has to be zero tolerance, it’s a global health issue. It’s all of our issues. If we lose our precious wildlife we will suffer immeasurable loneliness of spirit.”
“The wildlife wins in all of this and the world wakes up to the fact that they have to really care and that we all depend upon this and we have to travel with purpose and sensitivity and we can’t just be fly and flop like spoiled brats that just want to go to beautiful hotels with every amenity. It’s got to matter what we do when we travel. And I hope that people will be more purposeful and more sensitive. I think we are all going to evolve as better humans, but also that wildlife and wild spaces will become even more valuable and even more protected because they have to be for all our children for their children, otherwise what’s the point?”
Learn more and plan your next safari adventure at www.roarafrica.com!
Words by Anna Beck Bimba
All Images Courtesy of ROAR AFRICA