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Michelle Bregger on anticipating guest needs for the ultimate guest experience

Riverside Sun General Manager talks hospitality at Tsogo Sun, innovation and leadership as part of South Africa’s powerhouse brand

1. Tell us a little about yourself and your background? Where are you from and how was life coming up for you?

I am “a child of the universe” as my father fondly coined us in a world that is defined by the need to live life in a box in order to be understood by the confines of the norm.  I am South African by descent though born in Zimbabwe of parents who instilled the spirit of fearlessness and confidence. I believe they conditioned us to enter the world wearing a different badge of honour. 

 

I grew up in the modest farming community of Norton on the outskirts of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. Norton is the home of the late famed singer Oliver Mtukudzi.  I was schooled at Chisipite Senior School, also in the capital, and these were the finest formative years in my opinion.  

I later received my accreditation into the world of hospitality through the American Hotel and Motel Association.  I am proud to say I was an intern and former Executive Housekeeper of the Meikles Hotel in Harare, Zimbabwe which was part of the handful of internationally recognized five star hotels in Zimbabwe and a member of the Leading Hotels of the World at that time.

2. You chose a career in hospitality. Why hospitality, specifically as it relates to Africa's travel and tourism landscape.

My family were always entertaining.  I was intrigued by the happiness, warmth, and comfort that my parents created in our home to visitors that were welcomed.  It was that; that was the “it factor,” - that family and friends were drawn to that and it kept them coming back for more.

Our homes in Africa are renowned for the wide, open spaces.  My parents are avid horticulturists and created an oasis of palm trees, indigenous flora in and amongst rolling green lawns, a clear glistening swimming pool for relaxing in the shade of the lapa, with music in the background playing while we seated at the handcrafted railway sleeper bar. This magic created in our back garden in essence is Africa, and why we continue to attract such a large international base of travellers.  It is the large spaces and the feeling that you can breathe freely.  Africa best explained is tactile as it appeals to the senses.

As a millennial, it was taking a childhood memory of the Lion King and experiencing it in 4D.  My choice to take up a career in hospitality was a no-brainer as being the proverbial “hostess-with-the-mostess” came naturally to me.  I am a creative spirit and my passion allows me to create experiences for our guests daily.  Afterall we go on holiday to escape what our daily reality is and if you are hosting a function you are creating an experience out of the ordinary.

3. You were recently appointed as the incoming General Manager for Riverside Sun, a Tsogo Sun property. How has your journey been as part of South Africa's most prolific hospitality brand?

I have had the honour of being a part of this powerhouse brand for just over five years.  It has been a wonderful journey of self-discovery as I have had the opportunity to work amongst some of the finest hoteliers and leaders in the industry.  Tsogo Sun at its core is centred around our people, a culture of learning, evolution, and innovation.  You go beyond managing and into the realm of leadership. 

It has been a full circle and a new beginning simultaneously as my journey began with Tsogo Sun at Riverside Sun as Deputy General Manager.  I joined the group in April 2015 when Riverside was going through the transformation of a refurbishment.  The property was closed for five months and during that time, I enjoyed a year of operations, pushing the limits and boundaries of the potential of what we could offer. 

In November 2016 I had the opportunity to move across to one of our sister hotels in Kwa Zulu Natal, Garden Court Marine Parade as Deputy General Manager, a role in which I flourished for a year.  Durban is a different form of hospitality, so too is our Garden Court brand. It is a baptism of fire.  It is a lean mean machine of 352 keys with a flat management structure and so it is all about efficiency.  I then had the opportunity to run this beauty for over year as Acting General Manager.

 

Coming back to Riverside Sun in the capacity of General Manager, in the Covid19 era has taught me the single most important lesson that will carry me through life and that is “humility”. The platform of a promotion naturally puts you under a spotlight.  The euphoria that comes with such a great achievement is expectation; expectation of what you imagine the journey to be and what the mind has conditioned it to be. 

Enter Covid19, all these expectations were shattered and juxtaposed with the spotlight, I entered a cocoon with a handful of my team and a cold empty building.  Under the guidance of our CEO Marcel Von Aulock and his team of experts, we began a hard shut down of over 100 properties in 3 days.  Having recently celebrated our 50th birthday and having stood the test of time, the wealth of knowledge allowed us to tackle the crisis with a measured approach.

This global catastrophe has allowed us the opportunity and time to re-evaluate our business.  As this virus is constantly mutating, so too must we take a long, hard look internally at our processes and continue to question what our “norms” will be. As our business has had to make physical changes, so too has our manner of thinking and conduct. Our leadership has had to adapt and will have to continue to do so with more flexibility and agility for a sustainable future.

4. Tell us a little bit about the property you currently manage. Where is it located and what can a guest expect upon booking not only a Tsogo Sun stay but a Riverside Sun experience?

Riverside Sun is an absolute gem of a property nestled on the banks of the Vaal River.  A short drive from Johannesburg - 45 minutes to be exact.  We provide a feeling of having escaped the city without creating a massive dent to the pocket nor arduous months of planning a weekend or holiday trip away with the family. 

 

Our unique selling point is an invitation to come for business and stay for pleasure.  Our business traveller who has been conferencing with us during the week can take a load off and enjoy a sundowner with their family on our deck, enjoying an uninterrupted tranquil view of the Vaal River.  We have a variety of rooms on offer which appeal to all budgets as well as each traveller’s experience and expectations; whether that be minimal time required in their room or complete rest and recuperation, in which case we would most certainly recommend one of our luxurious suites which dons features including a living area and guest bathroom.

Riverside Sun is unique in terms of her expansive gardens and grounds and the limitless creative genius she inspires.  This allows us to exceed both our conference delegates as well leisure guests’ expectations as we have multiple venues at our disposal, including our exclusive wine cellar, featuring a hand-picked selection of our finest wines from our famed auction wine list.

The boma is situated on the island a distance from the hustle and bustle of the epicentre of the pool and pool bar area.  Our lush rolling lawns offer a great alternative to the traditional indoor ballroom extravaganza which we deliver with great finesse, with a twist of a clear marquee so that you are not robbed of your opportunity to dine under the stars.

We have a wide array of conferencing venues available both conventional as well as those that are woven into the elements of our gardens and grounds, gracing our conference delegates with the tranquility of this experience whilst still enjoying the full benefits of all of our facilities.  These include the Kite and Weaver which are a short distance away from the hotel and perfect for a strategic session.  Resembling log cabins with a full view Vaal River, the natural stimulus of warm sun rays filtering into the room, and the sound of the water running peacefully just outside in the stream is a huge win for our guests.

Our aim whilst recommending the best Tsogo Sun Property that fits your needs and expectations, is to anticipate what these are and assist our guests in making the best decision as we know our products best.

5. What activities can a guest enjoy in your vicinity, especially one coming from abroad?

I have learned to appreciate our local wonders especially in the times we are living.  Be a tourist in your own city, and if you are daring enough do one thing that scares you daily or often!

The Vaal is rich in history, culture, and stories to be told.  It is a destination that is a one stop shop for the family that wants to arrive at one destination and park off, the adventure junkie that needs their fix, or the honeymoon couple. The list goes on.

The Vaal River flows for 750 miles or 1 210 km and at each confluence the ambience of the river is unique.  In one afternoon, you can travel through three provinces Gauteng, The Free State and The North West, all of which are within a distance of 60km radius from Riverside Sun to some of my favourite spots which include the Sharpesville Memorial Site and Parys, a quaint town in the Free State with so much character, with the main road dotted with antique shops galore, lots of eateries and delicatessens which celebrate the strong Afrikaans heritage and culture in this area.  You will certainly find keepsakes and mementos to take home with you as a reminder of your visit.

6. What is the Tsogo Sun promise in your words?

To anticipate our guests needs before they need to convey them to us.

7. What's your take on African hospitality brands and the need to create unique guest experiences for every type of traveller - local and international?

It would be short-sighted to treat the two market segments differently from the onset.  Every guest who makes the choice to enter your doors has made a conscious decision to be there and this is your most powerful marketing tool. Word-of-mouth is invaluable in our industry.  The experience and approach that is then created by the host is determined by the origin of the traveller and not demeaned by it, which is very often the case unfortunately.  As we have become more figures-driven, sadly some hospitality chains have forgotten the touch points and people aspect of our craft.

8. South Africa experiences significant inbound tourism from international travellers from your key source markets. What experiences do you believe travellers are looking for when they choose South Africa as their destination of choice for a trip to the continent?

The imagery that resonates with most international tourists in my view, is that of the Big Five in the Kruger National Park as well as the Cape Winelands - both of which are packaged very well.  The Minister of Tourism recently personally visited Riverside Sun to begin her campaign on restarting tourism in the domestic sector, which will eventually feed into the international travel recovery plan.  We are optimistic that this coverage will encourage a wider scope and generate an interest in South Africa holistically. 

9. We've recently come out of commemorating Women's Month in South Africa this past August. Let's switch gears a little bit and talk about the opportunities available in tourism for women. What words do you have to inspire young women who may be considering a career in hospitality and tourism?

 

That firstly the veneer they see in the foyers of the hotels it is just that - a veneer.  Our joy as hoteliers is creating joy for our guests, an alternative from their reality.  So, the glitz and glam is not a true reflection of the grime and grit it truly takes to ascend to a leadership position if that truly is your goal.  You must be clear in your objectives and honest with yourself about what it is you seek and what your motivation is.

Tourism is a wide spectrum.  Are there opportunities? Absolutely!  Will you face challenges as a woman confronted by backward and wayward thinking - absolutely! However always remember that you do not have the capacity to change another individual. Within a 5 – 10 minute exchange, what you do have the power over is your response to negativity, so it’s important to learn to master yourself as best you can and as early as you can.  Read, find sources of inspiration, and surround yourself with people who inspire you to be better.

10. What will be your focus as a hotelier/ industry professional and team leader contributing towards industry recovery in the wake of COVID-19.

My focus has been to create a new normal for my team in an abnormal situation.  The mental toll and strain this epidemic has placed on people is just tragic - the onus is on us as leaders to be perceptive to this because the time will come where we will still require performance and the reactionary capacity is just non-existent.  The conundrum of COVID-19 is that the very essence of hospitality is connection through a handshake, a hug, the human touch that has been taken away and pretty much outlawed for all our safety.  We are challenged in a greater way now to truly connect with ourselves, with all the noise of the world removed, and to interact with our people as well as our guests simply with eye contact and gestures.

So, my focus will be the former masks we all adopted and the ‘shows,’ we put on - that mask will be put away.  I will continue to work on myself primarily, insuring that I am in good health physically, spiritually, and mentally, as that ensures that I am in the best place to deliver the best of me to my team.  And as the situation with COVID-19 continues to develop, so too will I adapt as is required.

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