The evolution of a hospitality professional.
From flying Blackhawk helicopters for the United States Army to serving as a General Manager at Abu Camp, one of the world’s pre-eminent safari lodges, Aaron Gjellstad, Luxury Frontiers’ Director of Operations, has had somewhat of an unconventional entry into the hospitality world. Here, we talk to the former Army captain about the importance of environmental conservation, the soul-enriching experience of getting off the grid, and the reason flying helicopters and managing hotel staff isn’t all that different.
1. Tell me about how you got started in hospitality.
It definitely wasn’t a traditional hospitality job, but when I was flying Blackhawks for the United States Army, I was responsible for managing a flight crew while transporting VIPs —general officers, Middle Eastern sheiks, US senators—over high-risk combat areas. The job required not only strong leadership skills, but also attention to detail, meticulous planning, and the ability to make critical decisions on the spot—all skills that form the backbone of superlative hospitality management.
2. How did you pivot from that role into hospitality?
After serving in Army Aviation for seven years, I received an MBA with a specialty in Tourism Management. My coursework helped me understand the travel industry on a macro level: from hotel real-estate, finance, and sustainability best practices to how transportation and the airline industry fit into the picture, and so forth. From there, I worked with the Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti on supply chain and logistics, then moved to Botswana to become the General Manager of Abu Camp for the next three years.
3. What drew you to that gig?
I have always gravitated towards challenging environments and workplaces that have allowed me to learn from the best. At Abu Camp, I had the privilege of working with the late Paul Allen, whose lodge set the standard on how to execute and deliver service at the highest level. I also had the opportunity to absorb the deep knowledge and vast expertise of the team at Wilderness Safaris, a company that has completely revolutionized conservation in hospitality.
4. Describe an average day as a General Manager at Abu Camp.
My day would start with a meeting with key leadership to review the day’s check-ins and strategize on how to best curate guest experiences. Every guest was treated as a VIP, so we really did our homework to maximize their visit by wowing them at every opportunity. From there, I’d have face-to-face time with all levels of staff— an integral part of the equation, as it motivated the staff, kept morale high, and established a clear line of communication. As a side note, in Botswana, the most important part of an interaction is the beginning— the greeting— so starting the day off on the right foot with my staff was of utmost importance. The rest of my day was spent managing teams to maintain the assets of the camp, overseeing day-to-day operations for the guides, and looking after guest needs and requests.
5. What were guests looking for in a stay at Abu Camp?
They wanted to see something new, feel something they’d never felt before, and disconnect from whatever was going on at home or with work. We took great strides to make Abu feel like an all-encompassing utopian getaway set among beautiful scenery and wildlife, a place where guests would be surrounded by staff and guides who felt like old friends.
6. How did you, as General Manager, cultivate that sense of serenity and welcoming?
Abu is spread across over 400,000 acres of land. It’s an absolutely stunning environment, but it’s also completely wild, so part of my job was to keep safety a priority at all times yet create a warm, family-like environment. Our guests seemed to prefer a low-key, relaxed environment with excellent service, rather than a formal one with all the pomp and circumstance. So much of it comes down to creating a family and home-like environment with your professional staff, who will then take ownership and spread the joy and the good feels.
7. How did you get started with Luxury Frontiers?
When I was at Abu Camp I had met Graeme Labe, the property’s developer and Luxury Frontiers’ Chief Design & Development Officer. It was interesting to talk to him and learn more about the development side of the business, so that’s what initially piqued my interest in Luxury Frontiers. When my wife, JamieRose and I moved back to the States (she also served as a General Manager at Abu Camp), we consulted on projects with independent owners and operators, assessing hospitality operations and analyzing the risk of various hotel investments. After various consulting assignments for Luxury Frontiers, we joined the team full-time, starting up the firm’s U.S. office in San Francisco.
8. What insights did you glean from your previous experiences as a hospitality consultant that prepared you for the development side of the business?
I’ve completed assignments that required me to analyze top-to-bottom the operations of resorts in remote locations. Having an ops background, but also being comfortable diving into financials while thinking critically about logistics challenges, gave me a good foundation to leap into my current role. Being able to assess and communicate the risk to clients has become something that I practice nearly every day.
9. What’s your favorite part of your job?
Beyond sharing beautiful spaces in jaw-dropping geographies around the world, it’s rewarding to affect real change through the economic empowerment of local communities. This is ultimately why I chose these hospitality roles since my Army days. Whether it’s through wildlife conservation or providing long-term employment to locals, our projects at Luxury Frontiers strive to provide tangible social, economic, and environmental good. In my opinion, tourism and economic growth has the power to be a more viable and longer-term strategy towards prosperity than, say, military intervention.
10. What kind of travel excites you?
It’s probably obvious given my career path, but I seek out environments that force me to get comfortable with the unfamiliar. There’s nothing I love more than landing at a foreign airport and having to learn what the customs are, what the currency is, and how to get around by interacting with the locals. I also love the feeling of being so small compared to the world around me. Flying Iraq’s Tigris River scanning the vast desert or living amongst Abu Camp’s orphaned elephant herd stand out as two experiences that gave me that rush.