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Business Observer Thursday, Apr. 2, 2009 13 years ago

Wild Business

Donovan Smith's private reserve is feeling the pinch of cutbacks in corporate travel, but he's adapting to the changing times. The biggest obstacle to his success: government.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

Donovan Smith's private reserve is feeling the pinch of cutbacks in corporate travel, but he's adapting to the changing times.


Company. Ngala Private Reserve
Industry. Hospitality
Key. Government is often the biggest obstacle to getting ahead in business.

Donovan Smith can lie on Walter's belly, a white rhinoceros that could crush him if he rolled over. But the government is a greater threat.

Constantly shifting animal-welfare rules and overzealous code enforcers are certainties in Smith's business. Until recently, he's managed to get by because of the success of his private animal reserve in Collier County called Ngala.

Captains of industry such as Indra Nooyi of Pepsico and Bob Nardelli of Home Depot (now chief executive officer at Chrysler) have entertained at Ngala, a 42-acre reserve that is home to 45 exotic animals ranging from tarantulas to a friendly giraffe named Coulter. (The name Ngala comes from an African word for lion.)

But combined with a slowing economy, Congress' attacks on everything from incentives to entertainment by U.S. companies have slashed Smith's corporate business by 50% in just the last six months. “A lot of them are not spending to stay below the radar,” Smith says of his corporate customers.

Even companies that haven't taken government handouts are worried they'll get publicly chastised. “Now, what we're seeing is companies that didn't take bailout money are eyeing perks and travel budgets.”

About 90% of Ngala's business is catering to corporate events. Guests are whisked from their Naples hotels in chauffeured limousines and buses and driven into the reserve, where they're entertained under a giant colonial-style tent with African dancers and exotic animals. Many of the events are rewards for top employees. Privacy is a big selling point: There's no parking at Ngala, there are no signs pointing to the private reserve and no directions to it on the company's Web site.

Smith, 38, is no stranger to challenges. The Naples native started his company at age 17 with just $200 and a Florida panther he kept in his parents' back yard. He and his wife Tammy opened Ngala in June 2000 without any employees because they couldn't afford any. “Hunger is the best sauce,” he says.

Ngala suffered again after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But the business recovered by appealing to corporate groups who had cancelled overseas trips. The first group Smith hosted after that terrible day was a club of 72 billionaires who gather once a year in secret. That year, they didn't want to travel overseas as they usually did.

Smith is not afraid to ask for help. At every function he hosts, he stands up to tell the gathering about how he and his wife created Ngala and asks guests to spread the word. “It's surprising how many people do,” Smith says.

In an immediate effort to overcome this corporate-travel slump, Smith is targeting companies in Canada that haven't felt the sting of government shame. He's also promoting weddings, a business he's shied away from in the past because they're so difficult to manage.

Smith, who has an ebullient personality, is contemplating nature-related television shows much the same way Steve Irwin the Crocodile Hunter did for the Australia Zoo. The idea is to combine entertainment with conservation, perhaps by setting up a nonprofit foundation that would benefit wildlife.

A panther and $200
Smith grew up tracking and documenting panthers and other wildlife in the Everglades with big-cat expert Frank Weed. Smith's family settled in Naples when his grandmother was given a lot on Marco Island years ago in exchange for agreeing to teach there. “At age 7, I knew I wanted to be an animal trainer,” he says.

By age 17, Smith owned a Florida panther given to him by Weed and kept it in his parents' back yard. With only $200 to his name, he started taking the panther to corporate and charitable events. He also made money using the panther for photo shoots, product launches and movies.

Initially, Smith traveled with his panther and displayed him in a cage, enduring hours of complaints from people who hated seeing the animal behind bars. So he got rid of the cage and built barriers and stanchions covered in foliage and held the panther with a leash. “You experience the animal three feet away,” Smith says.

Smith's animal displays became very elaborate. “We grew to where we had to charter planes,” he says.

Then, while on a safari to southern Africa in 1998, Donovan and Tammy sketched their idea for a private reserve for corporate retreats. Finding money to buy the land and build the facility was tough. “It was too weird or too strange for investors,” he says. “We risked it all. We ate cereal for dinner.”

To finish the project in time to open in June 2000, the Smiths borrowed $50,000 from their families and laid off the staff to save money. Their build-it-and-they-will-come strategy was a bust. “Nobody came,” Smith recalls.

So Smith donated the first event at Ngala to Youth Haven, an organization that helps abused children. Once the 350 people at the event saw Ngala, the word began to spread and corporate business started flowing.

Just as Ngala was taking off, the terror attacks of September 2001 stopped corporate travel in its tracks. All 11 corporate events scheduled after Sept. 11 were canceled. “The credit cards had to come back out again,” Smith says.

But domestic travel rebounded as people preferred to remain in the U.S. Of the 72 billionaires gathered at Ngala instead of flying to an exotic destination overseas, Smith recalls: “We had them all roasting marshmallows over the fire.”

Since that time, Ngala has hosted more than 650 corporate chiefs from many industries, including Indra Nooyi of Pepsico, who later commissioned Smith and his crew to lead team-building exercises at the company's headquarters.
Smith knows many of the corporate-meeting planners by name. “It's a small world,” he says.

Smith declines to share financial information such as sales. However, he says revenue growth doubled every year since the company started until about three years ago and it now employs 20 people. “We are profitable,” he says.
Ngala can accommodate up to 1,000 people and an event costs between $200 to $500 per person.

The economic downturn has forced companies to be more careful about how much they spend for meetings, but Smith says the federal government's public shaming of private-sector incentives is what is putting the brakes on his business.

It's gotten so bad that five-star hotels are giving up their coveted rankings because they're afraid of appearing too fancy and some properties are eliminating the word “resort” from their names, Smith says.

At Ngala, corporate business is off 50%. “This facility is a real barometer,” he says. “All our eggs are in one basket.”

Still, Smith isn't one to shy from a challenge. He's promoted Ngala to corporations in Canada, where the public flagellation of corporations hasn't been as brutal as in the U.S. In the last four months, seven Canadian companies have held events at Ngala. “It's only a four-hour flight from Toronto,” Smith says.

To weather the storm, Smith is making a push for other kinds of businesses. “We've gone after weddings, but they're very difficult,” he says. That's because there are so many different decision makers in a wedding that it makes it difficult to coordinate.

To solve the wedding problem, Ngala now offers packages with different prices. “Anything that veers from the package costs money,” Smith says.

Smith hopes hoteliers and other attractions will join forces to market the area better than in the past. “For years we were seen as the competition, but that's changed in the last three years,” he says. In this economy, he adds, “you definitely see who has their act together.”

Beyond that, Smith is contemplating other ways to generate business. That includes breeding zoo animals and setting up a nonprofit animal conservation program that would include educational television shows.

When a corporate group comes to Ngala, Smith says, “We have no vehicle for them to do bigger things.” Getting people involved in conservation would be a way for them to feel good about their visit.

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