FLASHBACK: July 1987 and trade unions become a fact of life

Editor Andrew Moth says in his Viewpoint of then called Hotelier & Caterer: “Trade unionism, with all its irritations for people who want to run a business and make a living, is a fact in the hospitality industry. It will not be long before every single hotelier in the country finds that he has to devote part of every day to it. The paperwork will become a burden but it must be done.”

The July 1987 issue of H&C ran the first in a series of articles entitled: “From the Fedhasa Industrial Relations Desk.” Moth described it as: “They won’t tell you how to please your guests, make money or operate efficiently but the information and advice contained in them may save your business if for some reason – real or imagined – you become the target of a trade union.”

He felt moved to reassure readers “that trade unions are not all bad. All over the world they have achieved better working conditions and improved standards of living although this may not have always been immediately apparent.”

Given the rolling strike action in South Africa today, 2011, over salary increases seen as too low to qualify as a living wage; exorbitant price hikes in essential services such as electricity, water, and fuel/transport; as well as those areas with no access to services at all – hard times give trade unionists a chance to really earn their fees as workers look to them to push hard for better living conditions, as well as an opportunity publicly vent their frustrations at the status quo.

The second half of the year was filled with all of the usual openings, expansions, promotions, new launches and innovation across the board.

The 1987 Fedhasa Congress was covered in much detail. One of the highlights was the report by South African Tourism that “Black tourism to take off”. Spencer Thomas noted that: “A certain strata of black society had high disposable income but promotion of tourism to black groups must be tackled with circumspection to prevent disillusionment.

A survey was being conducted on black tourism needs and early indications were that a number of problems would have to be overcome. These included (thoughts in brackets entirely my own):

–       Black travellers were afraid of travelling to areas where they thought they would not be welcome (it was 1987, remember)

–       Black travellers felt cut off from the tourism facilities and believed that hotels were still closed to people of colour (not far off the mark, given the damage that Apartheid had done in making black people feel almost wholly unwelcome on beaches, in cinemas, at restaurants and by extension hotels)

–       Some hotels may have been open to black travellers, other facilities within the hotel remained closed to black people.

–       Prevailing ignorance of different cultures (this stays with the industry today as hoteliers and restaurateurs deal with different expectations)

–       Black travellers had enjoyed travelling to neighbouring countries, where the hospitality industry was significantly more welcoming

So while hoteliers and restaurateurs were fine-tuning their product, menus, establishment, staff training, design and decor, marketing and promotions, they were still grappling with the fundamental issues that gripped the country – how to reverse 50 years of racist regime and let people of colour feel welcome in their establishments.

Today, government, municipalities and provinces make up the bulk of tourism spend. And the majority of staff are black. This means the industry must have caught on fast on just how to make visitors of all colour and creed feel welcome, have a truly hospitality and enjoyable experience and want to become loyal customers.

Some major establishments have become so good at this that they are known for their expertise in servicing everyone from ministers to bodyguards, unexpected spouses to drivers of blue light vehicles. Some conference establishments have told me that to do business with government means being ready for last minute bookings and requests, guest numbers that fluctuate on the day to double the original quantity quoted for, and ensuring that every person who attends has their expectations met and exceeded, whether it is for more technology in the conference rooms to more chairs and bottles of whisky at the after party.

Upmarket bars and lounges say some of their best customers are regular political figures, who enjoy a good time out in a relatively anonymous setting, just like everyone else. Look after your customers, and they will look after you. While the bills may make it into the following day’s papers and get taxpayers knickers in a twist, business is business.

So what happens when one of the top hotels in the city, Johannesburg Sun & Towers, reports the appointment of a new, up and coming deputy GM Stephen Ford. They surely couldn’t see that the hotel would not be able to maintain its five-star status in the face of crime and grime.

However, in 1987 it was a hotel to aspire to work in. Ford attributed his success at the Johannesburg Sun to the development of a high public relations profile, an excellent marketing effort from head office, and the establishment of a highly-motivated, professional team: “The hotel’s team spirit is one of the best I’ve ever come across.”

Ford goes on to say: “We are well placed to take the lion’s share of the tourist market, which I’m sure will come back very strongly.”

The slow march of CBD decline couldn’t save it in the end, even though the above characteristics are what every hotel should strive for.

So on the one hand there was the big drive to attract tourists, of all colours, on the other there was the ongoing issue of providing sufficient security to keep guests safe. “You can never have too much security,” the report stressed. Andre Steyn said that: “A hotel must be one of the most difficult places to secure strictly. Not only is its front door always open but guests accentuate the problem by leaving their bedroom doors open and leaving valuables lying around haphazardly in their rooms.”

Not much has changed and the ongoing issue of security staff, guests and their goods is still with us.

On the food front, the correct positioning and promoting of meat on the menu was a challenge in the face of rising prices. South Africans do love their meat, but at that time customers were expressing a growing interest in chicken and fish, and if they were eating meat, smaller portions were preferred, more for economic reasons than health reasons at that time.

On a lighter note, a new invention appeared in the Products and Services page – Gum-Out, a special cleaning product in a syringe that promised to dispense a detergent that would release hardened deposits of stuck-fast chewing gum on seats and fittings without damaging or staining material.

People on the move at that time:

–       Thomas Overbeck appointed deputy GM of The Malibu Hotel in Durban

–       Meyer Kahn, group MD of SA Breweries appoints Pete Lloyd as chairman of the group’s beverage interests and Graham Mackay as MD of the Beer Division, taking over from Lloyd

–       World famous French chef Paul Bocuse was in the country as a guest of Southern Sun Hotels

www.hotelandrestaurant.co.za

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