Malawian Style with Mike Varndell
1.Through the eyes of friends and family who is Mike Varndell?
Mike is a very determined person. He knows what he wants and will find a way to make it work. If he doesn’t succeed straight away, he will come up with a plan B, C or even D if necessary. By consistently doing what he needs to do to succeed, he most often makes it happen. Always willing to work hard and have a positive attitude in life, he can be very stubborn, but that same stubbornness is also a positive driving force for him to achieve his goals. Besides all that he also is quite a comfort snob. Mike loves material comforts, beautiful wines, delicious food and all kinds of luxuries. He is honest and straightforward; he could be Dutch!
2. You were born in Zimbabwe but raised in Malawi. Talk to us about your fondest childhood memories and how they inspired the adventurer you are today?
Correct growing up in Limbe (a suburb of Blantyre) was an incredible lifestyle with weekends spent fishing on Lake Malawi, enjoying the various watersports on offer and appreciating the birdlife. While in town, we didn’t watch TV (except if it was raining), so my brother and I were encouraged to play outside, walk around the nearby hills and mountains, ride bikes and be boys outside in the sun. Later on, we would venture on road trips to Mozambique and Zimbabwe and appreciate the amazing beaches and wildlife on offer in our neighbouring countries. I went to boarding school at Michael House in Kwazulu Natal where again, sports and outdoor lifestyle was encouraged which was a character-building experience as we were taught to think outside the box.
3. Your career in Finance took you to Europe before you decided to head back and start your own business in travel and tourism. Talk to us about the inspiration behind your business - Malawian Style? What triggered your decision to venture into entrepreneurship in Malawi specifically?
The dream was always to return to Africa and set up a tourism related operation but obviously I needed to gain some real-life experience and build some capital first. The goal was to go to London and get on the property ladder (as an insurance policy in case Africa ever went completely south!) and ironically this back up plan would be what has got us through Covid-19. In the credit crunch of 2008, the timing was perfect to volunteer redundancy and I booked a flight around the world, learning about various aspects of travel and eventually finishing back in Malawi to set up shop.
Malawi was always home, where the heart was and where I would want to promote and be based out of; whilst also knowing that Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe would be a big part of our plans as they are so accessible for Malawi.
4. Malawian Style has built a name for itself as a specialist tour operator that offers a range of safari adventures in and around Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique. What is Malawian Style's value proposition?
Centrally located and incredibly connected. Malawi really has it all (apart from salt water and wineries). For a small country, Malawi is incredibly diverse and very well priced, allowing you to combine the crystal clear waters of Lake Malawi with amazing bush experiences, tea estates, mountains and plateaus, and engage with friendly people in a country renowned for its warmth, hospitality and safety.
All Malawi’s hotspots are relatively close, so linking them up is affordable and the lodges themselves are very well priced relative to the rest of Africa. Additionally, the parks have a low density of lodges, so you still feel the wild raw Africa - not the over-commercialised Africa that has become the norm elsewhere. Add this to the fact that it is a 1hr flight to Harare/ Lusaka/ South Luangwa/ Nampula or a 2hr flight to Nairobi/ Dar Es Salaam/ Johannesburg so it is incredibly easy to combine with our neighbours for those who need dolphins, seafood and wineries (although the exciting news is that we have launched a wine import company in Malawi to bring the best wines to Malawi and help the lodges and clients have better quality and a wider variety of wines and gins to offer their guests. Exciting times as Wines & Wings was born.
5. What factors do you believe have made Malawian Style a success?
No doubt hard work and having a really great team to support the vision of the company. We have always been brave and daring and not scared to take a risk, travel the world and put Malawi on the map. As a result, we have built great relationships with global partners and together this teamwork and vision has built a successful brand putting Malawi on the map.
We have always been huge fans of making sure all of our team experience the products we sell and know all the products/national parks and so on so they can sell with their heart and all the knowledge that comes from first-hand experience. African Parks have also played a huge role with their wildlife conservation success in making Malawi the hidden gem that it is today.
6. Today's traveller is more connected and globally conscious than ever before. They are also looking for travel experiences that stand out from former trips they would have taken. Why should travellers add Malawi or Zambia to their travel bucket list?
Exactly that reason, that both are wild and off the beaten track, both are great value and often run sustainably. Most of the lodges and national parks contribute huge amounts back into preserving the wildlife and supporting local communities. Our Parks have done an incredible job reintroducing wildlife, preventing poaching, creating jobs, supporting and educating surrounding communities and more. So, by travelling to these countries you know that a solid portion of the cost is going back into looking after the region. They say travellers come to Malawi for the landscapes, fall in love with the wildlife, but return for the people and hence the nickname “The Warm Heart of Africa”.
7. We are witnessing a shift in travel as the world adjusts to the challenges brought forward by the global pandemic. What have you as Malawian Style worked to increase travel confidence in travellers headed to Malawi through your product offering?
We have all been working together to make sure that we have great quarantine options when guests arrive, that includes our company converting our home into a B & B for those that need a few days, and do not want to be in a hotel. We have a nice pool with beautiful sunset, fantastic birdlife, yoga deck, incredible wine and gin selection due to the new business @winesandwings we have recently launched, awesome garden with various tables setup for space and social distancing, home grown veggie garden as well as all the mod cons like fancy coffee machine, good wi-fi. All our partners have also been very proactive with extra cleaning and sanitizing, social distancing, effecting such measures as having a maximum number of people per vehicle or dining table. Take all this and the fact that most of the time you are in the bush or private island with very few other people around, you are probably a lot safer than wherever you are coming from.
8. A group of travellers - aged in their mid-30s to 50s reaches out to you looking to put together a trip. They have 7 days to travel to Malawi or Zambia from Dubai. What are your recommendations for where they would enjoy a fully immersive experience as a group and in your care as Malawian Style?
Take over a private island on Lake Malawi, climb Mulanje Mountain, also known as Malawi’s off the beaten track answer to Kilimanjaro, have a private luxury house amongst the Satemwa Tea Estates, enjoy the wild off the beaten track Liwonde or South Luangwa National Parks or check out one of the 7 wonders of the world – the Victoria Falls. We would always tailor make the perfect trip for clients depending on their budget, time frame and preferences.
9. Let's talk a little about Mike Varndell the adventurer. What has been your most adventurous excursion to date? Where to and why?
Argh there are so many. I loved my time in Fiji, my various marketing trips through the US and Canada but Africa is where the heart is. I love getting off the beaten track where there is no signal and the only sound is that of the bush. Hiking Mulanje is great for that but I also love the wild walking safaris in North and South Luangwa and canoeing down the Mighty Zambezi - with wildlife everywhere and dodging hippos and crocs. That’s the real wild Africa.
10. What myths do you think industry stakeholders should debunk about travel to Africa?
Africa is SAFE. Africa is not a country and our part of Africa is up there with the safest and friendliest countries in the world. Africa can be affordable, again our part of Africa is well priced, safe and affordable.