We caught up with Luxury Frontiers’ Chief Design & Development Officer, Graeme Labe, to talk about sustainable design, the recently renovated Belmond Savute Elephant Lodge, and the biggest lesson he’s learned after 20+ years in the biz.
How did you get into this line of work?
In 1995, I was working at Orient-Express Hotels— now Belmond— when they sent me to Botswana to go and run their safari company. While I was there, I met Geoffrey Kent, the founder and CEO of luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent, who asked me to come on as a design and development director. My job was to find and develop a new circuit of lodges in sub-Saharan Africa, which I did until 2008. A year later, I started my own design consultancy, helping owners and companies conceive of their properties, and in 2011, I met Luca, who contracted my services on a by-project basis. We officially merged under the Luxury Frontiers banner earlier this year.
You have extensive experience in the experiential travel industry. What sets Luxury Frontiers apart?
Nobody can take the kind of holistic, multi-faceted approach we do. We understand what the operator is looking for and what the client is looking for. We are experts at bringing the two together and executing.
The United Nations designated 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism. What do you attribute to this increased interest in sustainable design and tourism?
Sustainable design and tourism is becoming the norm, yes, but it’s important to note that it’s born out of necessity. For example, if you’re choosing a tent for your hotel, you must pick one that will last you several decades. If you’re changing the tent every 5 years, it’s not sustainable in its materiality. There’s no choice but to employ materials, fittings, and methodologies that are sustainable. The whole world has to go that way.
How is experiential design different than sustainable design?
Experiential design requires taking the guest experience into consideration at each and every turn. It’s not about how things look or the glitz and glamour— it’s about how things feel. I’m constantly asking myself: what is the experience of sleeping in this particular bed? Or taking a bath in this particular bath? Experiential travel takes creativity and thoughtfulness to frame each experience in a way that resonates with guests.
Switching gears, can you tell us about the recent refurbishment of the Belmond Savute Elephant Lodge?
Luxury Frontiers was hired as the lead consultant for the lodge’s rebuild and refurbishment. We undertook the architecture, infrastructure, and back of house design, so it was a hugely ambitious project.
What are some of the property’s new design features?
All of the property’s structures were constructed on suspended timber-based platforms, made out of composite boarding and canvas, and responsibly built around the surrounding trees so as to not disturb nature. We recycled and reused the old timber of the camp’s decks and rebuilt the decks using composite bamboo, one of the highest green timber alternative products on the market today. In the guestrooms—whose roofs are covered with local thatching grass that was purchased from communities in Northern Botswana— we installed a flexiduct air conditioning system, which is much quieter and more unobtrusive than traditional AC units. We also replaced the old cement-based main swimming pool with one made out of fiberglass. To boot, we made the property completely self-sufficient with regards to water, power, and sewage.
Previously, the whole lodge was run on generators, which could consume up to 300 liters of diesel a day. We replaced that with a solar farm of 665 panels, spread over 2500 square meters. We were one of the first companies in Botswana to install a Tesla battery system, and it’s cut the burning of fossil fuels by approximately 90 percent.
What are some of the property’s other innovations?
We installed a new anaerobic Sewage Treatment Plant, replaced the gas–fired hot water heaters with thermodynamic geysers for each of the guest units, and put in an automated bio-digester, the first of its kind in Botswana. The machine processes five tones of kitchen food waste a month and turns it into compost, which is then bagged and used in local community-based farming initiatives.
How does Luxury Frontiers stay up-to-date with the latest materials and design innovations?
We do our research. When we’re presented with a design challenge, we have no choice but to think outside the box and come up with an efficient, cutting-edge solution. We’re also very proactive with our suppliers, and are members of organizations like South Africa’s Green Building Council.
You’ve worked in this industry for over 20 years. What’s one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned?
At its heart, experiential travel is about going back to basics. The experiences that guests value and remember are often ones that are astonishingly simple.