TGIFOOD

ROOM AT THE INN

Here’s what hotel visits post-lockdown will look like

(Photo by Morgan Lane on Unsplash)

The restaurant industry has been making its voice heard over the past couple of weeks, but what about the broader hospitality industry? While restaurants have been able to trade – albeit fractionally – hotels, guest houses, and B&Bs all closed their doors on March 27, 2020 and have had virtually zero custom until recently.

With confusion reigning (or raining, or pouring) over business and leisure travel regulations under lockdown advanced Level 3, and the differences between them, along with a government Twitter account which apparently can post by itself (after the announcement that cigarettes and alcohol would stay banned for the rest of lockdown, it was then tweeted: “This account posted a tweet earlier today…” which to many implies a lack of human responsibility), accommodation establishments have been having a hard time of it. The only thing that does seem to be clear is that no one can stay in a private home, ruling out Airbnb or a pyjama party sleepover at your bestie.

For the rest, business travellers – I don’t even want to commit to saying whether that’s inside or outside their own provinces since anything can change at a moment’s notice – are welcome. As a journalist, spending my first weekend away since lockdown at a guest house in Stellenbosch is business travel. Please don’t hate me.

As it happened, in the 24 hours between me writing this and you reading it, Tourism Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane did announce that intra-provincial (stay in your own province) leisure travel will be allowed. Once it’s been made official and gazetted, it will mightily please all our interviewees and everyone who’s been aching to get away somewhere, anywhere, different. Kubayi-Ngubane also delivered the news that curfew will be extended till 10pm, but nothing about the lifting of the alcohol ban.

In my previous life I went on local road trips almost every week, and it was glorious. I’ve had my own ups and downs with lockdown restrictions but, for the most part, working from home was what I did anyway, and also, I like being at home. But there was a sudden twinge of melancholy the other day when I recalled that my “go bag”, always packed with the essentials and ready to leave at a moment’s notice, had been languishing at the back of the closet, gathering dust. 

Then, behold! There was a call for journalists to visit a selection of properties under the Cape Country Routes umbrella, and so it came to pass that we checked in at Evergreen Manor & Spa in Stellenbosch last weekend.

First of all, let me tell you this: you have no idea how many things you touch until you are outside your own safe space where you are in control. From door handles, to the kettle, to the light switches and the soft drinks in the mini bar, the hairdryer and the TV remote, and the toiletries in the bathroom. And and and…

Before arriving, I’d asked about safety protocols and was sent a document outlining these. When you get those moments that smack you upside the head out of the blue that nothing will ever be the same again? This is one of them. To reassure guests, Evergreen carries out “extremely high intensity cleaning and sanitisation of all guest rooms before check-in and after each guest leaves, using WHO recommended cleaning products and techniques”. When you leave, the room is left relatively untouched, and uninhabited for up to 48 hours.

Evergreen Manor was built in 1904 and lovingly restored to its former glory by owners Riel and Christina Meynhardt. (Photo: Supplied)

When checking in, you don’t go through reception, but are shown directly to your room, where you fill in the required forms and have your temperature taken. At this stage of the proceedings, Evergreen owner Riel Meynhardt says they are fortunate to have rooms with this kind of access. Your key is in a plastic bag, and you remove it yourself. There is no turn-down service in the evening, no housekeeping (yes, I made the bed myself), and towels are changed on request if you leave them outside the room. Staff will not come in unless invited. Like vampires. Breakfast is ordered on a form and served in the room, or in the garden. Since we were the only ones there, that was a pleasant option on the first morning; the Sunday it rained, so we had breakfast in bed.

Riel and his wife Christina began their business 26 years ago on a small scale with little money, over time rescuing and restoring two houses dating back to 1902 and 1904, which had been used as student hostels for decades, and fallen into disrepair. “There have been various crises – interest rates going through the roof a couple of times, 9/11, the 2008 crash, and 2010 which was only good for cities in the north and big hotels,” said Meynhardt. 

“This is, as everyone says, the worst one we’ll experience in our lifetime; I hope there won’t be anything worse.” 

Between the two houses, there are now 15 luxury rooms; the one we stayed in was upstairs (where squirrels the size of small dogs thundered across the roof – or that’s how it sounded), once the stables. There is a spa (by appointment now I should imagine) and conferencing facilities. But to what end?

There’s almost no demand from business travellers, said Meynhardt. “The people we see travelling are those who have no option and who can’t avoid it in any way – HR meetings, labour unions in discussions with the wine industry – but the normal business is all gone. With our fantastic setting two minutes from the university we would get visiting guest lecturers. Now the students are not coming back this year at all.” 

This is the first time Evergreen has been completely closed, and it’s eerily quiet. Meynhardt has managed to keep his staff on, and is drawing on his life savings to keep the guest house going. “We made the decision we have a good team, we’re not going to lay them off or fire them or retrench them as a lot of businesses have had to do. We are still carrying them, and have applied for TERS.”

Three out of the 12 applicants were paid in July – for April. “You can’t get to someone who can explain properly why,” lamented Meynhardt. “The system says bank details can’t be verified even though it’s the same bank details for the three that have been paid. I can’t sit with a roof over my head and food on my table and other people sit starving. What would they have done for three months of waiting for TERS?”

Meynhardt said a big concern is that the tourism ministry doesn’t seem to be competent. “I’m not sure they understand that in Europe people need months to plan. Everything currently happens very last minute – it’s open, it’s closed, you drink, you don’t drink, you smoke, you don’t smoke, go smoke outside, whatever – they need to, even if it’s a worst case promise, they have to say we WILL open the skies in January because then people can plan and the foreign travel agents and operators know, okay, book from January onwards. 

“If they don’t do that soon, we’ll lose the entire next year, 2021, as well. We are already getting feedback from Europe that people want to travel, they want to come back to South Africa. And if they can’t, they will look at alternative destinations.

“For us, market share is a very important thing. We don’t want everyone to go to Kenya for the next four years because the government didn’t communicate properly. 

“Government needs to realise the international market needs forward warning … even if you play it safe and say it might open earlier but we will open from January. We need our high season. Nobody can survive on winter income.” 

Cape Country Routes (CCR) South Africa is a group of owner operated and managed accommodation and activity establishments located along popular road travel routes in the Western and Eastern Cape. Evergreen Manor & Spa is among the more than 20 properties, as is De Hoop in the Overberg region near Agulhas. 

Gross profit from alcohol sales constitutes 77% of restaurant profitability and 80% of total hotel nett profitability; it’s a major and critical contributor, said William Stephens, owner of De Hoop Collection and chairman of Cape Country Routes.

 It’s catastrophic: “Anticipated losses this year will be the equivalent to four times our last year’s profitability,” said Stephens, who went on to echo Meynhardt’s comments. They are in the same meetings, after all.

“Unless Government gives us clear dates for reopening the borders for September NOW, we will lose this whole upcoming season as international clients make up 65% of our sales.” Business will only return in 2022 season and be dependent on vaccine etc to give travellers’ peace of mind, said Stephens.

 

“We would consider opening for accommodation with no alcohol sales, but may reduce restaurant opening hours in the evenings. The majority of our guests dine in our restaurant, so accommodation and food sales would be sustainable (but not overly profitable) without alcohol sales,” said Kate Christie, GM, Walkersons Hotel & Spa, which is not currently open.

“The temporary closure of the hotel and facilities has had a very negative effect on the business; however, we are optimistic that we will bounce back as soon as regulations allow for inter provincial leisure travel. Returning to full capacity will take time. 

“Recovery will be done in a phased re-opening, specials and appealing to our return guests.” 

Turbine Hotel’s GM Chris Schutte is promising great specials for returning guests. (Photo: Supplied)

Chris Schutte, GM, Turbine Hotel & Spa, said the prohibition has had a huge effect on business. “How do you encourage patrons to join your pub or restaurant if they can’t have a local gin or a glass of wine? We can’t open in this case,” he said, adding an emphatic triple no in capital letters with an exclamation mark to the very thought. “The idea of a five-star luxury brand being restricted to only limited service makes no commercial sense with intraprovincial travel only allowed and the main airport closed.” 

It’s been devastating, said Schutte. “How does one make up for lost revenue, relationships, continuity and staff wellness? It is like starting your business again from scratch. We will recover, one day at a time, better value, comfort and safety for our staff and guests alike.” 

Gross profit from alcohol sales constitutes 77% of restaurant profitability and 80% of total hotel net profitability; it’s a major and critical contributor, said William Stephens, owner of De Hoop Collection and chairman of Cape Country Routes.

“Anticipated losses this year will be the equivalent to four times our last year’s profitability,” said Stephens, who went on to echo Meynhardt’s comments. They are in the same meetings, after all.

“Unless the government gives us clear dates for reopening the borders for September NOW, we will lose this whole upcoming season as international clients make up 65% of our sales. Business will only return in the 2022 season and be dependent on vaccines etc to give travellers’ peace of mind.”

Paul Duverge, group general manager of Cape Summer Villas (and GM of Sky Villas Boutique Hotel) said not being able to sell alcohol has severely affected the food and beverage aspect of his business. “At this point it is not viable to open our restaurants to the public, as most patrons like to enjoy a drink with their meal.”

Having opened all accommodation offerings throughout the Cape Summer Villas collection, they are catering for essential workers, business travellers as well as limited intraprovincial travel (for “stranded” guests) being allowed under advanced Level 3 regulations. “We made the decision to open based on the fact we feel our properties offer a safe environment due to our ‘boutique’ status, spaciousness, and pre-existing health and safety protocols.” 

If anyone is looking for a silver lining here, travellers are likely to be able to benefit from opening specials and discounts when the time comes. 

“We have developed a range of amazing specials that we hope will encourage domestic tourism when regulations are relaxed to allow such,” shared Duverge. “The pandemic will eventually pass but there is no question that the hospitality sector will be redefined.”

Majeka House in Stellenbosch is famous for owner Karine’s collection of pigs. (Photo: Supplied)

Karine and Lloyd Van der Merwe are the owners of the beautiful Majeka House in Stellenbosch. If you’ve been there, you’ll know about Karine’s collection of pigs (the decorative kind, not the porcine kind). “This is raw and from the bottom of our hearts, I hope this is acceptable,” she said, when answering my questions.

With there being no point to reopening the restaurant without alcohol, Van der Merwe said they are lucky to have been able to open the spa during July 2020, and clients are trickling in. “We offer a small day menu with five to seven items at this stage. We have already served quite a few ‘virgin’ cocktails in the process!”

Forty percent of the rooms have opened, but only Fridays to Sundays.

The pandemic and lockdown have affected Majeka House dreadfully, said Van der Merwe. There has been no revenue for more than three months. The little cash flow available from an already slower season was used to pay refunds and fixed costs. “We had to reflect on how to improve our business results in the future and we had to make some harsh decisions in the process. Moreover, it has affected all our amazing team. To date our foreign staff still have not received their TERS.”

Once guests return, their biggest concerns will be their health. “Luckily Visit Stellenbosch has worked very hard to obtain an accolade from the World Travel & Tourism Council which makes us the safest sub-Saharan town for now. They have put protocols in place for their members which we are following and will communicate to all our travel partners and on our website,” said Van Der Merwe.

Leisure travel will take off again, she predicted, as South Africa is one of the most coveted destinations in the world. “But this is not going to happen before the end of 2021.” Recovery for Majeka House will be “one client at a time, one rand at a time, but mostly one staff member at a time,” sighed Van der Merwe.

Regular guests are champing at the bit to come back to The Oyster Box in Umhlanga. (Photo: Supplied)

From the smaller boutique hotels to the large groups, none is immune to the ravages of Covid-19. Tyler Liebenberg, acting GM for The Oyster Box in Umhlanga, KwaZulu-Natal – part of Red Carnation Hotels South Africa which includes The Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa in Cape Town, and Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat in Clanwilliam – said the alcohol ban has certainly affected people’s choices.

“There are some that might choose to get a takeaway instead, that they can take home and enjoy with a glass of wine; while for others, who don’t drink, this aspect may not be that important a factor; finally, some guests are just so thrilled to be able to dine at our properties again that they don’t mind one way or the other.  

“We anticipate that our breakfast trade will increase substantially as alcohol is not a big attraction… and our breakfasts are renowned (just no Champagne, which would normally be included). We have new à la carte menus for each of our restaurants – Azure at the Twelve Apostles and the Ocean Terrace at The Oyster Box.” 

Since at all Red Carnation properties the business travel is fairly small in comparison to leisure business, they’d rather wait until they have the official go-ahead from the government to be able to trade normally, said Liebenberg.

“We have a strong base of return guests and local support at our two city hotels and since the beginning of the lockdown we have been overwhelmed by the number of regular guests expressing a desire to return. We’ve put together a selection of fantastic ‘budget-friendly’ packages and food and beverage offers to support our local market. We think regulars and first-timers will be thrilled.”

The Saxon Hotel, Villas & Spa in Sandhurst, Johannesburg (Gauteng) has not yet opened for accommodation or dining. “We would prefer to offer guests the full Saxon journey with all offerings open at the same time,” said MD George Cohen.

Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg will remain closed until such time guests can enjoy the full Saxon journey with all offerings open simultaneously. (Photo: Supplied)

“Whilst we would like nothing more than to welcome our guests back to the hotel, we have taken the decision to remain closed until such time that we can reopen with a coordinated approach and our full offering of accommodation, our spa as well as our dining options, not only for all of our domestic guests but hopefully our international guests too. The Saxon experience was conceived as an integrated journey and we believe we should only open when we can offer guests this unadulterated journey.”

This is the first time the Saxon has been closed in its 20-year history. “As difficult as the lockdown has been, it has afforded us the opportunity to look at the business holistically and see what changes we would like to make and ensure our path post Covid-19 is of the standard for which we are so well known. We have been able to meet with our team members in a completely new way using technology, strengthening our relationships and boosting morale as we pave the way forward together. 

“For me, personally, one of the most important tasks on my plate during this period has been to ensure that the members of the Saxon team are safe and taken care of,” said Cohen. 

At Peech Hotel in Melrose North, Johannesburg, there is an encouraging note of positivity, having opened during Level 3.

“Most of our guests are on business and therefore prefer to lay low and not consume alcoholic beverages while with us,” said owner James Peech. “Our public restaurant and bar area (Basalt) currently remain closed to the public. We’ll reopen this space for private events and small gatherings once it is safe and we are allowed to do so.

“We’ve been grateful to assist business travellers and foreigners awaiting repatriation, as well as a few locals (from Joburg) wanting to escape the confines of their apartments or homes. Our garden restaurant is operational for guests staying with us. We offer a refined menu and appropriate ‘low touch’ service, which ultimately ensures the good health, comfort and safety of our guests.” 

In-room protocols include loading menus online for guests to access on mobile devices using a QR scan code; freshly prepared seasonal menus with a focus on using immune boosting ingredients (such as freshly squeezed OJ, garlic, ginger, leafy green vegetables, almond, yoghurt, berries and dark chocolate); guests can WhatsApp or call the team directly to place their order; kitchen and service procedures have been modified to ensure health and safety regulations pertaining to food and beverage service are strictly adhered to; and the team wears face masks, gloves and appropriate PPE at all times.

“It’s going to be a long and rough ride for the hospitality business which is likely to span the next few years unfortunately,” said Peech, who intends to stick with what they do best, ensuring health and safety first, staying positive and keeping at it. 

“There’s no better time than now to look at ways of improving one’s business and product offering wherever you can. We are lucky in that we are a small boutique hotel, and as owner-operators we have the ability to make quick decisions and implement them overnight.”  

The alcohol ban has not only had a negative financial effect on hospitality businesses but unfortunately it also serves as a deterrent for guests who are not able to come relax with a glass of South African wine on the seaside deck at Tintswalo Atlantic in Hout Bay, said Lisa Goosen, MD of Tintswalo Lodges.

“The same applies to our safari lodges, where there are very few people around, wide open spaces, fresh air and the great outdoors where guests should be able to enjoy a drink on a game drive stop or at a watering hole while game watching,” she said.

Tintswalo Atlantic is open for business travellers under strict Covid-19 protocols, including the regulated social distancing. “We have developed a Vamoos app, which handles the guest check-in and out procedures, provides full information on all facilities and answers questions, including those about health and safety protocols,” explained Goosen.

Tintswalo Atlantic in Hout Bay is open for business travellers under strict Covid-19 protocols. (Photo: Supplied)

Remarkably, the hotel opened a new restaurant on Wednesday, 29 July, 2020. The Tintswalo Kitchen will welcome both resident guests, as well as casual diners with bookings taken for lunch and dinner from Tuesdays to Saturdays, as well as Sunday family lunch.

Even so, the pandemic has had an “almost devastating effect on the business”, said Goosen. “We hope South Africans will ‘support local’ and help us rebuild to get back to where we were. We know many people have said they will travel local when they can, and this will help get all of us back on our feet. We have introduced many new specials and voucher systems to encourage SA residents to book a stay at a Tintswalo property. We are hopeful that the Government will at some point in time come to the party and give mid-sized businesses such as ourselves some desperately needed assistance.”

The President’s doors (in Bantry Bay, Cape Town) are open and it has welcomed business travellers and guests seeking essential services back to the comfort and safety of the hotel, said Jeremy Clayton, executive director of the property, which is committed to ensuring a safe space for guests and staff alike with the implementation of its SAFE (“Sanitising Academy For Employees”) staff training programme – robust health and safety protocols which have been developed, approved and rolled out.  

“Our hotel has effectively been shut down since late March with zero to little income. This has had a dire impact on our hotel, the business, shareholders and staff – the majority of whom are sole breadwinners for their families. We have been doing everything possible to ensure our 240 staff are looked after and have some sort of income to ensure there is food on the table for the 2,500+ that rely on them but lockdown on the tourism industry is causing so much strain for the financial well-being of employees,” said Clayton.

So safari lodges, what about the animals? 

“Thanda has used the lock down period to focus on maintenance of its lodges. From a reserve perspective, nothing has changed with business as usual, as the reserve and its animals require constant monitoring by Thanda’s wildlife and anti-poaching units,” said John Louw, CFO for the group, based in KZN and Swedish-owned.

“We have also spent a significant amount of time reviewing our marketing content in order to best showcase Thanda to our guests, who no doubt want to escape ‘cabin fever’ for ‘bush fever’.”

While we wait (impatiently now, I cannot lie) for the plague to pass and we can travel again, console yourself with the words of WHO emergencies programme head Mike Ryan, who said that it was impossible for countries to keep borders shut for the foreseeable future.

Hopes and dreams, people. Hopes and dreams.

AND WINE NOT?

Out of personal interest, as a wine drinker, I asked each hotel how they would approach or deal with a guest partaking of alcohol in their room (which they had snuck in themselves). These are the answers (some declined to comment).

Walkersons Hotel & Spa: “This is very tricky as there is no clear stance on this situation. Guests would be clearly advised that they are not permitted to consume alcohol on the premises. However, can you really control this if it is not done publicly?” 

Turbine Hotel & Spa: “We respect our guests’ privacy and therefore won’t know if they are drinking in their rooms.”

De Hoop Collection: “Very little demand as we have only opened the self-catering offerings and are not permitted to sell off consumption. Guests would be welcome to bring their own drinks for consumption in their rooms.”

Cape Summer Villas: “The regulations are clear – no on-site consumption of liquor is allowed. All our guests are briefed of the regulations prior to arrival, as well as reminded of the regulations upon arrival. We do ask that they respect these regulations. Our employees are also aware of the fact and do police such, as the consequences of breach of these regulations can have far reaching consequences for our business.”

Majeka House: “We believe that you ‘buy’ the room for the night and if you want to consume alcohol in your private space you are more than welcome to… for now.” 

The Oyster Box: “We do not encourage it.”

Saxon Hotel: “When we reopen the Saxon, it will be opened with all departments in the hotel open and offering all services throughout the hotel. There will be no need for our guests to bring their own wine, the Saxon has an award-winning wine list with excellent wines for our guests to enjoy while at the hotel.”

Tintswalo Lodges: “Unfortunately, this is not allowed under the current lockdown rules.” DM/TGIFood

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