Jamaur Bronner, Kelvin Mu, Carolina Paz, and Anette Urbina are full-time MBA students working on an International Business Development project in Cambodia. Their client is Sam Veasna Center (SVC), a non-profit organization that helps preserve Cambodian wildlife through ecotourism.
Saving the World, One Bird at a Time
I’m not sure if you remember Captain Planet and the Planeteers, but it was a Saturday morning cartoon that was quite popular in the United States in the early 1990s. The show centered around 5 ethnically diverse kids from around the world who each had the power to control an element of nature and would occasionally combine their powers to collectively summon the superhero Captain Planet.
These young heroes took on maniacal Eco-villains that were destroying the environment through pollution, crime, war, unethical science, and poaching. After vanquishing the baddies, Captain Planet would end the show with his catchphrase “The Power is Yours!” – implying that we all have the power to end environmental destruction if we work together in unity.
Fast forward twenty years from the end of the TV series in 1995 to 2015 Cambodia. The heat is stifling, the air is dusty, and dozens of extravagant hotels and restaurants stood eerily unoccupied. This is Siem Reap in the “low season” – the May through September slog when tourist levels lull and the country is blanketed by the relentless summer heat.
Nevertheless, Cambodia – and Siem Reap specifically – is still just as fascinating and endearing as any other time of the year. The majestic temples of Angkor Wat sprawl over 200 acres 3 miles north of town. The Siem Reap River snakes through the core of the city, and in the evenings the bridges and side streets erupt with lighted signs for night markets and the ever-popular Pub Street.
The Haas team sent to Siem Reap was as diverse as that cartoon show – an American, Mexican, Ecuadorian, and Canadian – and the project could have easily been spun into one of the show’s plotlines. Our client, Sam Veasna Center (SVC), is a ten year old non-profit organization that promotes conservation through ecotourism. SVC’s clients are taken to remote areas of Cambodia to partake in birdwatching tours, and a large percentage of their tour fees are reinvested into local villages to provide incentives for sustainable living practices. Former poachers and hunters in the village are now SVC’s greatest advocates for conservation, serving as forest rangers who carefully monitor Cambodia’s dwindling wildlife. SVC contributes 50 cents of each dollar of revenue towards conservation and community improvement efforts.
How dire is Cambodia’s environmental situation? The country’s national bird, the Giant Ibis, is listed as a critically endangered species, with only about 250 of these birds left in the world. Even SVC’s founding is a tragic testament to the formidable wildlife challenge. SVC’s founder Sam Veasna died of malaria in 1999 while surveying the Northern Plans for the now extinct kouprey.
The 2015 Haas team is the third group of Haasies to work with SVC. The first team helped design SVC’s original business model and the second team conducted site-specific investment analyses. Our task was a fusion of the previous projects; SVC, now profitable, needed help growing the company and branching out beyond its core service offering of birdwatching tours. Its sponsor, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), had helped SVC identify a number of strategic investments that it could make at its sites, and also had ideas on additional services SVC could begin offering. WCS and SVC wanted help evaluating those investments, as well as conceptualizing the implementation of its new product mix.
Our project was off to a strong start during the spring semester. Our clients, SVC Director Johnny Orn and WCS Cambodia Director Ross Sinclair, were available for weekly meetings and helped answer our initial questions as we scoped the project. Unfortunately, one month before we were scheduled to go on-site, Ross took time off for vacation and some of our project scoping questions had not yet been addressed. We continued working with Johnny to plan our approach for once we got on-site, but we remained concerned that our vision of project success might not align with Ross’s priorities.
Once we were on-site, we had a Day of Arrival Presentation that was well received by Johnny, and we were able to arrange an in-person meeting with Ross and WCS Technical Advisor Simon Mahood the following day. It turned out that our plan of action indeed aligned with WCS, and they understood that our primary client for this engagement was SVC, so Johnny had the final say on our deliverables.
Our plan in Cambodia was to conduct a thorough financial analysis to come up with strategies for improving SVC’s profitability, conduct competitive analysis to identify best practices and optimal product mix, and to review their marketing strategy and recommend ways in which the organization could grow its reach and brand recognition.
Between the financial documents that SVC maintained and the recently-commissioned marketing strategy document, we realized that the organization had a trove of valuable information, but had not spent time analyzing this information or extracting insights. Part of the problem was that SVC was shorthanded in manpower and technical ability – even with all of their data, few within the walls of SVC had the time or ability to extract the contents since the data was not laid out in an easily intuitive manner. Part of our challenge was not only extracting insights and making recommendations, but also equipping the SVC leadership with tools that would improve its ability to track progress and reevaluate the organization’s position in the future.
On the day of our final presentation, the contents of our deliverables were robust: we created a 129-slide deck, a 23 page Digital Marketing & Brand Management guide, an updated feedback form, an updated booking form, a competitive benchmarking database, and an extensive Excel investment model. Our presentation was 2 hours long, including time for Q&A, and both Johnny and the WCS representative Kez Hobson were impressed with our findings. Most importantly, our presentation included concrete recommendations and a proposed implementation timeline that gave Johnny the direction he needed to begin optimizing his organization after we were gone.
SVC hosted us as dinner guests following the presentation, and we enjoyed Khmer food and watched a documentary that described Cambodia’s wildlife landscape nearly 50 years ago. In the film, one could see the damaging effects that environmental practices have had on the land; in the 1970’s, Cambodia’s forests covered 73% of all land area, today that figure is closer to 48%. The country has lost more than 7% of its forest cover over the last 12 years, which is the fifth fastest rate in the world.
We’d like to think that the work we did this semester was a small step in improving the outlook for wildlife in Cambodia. SVC, as one of the leading eco-tour operators in the country, is playing a pivotal role in protecting endangered species and creating habitats in which they can once again thrive. We might not have saved the world, but we hope we’ve helped an organization focused on protecting some of the world’s most threatened animals.