#LearningCurve | Living dream in the great outdoors

‘Getting on her bicycle’ the key to blazing a trail of outdoor fitness events in picturesque Zuurberg Mountains

Siska van der Bijl
Siska van der Bijl
Image: Eugene Coetzee

Once she realised an office job was not for her, Siska van der Bijl channelled her talent for handling pressure and love of the outdoors into her role as co-owner of the company Hayterdale Trails and Event Management (Pty) Ltd.

As the owner behind the Great Zuurberg Trek mountain biking stage race and the new three-day Great Zuurberg Trial (GZT) Run, she is living the dream – from the saddle of her bicycle.

Can you give me some background on yourself and how and when the business was started?

I’m a small town girl who grew up in De Doorns in the Hex River Valley. I studied sports science in Potchefstroom and then spent eight years in the Netherlands, since both my parents are Dutch.

I’ve always had a background in sport and started competitive cycling when I lived in the Netherlands.

When I was there, I got a job organising and managing music festivals and sporting events, and noticed that I had the gift of not getting stressed in high-pressure situations. I could manage crises quite well, and being a perfectionist, the two qualities brought me to where I am now.

I came back to South Africa and realised that an office job is definitely not for me.

Having a sporting background and with mountain biking stage racing taking over in South Africa, it was a good move.

One day four years ago, I cycled up the Zuurberg Pass and met the Hayter brothers at Hayterdale Trails.

We had a beer together and discovered our mutual interests in cycling and trail running – and showing off the Zuurberg and Addo landscape.

The brothers’ father stopped farming and the suggestion came to build a mountain bike track to avoid retrenching the employees and keep using the land in a sustainable way. The farm borders on the Addo Elephant National Park, which is what makes it so special.

I work from anywhere that has internet, so I spend a lot of time riding my bike while taking phone calls, and coming up with ideas and recording myself so I am able to remember it later.

What is your core service?

We own or co-own events, but we don’t manage events. This means we take the risk in investing in an event, where event managers would manage an event for someone else and therefore act as a supplier only.

We don’t do that because we believe in the service and risk, and we will always run something in our own name. That is where the focus comes in.

One can get off track by being involved in a lot of small things and events, but I believe in going big or going home. If you are not prepared to take the risk, why do it?

We provide a passionate service to the participant and sponsors with great value, and make sure it’s an unforgettable experience.

What makes your business unique?

We are always looking for a clear, different offering for the market, and the passion we have for our work.
If someone wanted to copy your business model, how would they start?

I would not want them to! But more seriously, the key is they need to ensure they have the skill and resources to pull it off – evaluate and plan carefully.

What are some of your biggest challenges in day-to-day business operations and your particular industry?

You have to know how to multi-task and constantly adapt to the changes in the industry.

How do you measure success in your business?

Through consistent growth and repeat customers. The Great Zuurberg Trek is one of the few events that have grown to capacity over the past six years – we have been sold-out since November last year [and the event is at the end of this month]. Where most events’ numbers are currently decreasing every year, we have grown. Our trail run is new and still needs to find its place in the market.

What are some of the best practices that have made your business successful?

Always being prepared to go the extra mile and surrounding myself with the best in terms of employees, partners, sponsors and service providers. A good team will always beat the individual.

What kind of advertising do you do?

In the industry, social media plays a big role, as does word of mouth. TV exposure is also big. We have a film and social media crew at every event and we also do radio interviews.

What is your company’s vision?

To be known as the preferred supplier to all stakeholders, to afford great value to sponsors and participants, and to do our part for social upliftment.

Who is your target market?

People who enjoy staying fit and healthy, who make responsible use of our natural heritage and enjoy being out and about in nature.

How many people do you employ?

We have five permanent staff members and up to 20 casuals. The permanent staff build trails, help with marketing and manage the camping facilities on the farm.

Do you have any plans for expanding the business, and how would you go about this?

Absolutely! As I said, we just launched a trail run event, where previously our main focus was mountain biking. We have clear goals to have foreigners participate.

The event, which will take place from June 1 to 3, is a three-day trail run in and around Addo Elephant National Park.

We are basically taking trail running to the next level. Mountain biking has been there for a while with all the bells and whistles, but trail runners are not used to it, so we will show them.

It will always be exclusive, with the 2018 edition being limited to only 60 two-man teams.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt from your business journey so far?

It’s never easy, but good things do come to those who try hard. The key is to listen and take advice.

What has been the greatest challenges and advantages of running your business in a city like Port Elizabeth?

The advantage is that it is a relatively small community, so you can get known quite quickly – but the disadvantage of that is if you make mistakes, it also becomes known quickly.

How important has mentorship been to you in your journey as entrepreneur?

Mentorship is one guaranteed way to gain experience from others, and experience is an expensive asset. Mentors help one to stay focused. Mistakes are made so you can learn from them.

What do you think are the three key traits of a successful entrepreneur?

Understanding exactly what you are trying to achieve. You need to be cautiously optimistic and do thorough planning.