You were previously COO of uShaka Marine Park and Waterworld and responsible for its establishment. What was the most challenging aspect about launching it?
When Three Cities approached me to take it on, the construction was well underway but we had a daunting framework within which to complete the project. I started in December 2003 with a team of seven people and had 16 weeks until opening. We received 19 000 applications for jobs of which we eventually employed and trained 578 people.
What lessons did the experience teach you about yourself?
There is a saying that the size of your success is determined by the size of your belief and I think that’s what got me through. I learned that the only limits you face are those that are self-imposed. If I’d looked at the job too hard I may have believed it was impossible, but uShaka opened on time, in budget and a year later was named the Best Marine Theme Park in the World at an award ceremony held in Los Angeles.
You took up the reins as CEO of Three Cities Hotels at a time when the world was in the midst of its biggest recession. What key lessons has it taught you about what it takes to be a sustainable business in this sector?
It has indeed been a difficult time for the industry. In 2009, the international inbound market dropped 22% and hospitality industry earnings have not recovered, even with the World Cup. I’ve learnt the need to find creative ways of driving the bottom line in the face of declining revenues.
I strongly believe that the way to retain market share is not to discount rates, as this has a long-term effect on your perceived value. What we’ve done instead is to add value wherever we can – throw in free internet access or spa treatments to justify the rate we are charging and help the client see value in what they are paying for. We’ve also learned to run the business more efficiently. Ahead of the recession expenses had become bloated in line with revenues, so there were opportunities to reduce costs and run a leaner operation.
Three Cities’ new alliance with the Mantis Group will provide you with a portal to a massive international market. Is servicing international guests very different to servicing the local market?
Yes. The international guest is well travelled and has higher expectations of service while the local guest is more price sensitive.
What’s the most outrageous request you’ve received from a client during your career?
There are so many! One that stands out in particular came from a Russian client who flew into one of our game lodges and asked that we keep the animals quiet while he slept. We had to explain to him what a game reserve was and that’s its not possible to ‘turn off’ the animals.
What’s the key to dealing with difficult clients?
Treat them as a guest. Be as hospitable and respectful as possible and never humiliate them. We constantly drive home the message to our staff that the guest is responsible for paying their salaries.
Where do you choose to spend your own downtime?
My perfect getaway is in the bush – it allows me time to reflect and free-wheel mentally. My favourite spot is one of our little lodges in Madikwe called River Lodge. I go there with my family every September.