In the shadow of Mount Kenya in Laikipia, a private ranch dedicated to conservation sprawls across the East African landscape. Borana Ranch, home to the Dyer family, boasts two luxury lodges. The smaller, Laragai House, sits on the top of an escarpment, with the 17,000-foot snow-capped peaks of Mount Kenya looming over the horizon and the natural habitats for scores of wildlife on Lewa Downs cascading off to the east.
For a week in mid-October, Abercrombie and Kent carpeted the grounds with around 200 luxury tents, each with its own shower, bed and solar-powered lighting. The inhabitants of 90 of these were specialist photographic trade media who had flown here via London from 16 European countries courtesy of Canon Consumer Imaging. Their purpose was to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the EOS camera system and to test two recently launched models, the 40-D and the 1DS Mark III, on a bespoke EOS Safari.
Other tents housed butlers, cooks, Canon technical staff, product specialists and four members of agency GSP, responsible for the logistics, management and orchestration of safari game drives, helicopter rides, presentations, horse riding, visits to local schools and evening entertainment - all against a backdrop of breathtaking scenery.
According to Mogens Jensen, head of Canon Consumer Imaging Europe, the event was conceived a year earlier to celebrate the EOS's anniversary and give delegates their first real taste of what the cameras were capable of. "We wanted a location that would show off the equipment," he says. "Wildlife is fast-moving and the 40-D fires 6.5 frames per second. Kenya has perfect lighting conditions, amazing landscapes and subjects that you just don't find in a city. So many product launches are based purely on theory and presentations. We've built them into the programme also, but the most important thing for this audience is to let them discover for themselves what these products can do in the dust and the heat of a safari."
GSP project manager Claire Walton was tasked with finding Borana Ranch, transporting the guests and ensuring they had a life-changing experience. She says: "Canon wanted game with less than 10 hours flight time and a similar time zone. Delegates were flying in from all over Europe for four days so we couldn't deal with the threat of jet lag. Africa was the obvious choice and the two most suitable locations are Kenya or Tanzania. Kenya is less of a tourist trap and Virgin Atlantic has recently opened a route to Nairobi so we were able to secure the seats from Heathrow. We then had the logistical nightmare of getting everyone to London from 16 countries but thanks to the expertise of Events By Appointment, our travel company, everyone arrived on time."
GSP also had to transport 3.5 tons of camera equipment. Bodies and lenses valued at EUR2m (£1.4m), needed to clear customs in just two days and permits had to be obtained so delegates could film and take photographs anywhere.
As plans developed, the notion of conservation and corporate social responsibility moved swiftly up Canon's priority list. Laikipia is remote enough not to suffer from the damaging impact of tourism on the local ecosystem and Borana Ranch is so committed to conservation that all the revenue from the EOS Safari went straight back into animal welfare.
The amount of game that guests were likely to see couldn't be guaranteed, however, since the region is neither a national park nor the Mara so prides of lions and herds of elephants are not found roaming in large numbers.
GSP's Walton had to fill a four-day itinerary with guaranteed photographic opportunities so added helicopter rides provided by Tropic Air around the glacier-clad peaks of Mount Kenya. On each flight, guests were taken to 17,000 feet and dropped off in the surrounding alpine forests for a walking tour in search of insects and plants.
With helicopters increasing the event's carbon footprint and with too many flights to offset, Canon was determined to again increase the cultural and community aspect of the trip. Walton was thus introduced to the locality's educational needs, resulting in investment in two classrooms and a school library. "On a reconnaissance mission in August, I visited the schools local to Borana and I was stunned by the conditions," she says. "At one, there were 52 children sitting on the floor of a grass hut. There was no point in us offering camera workshops or equipment since these schools had no electricity. What they desperately need is classroom space so we launched the Canon Classroom Project."
Canon press and media events manager Melanie Dubois says the company sought advice from the Dyers. "It's not realistic to try and offset an event of this magnitude so leaving the locality with a lasting legacy was our preferred option."
By the time Canon and its guests arrived in Laikipia, the classroom projects were at various stages of development. GSP's Laura Morrison ran trips to each school so that guests could turn their hand to portrait photography with the children as subjects. For Canon's Jensen, this was a particular highlight. He says: "It was both an emotional and motivating experience to visit the schools. The children were so welcoming and had rehearsed a song to sing to us. We took a lot of shots and printed them out on portable printers to produce photos that could be donated to the school. For many of these children it was the first time they had ever seen themselves in a photograph and we were moved by their reactions.
"If you can combine the marketing objective of an event with a socially responsible purpose then it becomes so much more worthwhile. As a global market leader we pay so much money to hotels and venues across the world. Our strategy now is to try and redirect a proportion of that money into leaving a legacy on all future events."
Well-known photographers specialising in nature and global conflict spent the evenings presenting their work. On the final night, the guests were flown back to Nairobi in preparation for their flights home. Walton says: "The transition from three nights in a campsite to a Hilton hotel room was difficult so it was important that guests saw something of contemporary Nairobi to show that Kenya has moved on from its status as a second-world country."
"We ran a photography competition throughout the week and announced the winners during a fashion show that showcased local designers. Only the night before, guests had dined on a spit-roast lamb and witnessed a display by 40 authentic tribal dancers and here they were dining in a five-star hotel witnessing the other side of African culture. Even for an experienced agency like us, this was a truly amazing event and I'm proud to have achieved my brief of staging a life-changing experience on behalf of Canon."