de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2006). People Power for Preserving Nature. LMD. October 2006. Page 134. Volume 13, Issue 03. ISSN 1391-135X.
Urging of Sri Lankan conservationists to understand politics better in the campaign to keep protected habitats.

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne explains the role of personalities in niche businesses.
The birding and wildlife business provides for an interesting backdrop to understand the business and social dynamics of nice or special interest businesses. Much of what is true of the birding business is true of niche markets where skill levels and personalities become important. But the birding business seems to provide an extra frisson of excitement. It is deliciously full of politics.
Lets look at the birding business equation from the customer interface with the sort of question an interested observer may ask. A birdwatcher booking his birding holiday knows that he will be in the field with a guide and not the CEO of the company he books a tour with. So, does it matter if the CEO is branded as a nature personality? Lets explore this question with an even more abstract example. Why should a golf course be marketed as one designed by Nick Faldo? A golfer teeing off on a Nick Faldo course is not going to be playing with Nick Faldo. The famous golfer is not likely to even a shareholder or employee of that golf course. The answer is credibility. A champion golfer like Nick Faldo must have got something right when he designed the course or lent his name to endorse it. It would have been designed with golfers in mind. A birding company with a birder CEO must be attuned to meeting the needs of birders. Although the CEO won’t accompany every client in the field, there is a greater reassurance that the guides working for that company will be competent guides. Perhaps they may have even been hand picked and groomed by the birding CEO.
For a casual birdwatcher visiting the country on a general holiday, birds are only a bonus. Whether he has a naturalist guide or not, whether he gets past a list of fifty species seen or not, it does not matter. But for a dedicated birder booking his birding holiday, and spending a serious amount of money, the trip list is important. The guide or more correctly the level of skill of the guide therefore becomes very important. So how does he chose his guide? Increasingly birders are surfing the web for help. The trip reports are a good source. What have other birders had to say about professional guides is often a key source for choosing guides. This is good for companies which have been in the business for a long time and have been seeded in trip reports and search engines for a long time. Relative new comers have to work harder to establish their credentials.
This calls for a two three pronged approach. Firstly, reassuring the potential client of their standing as a service provider. But everyone plays this game on their web site. Birders planning a tour will visit the web sites of many companies picked up by search engines as offering birding holidays. In Sri Lanka for example almost every travel company will offer to tailor a birding holiday. So how does the birder sort out the wheat from the chaff. Those who will dabble in anything to those are really specialists. How does the foreigner who has never heard of Koluu or Punchibanda tell apart a celebrity chef like Koluu from Punchibanda running his road-side string hopper cafe? Assuming the client does not already know, the onus is on the service provider to make the case.
This is where the second and third prong come into play. The second prong is to build the credibility, to market in other words, the field skills of your guides. Thirdly, you have to make the point that this is a birding company run by birders for birders. This is where the usually neglected office jockeys come into play. Anyone in the operations staff from the CEO to most junior member of staff can be a persuasive factor, if they have birding credentials.
In contrast, consider a general traveller visiting websites of travel companies. It does not matter whether the office staff spend their week-ends doing cross stitch or playing Sudoku. He will compare prices of the hotels and transport costs from one company to another. This may be the main determinant in choosing one company over another. The assurance he needs is that the company is of some standing (he will be parting with his money) and understands the level of comfort he desires.
With birding, the people behind the company gain an uncommon importance. The skills of the field staff become important. Most web sites of companies offering eco-tourism will claim that they have good skills. But often provide very little to assess whether it is the case. A birding writer cum photographer as a CEO, provides a hint that this company may walk the talk. It must deliver results. After all some long suffering guides must have endured punishment helping the CEO with his cart load of equipment. They must have learnt where to find the birds or leopards or how to handle a vehicle at a wildlife sighting. They know how to tap on the shoulder discretely to alert a birder or photographer, that behind him, a Blue Magpie has just perched or he is just about to lose his leg to the resident crocodile.
But it is not as simple as branding personalities in the company. The underlying service or product must meet expectations. The company must deliver. If I visit one of the celebrated Nobu restaurants of the celebrated sushi chef Nobuyuki Matsuhita, I don’t expect him to be in the kitchen. He cannot be in several cities at the same time. But the restaurants carrying his name, must have something right. They will need to deliver the brand promise whether the master chef is present in the kitchen or not. Similarly a birding company must consistently provide good guides and a service even if its celebrity field staff or office staff are not available for any individual client. Alternatively, they must be clear when all they are offering is a simple English speaking chauffeur guide because the celebs are out birding with the clients who typed faster.
Branding celebrities is just one of many strands in common use in niche or special interest markets to win business. It helps a company to market itself as being a better service provider than the competition. It also attracts much needed media coverage in the printed media and television, which leads to more enquiries. It can provide significant business leads. But it is just one of a hundred things a company has to get right to succeed. Ultimately, for success, the backbone of the business, the company, must be the stronger partner in a branding tryst.

Accountant & Banker turned wildlife populariser, Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is a well known lobbyist for progress. E-mail him at to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.