Business Maverick

BUSINESS MAVERICK

Dreams realised — and deferred — at the Lost City

Dreams realised — and deferred — at the Lost City
Josiah Montsho, General Manager of the Palace of the Lost City Hotel. (Photo: supplied)

Josiah Montsho saw the Palace of the Lost City Hotel emerge from Bophuthatswana dust in the early 1990s, after landing a job as a night porter at Sun City. He was appointed general manager of the flamboyant hotel just months before Covid-19 pulled up the drawbridge on the Bridge of Time. What’s next?

Lost City legend has it that the rugged Kong Gates at the entrance to the Valley of the Ancients were built to keep out the sasangador, “a ravening six-legged carnivore that preyed on villagers”. The new enemy at the gates, of course, is the virus ravaging the tourist industry from Cape to Cairo – and beyond. 

As African travel industry advisers W Hospitality Group’s Trevor Ward said this week, Africa’s hotel industry has been devastated by Covid-19, “mainly because of the almost total shutdown of borders and the aviation sector – no flights means no guests.” More than half of the new hotels and rooms scheduled to open in Africa in 2020 may be delayed. 

The Palace of the Lost City Hotel. (Photo supplied)

Sun City has not escaped the effects of the pandemic: its slot machines have been silent and rooms closed since 26 March, although new regulations announced on 17 June will allow licenced accommodations, casinos and sit-down restaurants to reopen. 

Josiah Montsho was appointed general manager of The Palace of the Lost City Hotel in December 2019, when the luxury hotel was brimming with international tourists. By February, as China locked down, there were still Brazilian, German and UK guests, but occupancy had dropped dramatically. By March, figures were lower still. The eight-metre-high carved doors of the hotel closed for lockdown, and stock was sent back to the Sun City warehouse.

It has been a “devastating” time for Montsho, whose personal history is tied to this place of dreams. An affable, straight-talking man, he was born in Diepsloot, Soweto in 1967 and moved to Phokeng in Rustenburg when he was 12. In 1979, Sun City opened and became a major employer in the area. Montsho’s mother, Francinah, “was a room maid at the Cabanas while I was still at school”, and his aunt held a more senior position at the staff village. 

Montsho’s early years were leagues away from the opulence of the Lost City. One of four siblings, his father was usually working in Johannesburg, and family finances were stretched. School was a 5km walk away. To buy textbooks, Montsho took a job as a “garden boy [his words]” in Rustenberg.

“You’re finishing matric in those hard times when you don’t have electricity, you don’t have sanitation resources at home. You go and fetch water after school. You have to be sure you are clean before you leave for school because there’s no one to do that for you. So you learn responsibility at a young age.”

Nowadays, Montsho can drive his own children around Rustenburg – he’s shown them where he once worked as a gardener. He matriculated in 1986, and his aunt wrangled an interview with the head concierge at the Cascades at 10.30am one December morning. “He asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, anything that can open opportunities. And he said, well, can you start tonight? I said, by all means, sir.”

The new job as a night porter was “mind-blowing”, says Montsho. A couple gave him his first R10 tip (“I thought I was rich!”); he soaked up knowledge like a sponge, was soon promoted to night auditor, and a career in hospitality began to unfold. This meant he was on site when the construction of Sol Kerzner’s R830-million Lost City began in 1990. 

Montsho first set foot in the Palace of the Lost City hotel in 1993. The year before, he’d been selected to do a diploma at the newly opened hotel school in Mafikeng, and he did practical training in the Palace itself.

It was an enormous undertaking by Kerzner. The hotel magnate, who died in March 2020, has been described as a maverick and dreamer as well as “a perfect barometer of common tastes. And when it comes to entertainment, Sol knows that bigger is better”. 

Montsho remembers that Kerzner then had his own room at the Cascades.

“I remember the first blast on the ground for the foundation of the Palace, and standing watching on the balcony at the Cascades. It was unbelievable. All you could see was dust. We knew what the structure was supposed to look like and everybody couldn’t wait.”

It took 28 months before the Palace opened, its plush interiors designed by Texas-based Trisha Wilson, known for her work on, for example, a palace created for an 11-year-old Saudi prince, and a ski resort in Dubai. 

Montsho first set foot in the Palace of the Lost City hotel in 1993. The year before, he’d been selected to do a diploma at the newly opened hotel school in Mafikeng, and he did practical training in the Palace itself.

“I could not believe what I saw,” he remembers. “There was a story about every little piece of the structure… the rooms, the chandelier, the Tusk Lounge – you couldn’t copy it, it was all unique.”

Montsho went on to study at Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, and returned to various Sun International properties, including as Room Division Manager at the Palace. He then stretched his wings working at other hotels, and did a stint as CEO of Cross Point Trading before once more returning to the Palace of the Lost City hotel in December 2019 as GM. He wanted to “give back. Most of the staff are from the community and I want to inspire future leaders and share my knowledge of what I’ve learned”.

He also wanted to “take the Palace to the next level”. It’s 28 years old this year and the rooms betray this: “there are some cracks and it needs some make-up”. Refurbishments are on the cards when the pandemic allows. 

Montsho was also looking forward to going back to basics and training and motivating staff, as guest expectations of tip-top service are higher than in years gone by. The shutdown put progress on ice. Many staff were sent home, and “there have been salary cuts because of the lack of cash flow and revenues not being generated”, says Montsho.

“So far, we’ve avoided lay-offs.” The possibility, however, is looming over the resort.

Minister of Tourism Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane said at the end of May that recovery in the sector will begin with domestic tourism, followed by regional and international travel. Gloomy projections, however, expect international leisure travel to recover only towards 2021; the World Tourism Organisation says the pandemic could cause a 60% to 80% drop in global international traveller numbers this year.

Now that hotels are allowed to open, “we will train all staff on Covid-19 health and safety protocols before welcoming our first guests”, Monstsho says. Management is looking at everything from personal protective equipment for certain staff, to how to manage the front desk or serve breakfast safely. 

“It’s quite exciting to be part of the storm and learn from it. Guests will want to know how they can trust you from a health and safety point of view, whereas before it was all about loyalty… now it’s about can you give me the assurance that it’s safe to come here and bring my family?” 

The changes to the lockdown regulations follow proposals for reopening the sector made by the Tourism Business Council of South Africa earlier in June. The TBCSA’s own phased Tourism Recovery Strategy, recently presented to Parliament, advocates for a phased reopening to international tourism as soon as September 2020, citing the danger of some 1.2 million job losses. 

Minister of Tourism Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane said at the end of May that recovery in the sector will begin with domestic tourism, followed by regional and international travel. Gloomy projections, however, expect international leisure travel to recover only towards 2021; the World Tourism Organisation says the pandemic could cause a 60% to 80% drop in global international traveller numbers this year.

This has implications for the Palace of the Lost City Hotel, which relies on the international luxury market. Montsho believes that Sun City may stagger the reopening of its hotels, depending on demand. Also, if alcohol sales remain confined to certain days and times, opening some restaurants and bars “wouldn’t make financial sense”. 

Personally, Montsho hopes to see his ambitions for the Palace realised. In the interim, he’s been bonding with family and helping his Grade 10 daughter with her schoolwork, between motivating staff to stay positive and preparing the new health and safety protocols. 

In 2017, when the Palace turned 25, a time capsule was buried on the grounds – to be opened when the hotel turned 50. Sun International CEO Anthony Leeming is said to have included his predictions for the next 25 years.

“We cannot know what the world will be like in the next two-and-a-half decades,” Leeming said in a press statement at the time. “The world is a very different place now than it was in 1992 and it will, I imagine, be different in 2042.” 

There is no way Leeming could have predicted Covid-19; as Montsho says, “only God” could have done that. But he’s sure the hotel’s mystique will see it endure. BM

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