John Schroeder recalls flying as a passenger in a propeller-driven airplane into a game reserve in South Africa. After his plane touched down on a gravel strip, the pilot hoped no warthogs would run out in front of the plane.
In the KwaZulu-Natal province's Phinda Private Game Reserve, he has sat in a Jeep a mere 20 feet away from a pride of lions.
The wildlife is a main reason why Schroeder and his wife, Kelly, who own Valleybrook Gardens in Abbottsford, British Columbia, are inviting horticulture industry professionals and other interested people to South Africa for a tour for the fourth time, Oct. 17 to 29.
“It's [a] wild kingdom in a very luxurious kind of setting,” Schroeder says.
The tour will be limited to 16 participants and has a few remaining spots left, he says. Many attendees in the past have worked in horticulture, but not all have.
The Schroeders have led horticulture tours around the world for nearly 20 years. After attending the 1999 World Horticultural Exposition in Kunming, China, they began organizing their own tours, visiting distant locales to see nurseries, garden centers, botanical gardens and other horticultural and non-horticultural attractions.
In 2001, Valleybrook led its first tour, to South America. Since then, the Schroeders have hosted tours to Australia, India, Israel, Italy, Japan and New Zealand. South Africa is the only country where they have organized multiple tours.
“We love travel, and we've discovered that traveling with a small group of people who share an interest — in our case, horticulture — is a very pleasant way, and a very fun way, to travel,” Schroeder says.
The case for global tours
A testament to the value of these tours, Schroeder says, can be found in a story he tells about a nurseryman from Valleybrook’s first tour to South Africa.
“One of our members, whose family owns a wholesale as well as a retail nursery, spotted a merchandising idea and display idea at one of the garden centers we visited,” Schroeder says. “When he came home, he implemented that concept in his garden center, and he literally says that that made him a million [dollars] of revenue over the years.”
While Schroeder cannot guarantee the upcoming trip will pay back a million dollars to every attendee, he says several of them have seen marketing practices that they have successfully implemented in their own operations.
“Going to other countries and just seeing how people do things is such a great way to get new ideas — a new way of looking at things,” Schroeder says. “Actually, the fellow with the million-dollar idea — he's coming back this year on the tour. I think that is quite a testament, as well. It was 15 years ago, I think, that he came on the first one, and he's willing to come back and do the same tour. Much of it will be similar, and a number of things, of course, will be different.”
Johannesburg to Phinda to Stellenbosch to Cape Town
In addition to being organized by the Schroeders, who have visited South Africa in the past, the tour will, in part, be led through guides. “They really make some of the history and the country come alive by the things that they can tell us,” Schroeder says.
To accommodate the differences in backgrounds and interests between attendees, the Schroeders have provided two different programming options for Day 2 of the tour, in and around Johannesburg. They have provided the option of visiting Broadacres Lifestyle Centre and Eckards Garden Pavilion, for those looking to soak up horticulture information; and the option of touring Soweto and the Apartheid Museum, for those aiming to learn more about the history of South African society.
After two days in Johannesburg and three days at the Phinda Mountain Lodge in the Phinda Private Game Reserve, the group will fly southwest to Cape Town and, from there, travel to Stellenbosch, a wine region with a Dutch influence, which Schroeder notes is evident in its architecture.
On Day 9, attendees will visit Babylonstoren Estate, a Dutch farm east of Cape Town. “We saw that for the first time on our last trip and it was just amazing,” Schroeder says. “[They have] a five-acre display garden where they do a lot of food production, like fruit production and things. They have a restaurant onsite where they [do] all the cooking.”
A guided tour of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 of his 27 years in imprisonment, follows on Day 10. Then, on Day 11, attendees will visit Boulders Beach to see the colony of African penguins — also known as jackass penguins for the braying sound they make.
Schroeder says this and Valleybrook’s other trips aren’t money-making ventures for the nursery, nor is the focus of them solely on horticulture. The main goal is to provide valuable experiences around the globe.
“There's enough business in there to make it a worthwhile business experience, but we’re there to really have a great travel experience and to experience the country, to meet people, to come home and say, ‘You know, that was just a fantastic time,’” Schroeder says.