Join us on our trip around The Cape Horn

3 Jul

SLOW Magazine

SLOW Magazine

Grab a copy of SLOW issue 42 next time you’re in the British Airways lounge and join me on our trip around The Cape Horn or click this link to read online:

Having a story to tell helps your commodity become a brand

11 Mar

UK Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board chief strategy officer Tom Hind told the recent Oxford Farming Conference that a growth opportunity exists for British producers who can talk about their food in a way which appeals to consumers. This is equally true for South African growers as the trend towards the interest in provenance brings consumers and growers closer together.

Consumers are increasingly influencing  the choices of what growers plant and which cuts and styles of meat are desirable. Anyone watching the hike in demand for cauliflower following the Tim Noakes low-carb trend will know first hand the power the consumer has to influence what gets sown.

The “build it and they will come” business philosophy may have been all the required consumer engagement in a nascent economy but today, with competition for tastebuds at a high, more is needed and innovators are not only growing more zucchini, for example, but spiralizing it as a pasta replacement. The need for innovation is a given and the expanding range of value-added products proven.

Carried as a cover story in Farmer's Weekly Magazine, February 7, 2017

Carried as a cover story in Farmer’s Weekly Magazine, February 7, 2017

Influencing the taste shapers leads to influencing the buyers. This is most effectively achieved through a marketing approach: have a story to tell and use it to create a demand by getting the influencers to engage with the story. The meteoric growth in social media not only speaks to the ego-centric society we live in but also to the desire for people to make connections with people and with brands that resonate with them.

A multi-pronged approach is needed but it begins with getting the message straight: what do we want to say about our product and our people and how are we going to say it?

One of things I do as a communications consultant is to help businesses craft those messages and then to develop a strategy how to use them as the bones to create a skeleton and, over time, to weave and spin stories to flesh it out. Finding the heart, in this analogy, is the key to creating a campaign of stories that all talk of the same thing and resonate with their target audience.

Accepting that the consumer is powerful in determining the success of your business also means that those who influence the consumer have power too. When it comes to food there are just a few that influence the many.

Story carried in

Story carried in

What you put in your mouth is your choice. One of the biggest food trends is the stratospheric growth in fussy eaters – people who, for a variety of real or imagined reasons, eat this but not that. Never before has finding something six people will enjoy at a meal been more difficult. Restaurants are also shaping production by selecting certain cuts. The popularity of pork belly, for example, began with top restaurant chefs serving it which  was followed by media covering it and now pork belly is found on almost every restaurant menu. The taste shapers are those writers who decide what to include in their recipe editorials. People like me as public relations consultants for food brands help to promote one product over the next. If you have any doubt about the power of PR over media coverage just page through a few different magazines of the same month and note the number of same brands/ingredients/restaurants that are mentioned. The consumer is hungry to know what’s new and the media, and those of us in  media-support industries, are happy to feed that hunger.

Farmer's Weekly.

Farmer’s Weekly.

You don’t necessarily need a third party to achieve influence over the influencers. If you have the time to dedicate to reading the media that your market reads and identify who the writers of influence are, you’re some way there already. Marketing thinker Seth Godin puts it neatly: “The issue is not getting your word out. The issue is getting people to care. The answer is not to get your word out more. It’s to change what you’re talking about.”

Also speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference, Simon Stelling, chief executive of food analyst MCA, said the UK’s foodservice market was worth more than £87bn in 2016 – an increase of more than 2% in value and volume. Stelling said that the number of people visiting restaurants and other foodservice suppliers was continuing to climb, with 93.1% of UK shoppers saying they regularly ate out in 2016. Although the numbers won’t be as great in the South African context, that there is a growth in eating out is a given. The growth in interest in food has also translated into a celebrity-chef culture, plethora of recipe books and concomitant increase in food-related media. My job is to help a client find the story to tell and then to leverage my network of media contacts to encourage them to write about it which, a little like Chinese water torture, becomes a relentless pressure on the consumer to buy your product.

In 2014 Nielsen commissioned a study by inPowered on the role of content in the consumer decision-making process. It concluded that PR is almost 90% more effective than advertising.

Michael Levine, the author of the book, Guerrilla P.R., says that the best analogy for public relations is gift wrapping, “If I went to visit a woman today and gave her a gift in a Tiffany box, it would have higher perceived value than if I just gave it to her plain.  Because she and you and I live in a culture where we gift wrap everything, our politicians, TV stars and even our toilet paper.”

A great example of the efficacy of industry-wide promotion is the success of SA Olive, the grower organisation representing the common interests of the local olive growers. Their SA Olive sticker has only become known as the “Seal of Quality” that it is because of media coverage around their annual SA Olive Competition. Their competent and creative use of the media helped shape the now entrenched perception that South African olive products, and Extra Virgin Olive Oil in particular, is at least on par and in many cases far superior to well-known global brands. Their strategy was to not only tell the story of the quality and success of local growers but to also draw attention to the ways that inferior products are often masked and misrepresented.

The South African Avocado Growers Association is another example of the positive impact of category marketing and their choice to invest in sponsored content with Suzelle DIY’s How To Be An Avocado Aficionado.

Perhaps the most successful grower-driven marketing effort has been The Pink Lady Association. Although talking their lead from the global brand owners, the Pink Lady Association of South African has a number of local programmes and events around which they build stories to share in their social-media communities and in the media at large. At this stage you’re hopefully convinced of the value of marketing and in the greater efficacy of using Public Relations as your marketing tool of choice. Where to begin?

What sets you apart from your competitors? Select five points and flesh them out. Perhaps you are the largest supplier or the smallest one. Each truth has benefits to exploit. The former means you can guarantee volume and the latter, perhaps, means you’re keener to gain marketshare and will work harder to do it. What do you and your team believe in? Perhaps you’ve innovative because of shrinking natural resources. Have you come up with a solution to use less water or adopted a technology to scan your crops for dry spots and now watering more effectively? A range of story ideas can flow from these. Do you have a link to a farm school learner that has done particularly well or is there a someone who has shone more than others at work? What about the things that we don’t typically associate with work: faith and religious practice; interest in sports; a favourite recipe – each of these can produce angles for editorial. Each helps you to talk about your brand and begin the process of  influence over the consumer.

It is not enough to be a great farmer nowadays. You also need to be a great marketer and learning to think about yourself, those that work for you and what you produce in the way that a journalist would. This will make you more successful. Even if you feel you don’t have the resources to hire a consultant don’t make the mistake of doing nothing. At the very least connect with the journalists who cover your area and submit photos and short news pieces to your local press. They will, naturally, ask you to purchase advertising. That’s their job, too. First find a way to tell your story in an article and then, at a later date when you have a very commercially-focussed need, take an advert to support them. Three things will help you along your way to dealing with reporters: Be pleasant, be accurate and, most essentially, be quick about it.

Brian Berkman is a Western Cape-based journalist and public relations consultant with a special interest in the agricultural and food-service sectors. Reach him at or 083 441 8765.


Seduced by a higher level of grace

7 Apr

As published in Business Day newspaper, April 7, 2017

Click here to read the on-line version as published in Business Day newspaper.



The Chao Phraya snakes through Bangkok like an arterial vein bringing sustenance to the city. Any doubt that this is the river of kings is pressed from the mind the way that searing chilli in the hot and sour Tom Yum soup opens the nose. Just note the bridges that join the river to the land. The Bhumibol Bridges named after the most recently deceased king and his father, and bridges to honour Kings Rama 3 , 4, 7 and 8.

The best hotels in Bangkok are along the river and none more historic than The Oriental or known by its full name The Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Bangkok. The MO is not alone, on the opposite side of the river the storied Peninsula Hotels towers among many grand and special hotels: The Anantara, Riverside and Shangri-La among them. The more recently opened Avani, just behind The Anantara, sits at a more affordable price point and prices continue to drop the further from the river you go.

Not just because the MO was the first hotel to open in Bangkok, 140 years ago or because of its literary roots with Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maughn, James Michener even our own Wilbur Smith who has a suite named after him but because of an excessively high staff to guest ratio and, mind you, not just any staff but staff who must be tested for telepathy and the level of empathy and insight into human needs expected from Carl Jung himself. The guest experience at MO cannot be explained – it has to be lived. From arrival in the high ceilinged foyer to breathing the air scented by the myriad flowers in the hotel’s gravity defying floral displays. It is the most pleasing sensation – a sudden quiet amplified by the bustle of the city.

Lift doors open with your floor pressed before you arrive – how each member of staff that you encounter knows your name and which floor you are on is one of the great hotel mysteries. Perhaps they all have FBI-style earpieces and secret contact lenses that broadcast guest photos or, more likely, a practiced memory and profound sense of attention to detail. The extraordinary staff aside, personalisation extends to check-in inside your suite where writing paper with your gold embossed name is waiting at your desk. There is a purpose designed cubby for your shoes that allows your butler to remove them for buffing as you sleep only find them, without disturbing you in anyway, gleaming and wrapped in tissue paper before morning.

Most high-end hotels and resorts lavish attention on their guests and provide magnificent surroundings and facilities but the MO Bangkok is different. Here you ask your waiter not to bring you another coffee. A tissue asked for to catch a sneeze one day is waiting at your table the next. Not satisfied with iced water and a bowl of apples poolside, staff come by with shot glasses of ice creams and platters of decoratively cut fruits. Another magazine similar to the one you were reading before you’ve even put yours down. A selection of sun creams is quietly provided. Rather than being creepy, the intense attention and concern shown is the most seductive of things.

Join the other sophisticates for Afternoon Tea in the hotel’s white cane furnished Author’s Lounge. As with everything at the MO, more is also offered at tea. The traditional cream tea of scones and clotted cream is, of course, available, but so too is an Oriental version with chicken satay and steamed pork buns along with Thai confectionery.

The fact that this hotel has 324 rooms and is frequently at capacity makes the successful personalised service even more extraordinary.

The Grand Royal Suite upgrade was completed one year ago. The six-bedroom, 600 square metre suite now occupies the entire first floor of the Authors’ Wing, which was the original 1876-built Oriental Hotel. As you’d expect, The Grand Royal Suite has private lift access and has a one-bedroom, 315 square metre Royal Suite and the adjoining 165 square metre Ambassador Suite with two bedrooms, as well as three further separate guest rooms to accommodate family, personal staff and security detail. Designed to be lavish, one might host another Head of State or fellow royal in the lounge or grand dining room of your suite or have 12 to dinner prepared in your private kitchen. The biggest television screen you ever did see, gargantuan crystal chandeliers above the bath and a myriad other excesses are also all beautifully elegant. This hotel gets non-garish opulence right.

Lord Jim, the hotel’s fine dining seafood restaurant is named after a Joseph Conrad character while French restaurant La Normandie is known as the the Thai Queen’s favourite.

Everything about a stay at MO Bangkok will be memorable including the price which is upwards of R4500 for an entry-level room while The Oriental Suite (sleeps five) will cost about R55000.

While there are so many things to keep you at the property, including the vast spa, fitness centre, cooking school and traditional Thai restaurant on the opposite  side of the river, the MO has free teak water shuttles to the skytrain and transport hub. Don’t miss Jim Thompson’s House, also on the river or a visit to The Royal Palace where the river bends, if you must go out.




My article in Business Day about new elite travel agency

28 Mar

As published in Business Day newspaper, Monday, March 27, 2017.

Franschhoek’s Susan Huxter helped put that town on the map and now, with her new Cartology Travel business, is mapping the globe. Read the interview I wrote for Business Day newspaper, here.

Happily bogged down and at sea exploring Argentina.

25 Mar

Please click here to read about our trekking in the bogs of Argentina. First published in Business Day Newspaper

First published in Business Day Newspaper.

First published in Business Day Newspaper.

Blue Train draws foreign plaudits

20 Mar

Please click here to read my article about our visit on The Blue Train, printed in Business Day newspaper on March 17, 2017.

As published in Business Day Newspaper, March 17, 2017.

As published in Business Day Newspaper, March 17, 2017.


Until you’ve been seen by a wild animal you haven’t really been seen.

30 Jan


Screen Shot 2017-01-12 at 9.39.49 AMClick here to read this piece as published on

First published in the January 2017 issue of Juice Magazine.


Until you’ve been seen by a wild animal you haven’t really been seen.

Forearms outstretched over the gym’s water fountain the way an antsy  antelope does at a waterhole, I asses the predators in my tribe, those chiselled and buff men at the gym who preen and pose and remind me of my diminished stature. The lore of the bush isn’t so removed from the lore of the gym. What the bold and beefy at the gym don’t know is that despite my flabby underarms and saggy tummy skin, I’ve been tracking two of the  most dangerous Big 5 on foot.

Before you think I’m telling fibs, it was under the careful guidance of Royal Malewane’s professional field guide Nik Vounnou and tracker Patrick Moyeni both armed with many years’ experience in the bush, a rifle and an back-up side arm for dangerous game.

JP and I walk in single file behind Nik and Patrick and climb to the top of a termite mound. There is a large herd of buffalo, just a Screen Shot 2017-01-12 at 9.40.20 AMfew meters ahead, and a white rhino and her calf.

Qualifications in the bush matter

I worry that the beasts will hear the agitated beating of my heart, made worse by my stifled breathing. This is a first for me. I’ve never been as close to buffalo on foot before. Nik is quietly explaining that from our elevated position we are safe in the event that the buffalo notice us and want to  explore us, rather than the other way around. As the 2012 winner of the FGASA Safari Guide of The Year competition, a holder of a National Diploma in Nature Conservation and a FGASA Level III Professional Field Guide with National and SKS-Birding, we knew we were in good hands even when one of the daggaboys – the name given to the older (and often fiercely tempered) buffalo that cake their horns in mud to protect themselves from the flies and biting ticks spied us as we left our termite mound to continue our journey.

Until you’ve been seen by a wild animal you haven’t really been seen. There is almost a spiritual quality about it, the very antithesis of the social persona we so readily share on Facebook and others. Being seen by an animal is really being seen.

Screen Shot 2017-01-30 at 11.40.41 AMDon’t sniff at the lessons dung can teach us

We find a civet latrine. A number of animals mark their spatial prowess by spraying urine while others return to the same place to defecate. Nik holds up a handful of civet droppings and pushes aside thin white bony bands. “That was a shongololo – a type of millipede that ended life as a civet snack. You can see the calcified exoskeleton”, he points out.

At another site we look deep into a rhino turd. “The black colour is an indication of the oxidised tannins in grass so that belongs to the grass-eating White Rhino. In a lighter coloured stool he pulls apart the compacted leaves to reveal twigs and their 45 degree bite mark. The Black Rhino has jaws at 45 degree angles and finding these angled pieces is a clear indication where they came from.”

October drought leaves carcasses

During our October 2016 visit the area in the Thornybush Private Game Reserve, near Kruger Park’s Orpen Gate, is so dry that about 15 buffalo have died from the lack of nutrition in the plants and grasses.

Scattered scatology

As a guest at a luxury lodge it is hard to see near starving animals, their once majestic frames reduced to skin stretched taut over ribs and spine. On our morning game drive we see a recently dead zebra. When the anti-poaching rangers found it they cut open the belly to make it easier for vultures and other animals to penetrate the innards before they putrified in the heat and poisoned the meat. We take a closer look. While on our walk the day before we came near a buffalo corpse that had the stench of death about it, hanging heavy like too much cheap perfume. By contrast, even close-up, the zebra gave off no scent at all. Nik said it would be okay to feel its skin, if I wanted to. Not yet even cold to the touch, the zebra felt just like it was sleeping rather than dead. Because of the gasses produced by the bacteria that breakdown the cellulose in the herbivore’s diet, the colon dissented out of the animal like a snake creeping out. When Nik touches the bowel it sounds like the tapping on a drum. At another site he points out the scatterings of marble-sized dark-coloured pellets. “What produced these?”, he asked us. Wanting to sound as sleuth-like as possible I suggested an antelope that was defecating on the run which might account for the spread-out nature of the droppings. “No”, he said, “these were from a giraffe and it was simply from the great height that they were dropped which produced the spray effect.”

That night, at one of Royal Malewane’s bush dinners cooked under the stars, we talked about the elephants that have to keep eating as they absorb very little at a time and I ask about the damage the elephants cause by killing the trees from which they strip the cambium bark.  “There is no emotion or malice in nature”, he remarks, “yes, the tree dies but something else lives because of it. The poorly digested elephant dung provides nutrition for beetles and insects. Returning to the zebra cadaver some hours later it appears as if meticulous pathologists have been at work. Not only is there little trace of the innards but all the soft meat has already been eaten away. As punishing as the drought is for some, other predators such as Royal Malewane’s seven lionesses we spy are fat and glossed as a result of the easy pickings.

For some a visit to a luxury game lodge is about the pampering relaxation that comes with it. For me it is about the education I get from having private time and space to learn from arguably the best qualified field guides in the land. The privilege that comes from a stay at Royal Malewane (part of The Royal Portfolio) is not only the exquisite cuisine and bespoke luxury but the opportunity to see and be seen eye to eye with the beasts of the wild. That’s what comes from being at the top of the food chain, for now.


November 14 weight-loss session

5 Sep

Before & After

Before & After

After maintaining his 70kg weight loss for three years now, PR man Brian Berkman shares the tools that helped him lose weight and keep it off on Monday, November 14 at noon at Richard’s Supper Stage & Bistro in Sea Point. Information and bookings at Quicket or by clicking

“The decision to package a how-to talk comes from a high demand from people who also want to change: I lost weight and took back my life from the brink of invasive and costly surgery but I also gave myself the opportunity to live a life free from constant pain which I had told myself was normal,” he says. “My goal in presenting this talk is so that others who also feel dissatisfied with their life can be motivated and given the tools to change as well as a few easy yet fabulous recipes with which to entertain friends.”

The two hour interactive session, held at Richard’s Supper Stage & Bistro in Sea Point on Monday, November 14 at 12 noon includes coffee/tea and a low-carb snack. Bookings, at R250 per person, are via Quicket: Click this link or search for Brian Berkman weight loss.

Along Asia’s Tracks

3 Jun

Premier Magazine, June 2016

Premier Magazine, June 2016

The Eastern & Oriental Express journey from Singapore to Bangkok is one of the most romantic, comfortable yet sad rail journeys of our time. Read about our experience on board in the June issue of Premier Magazine.

Visiting Singapore

2 Jun

Refined Magazine, June 2016

Refined Magazine, June 2016

We loved our stay in Singapore for many reasons not least of which was our location at the exceptional Mandarin Oriental on Marina Bay. Read about our experience there in the current issue of Refined Magazine.