Farai Chimba: Leadership and curating the heritage story as a life and career mantra
The award-winning Farai Chimba is the General Manager for The Victoria Falls Hotel Partnership and current President of the Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe (HAZ), an organization that represents interests of the hospitality sector spanning the Hotels, Lodges, Restaurants, Fast Food, Night Clubs and Bars in Zimbabwe.
With a wealth of 21 years in hospitality at various management roles at Zimbabwe’s premier hotels, and bearing multiple accolades for service, restaurants and 6 time Wine List of the Year recipient with different properties, Travel Essence Magazine had the privilege of chatting with him over his hospitality journey, career milestones, the evolving heritage story at one of the Leading Hotels of the World and his love for the border town of Victoria Falls.
1. Farai. Tell us a little about yourself, where you grew up and your fond memories of growing up in Zimbabwe?
I come from a strong Christian family, being the second child in a family of four. We grew up in an environment that allowed us to discover ourselves and bring out our best in what we did. I can say I get my calm from my father who always stays collected and the fiery passion to get things done from my mother.
Early days were spent in Chitungwiza Unit B in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, where I still have vivid memories of living in a close community home that was always bustling with family friends and relatives visiting. The sense of community that prevailed was unparalleled where you saw first-hand, the sacrifices made to improve and help each other to become better. Playing on the streets was probably the best carefree time of growing up. Learning to ride a bike using an unsuspecting neighbours “Black horse” - a term for the famous bikes of that era, did come with bruises and a little disciplinary action when caught.
Schooling years in Belvedere exposed me to a multi-cultural local community and expatriate embassy families learning a lot about the different cultures which would become key in the work environment. One of the most missed memories of growing up was milk, bread and newspapers delivered like clockwork at the gate daily and in later years, the daily school bus trips.
In travelling the continent I now get to appreciate how advanced we were then. Travelling and staying in a hotels in Zimbabwe and across the border from the early 80’s with the family was always a highlight which opened up my perspective of life and returning to them years later in working in this field is special. You can say I was part of the trade from a tender age as a young tourist.
2. You've long worked in Zimbabwe's hospitality industry, with significant additional exposure to brands and experiences beyond our borders. What inspired you to join the region's hospitality mavericks?
Hospitality found me as a career, something that had been in my blood without realizing. My late grandfather was a cook at one of the residences before becoming a Bishop in his later days, and he would tell stories of his work life cooking for the elite family. This coupled with having a mother who is still the best chef, I learnt to cook and bake at a tender age and would pick up some interesting recipes influenced by the Your Family Magazine, turning them into sumptuous results.
Despite all this, I can’t say I was influenced initially into joining hospitality as my passion and hobby was harboured in building design and architecture, spending hours drawing house plans. This has come full circle and have used this to design and build my own properties.
My parents were to play a major role, most likely influenced by my love for cooking, encouraging me to pursue hotel management.
Exposure to the Meikles Hotel brand as part of my training at the prime of tourism in Zimbabwe in 1999, and working with the best in the game was pivotal. Despite being hesitant at first, this turned out to come naturally and that talent was identified by David Seaman (no relation to the footballer) who while watching him do his craft, had me sold on pursuing the Food and Beverage field and staying in the hospitality line instead of tourism.
The reason one often stays in hospitality is the fact that it is the most diverse of industry or single business entity with more than 10 trades that you find within it, from lawyers to chefs, medical personnel to engineers, builders, waiters or tradesmen like florists. Additionally, many creatives form part of the teams, making it ideal for always learning new skills. Being able to appreciate this environment and making it work for the ultimate experience to the end user - the ‘guest’ - is a feat on its own.
With the travel to different parts of the world it has given a bit more to shape up the Zimbabwean hospitality landscape with exposure to new trends different ways of doing things and traveller needs anticipation. Being part of this change and leading it is exciting and something that over time will reshape our landscape.
3. The hotel is currently under renovation, and has begun to unveil a chic contemporary design that doesn't steer too far away from the foundations from which the property was built. What is The Victoria Falls' Heritage story?
Our story is one that preserves a traditional service culture and experience, inheriting a structure that has stood a century plus of existence. Our story bears the significance of the growth of Victoria Falls town to its current city status. As a hotel, it has always created a first in its timelines from having first fans or spate of bathrooms in the 1920’s or the first river cruise boats to transfers to the Falls by trolley, shuttle buses to the airport, the country’s first and only Diners International Platinum wine list. The Victoria Falls Hotel’s list of firsts is endless, making it the foundation of tourism for Zimbabwe.
What has been remarkable is bringing back to life, with an updated touch, some of the styles and fashionable parts of décor and fittings from the 1920’s to 40’s, complete with the reopening of a 1960’s Rainbow Bar area, now The Stanley’s Bar, that had closed down in the mid 90’s. The renovation serves as a preservation of true hospitality, and this is embodied in celebrating this history and heritage through to the super structure, grounds and facilities onsite.
The renovations capture all the elements of its heritage and more, taken from different timelines of its existence to the present day, and creating the present day features that also now speak to sustainability. As a property, the history continues to be written, each adding to what has preserved it for so long into an iconic property.
4. The hotel is over a 100 years old; in fact, etching closer to 120 years old next year. What is the secret, and art of keeping guests from all over the world coming to The Victoria Falls Hotel?
Consistency and setting the pace to deliver the ultimate guest experience is the epitome of any establishment’s success, and this has played a role in keeping the Grand Dame as it’s affectionately known, the place to visit. Steeped in the rich history it can only lay claim to in the region, the staff that have worked over the century to those that carry the torch onward have been the key to its success.
Without the people driving its charm, we would be just another building. We often talk of trends and their impact to any establishment or business. Ours is a well-choreographed dance of tradition and modern conveniences that keeps it a must visit Hotel without pushing out any of the two markets.
5. How to do you balance out the needs of older guests who have a long history of experiencing the property, and the younger, upwardly mobile traveller who values ultimate guest experience, connectivity, relaxation and exceptional service?
Managing The Victoria Falls Hotel is akin to being a curator of a gallery which showcases fine art dating back to decades before us, and still holding an appeal to a new audience. So how you tell and package the story is important without losing elements of what makes it dear to the older audience and endearing for the new generation. The brand has seen continuous evolution redefining luxury over the decades and our role is to create with all stakeholders a modern facility and maintain its heritage.
6. 5 reasons why visitors to Victoria Falls should choose your property - The Victoria Falls Hotel?
· Location which was influenced by its connection to the bridge, owned by the Emerged Railway Properties. It is the only property you can see the unadulterated bridge and spray views from some of the rooms and certainly from the main restaurant.
· The history of the property which many return to because of the link to other visitors, family or friends along with notable celebrities. One of the main features is the corridors of time that are an activity on their own. Wandering down the passages is so much in history preserved in photographs. Guests can walk through the gardens and view one of the old trams that carried over 2 million passengers in the early days before they were decommissioned or the commemoration platform that the Royal family used for afternoon tea in 1947.
· The hospitality experience with an old world charm with traditional afternoon tea experience or in one of Africa’s oldest running dining rooms with a 7 course meal paired with wines.
· As member of the Leading Hotels of the world throughout the 2000’s, it is the only 5 star property in the town of Victoria Falls.
· The gardens, with the expansive lawns and famous 1930 planted mango trees give that ideal natural location away from the concrete cities, which is a major attraction for sun seeking traveller with foliage around them.
7. Let's bring it back to you and your experience and love for Victoria Falls. Beyond being a place of work and welcoming guests from across the world, why this border town for you?
It goes without saying that Victoria Falls is the tourism capital of the country, where true tourism can be experienced and you have to feel blessed to be part of something special by being here. I find its location gives a central hub into continuous benchmarking at a stone throws away with the neighbouring countries, creating synergies and friendships which are rare across borders.
Its laid back lifestyle and sense of community makes it an ideal place to live without the usual chaos found in conventional cities. Being able to stay in a place where warthogs wander into your garden, an elephant on the street while taking a jog or a buffalo herd grazing about the neighbourhood is nothing short of special; just priceless. I believe the potential of Victoria Falls is still to be reached and can become the first Smart City in Southern Africa built around a sustainable model, something that makes it attractive for the future and now.
8. Your top 5 travel destinations and why?
In no particular order;
· Nairobi with its vibrant night life and dynamic business culture, you always feel welcome.
· Bvumba in the Eastern Highlands. It’s cool, scenic and the serene time out spent in this place this is the most undersold part of the country with the best landscape
· Amsterdam for the warm people, culture and museums
· Cape Town food and wine experiences. This is wine lovers paradise and you can never get enough of the wine estates.
· Mozambique islands with their amazing beaches
9. Farai the family man. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time and who do you credit for inspiring you to continuously pursue the best version of yourself?
Having to wear several hats in the industry and in community projects keeps a full diary with specific timeout for family always a priority. Each opportunity to spend with them I maximize as that time once lost is never recovered.
When not participating in Rotary or other projects I get to throw in a healthy amount of reading especially between travels, play the occasional round of golf which includes hosting an invitational tournament yearly. I enjoy outdoor running, with my son now accompanying me cycling, and will be back on the half marathon circuit 2023 after a 2 year break. Quiet time is when I write journals and articles for magazines.
I am a firm believer that to get to the top you have family first, a team and a community of people that add one piece of the puzzle each to complete the picture, everyone around you contributes and influences who we become. Lessons and inspiration can be drawn from anywhere and anyone; it’s what you take from it. One thing that I attribute to seeing my parents do was how many people they brought up with their successes and that too become successful. Success to me is best measured by how many people you have impacted and brought up in your journey, who can also one day stand up and make a mark.
10. Three pieces of advice to your younger self?
I am blessed by the Lord to have experienced a very diverse life with no regrets that cuts across divides and continues to evolve and acquire new opportunities and skills which can better serve those around me. One piece of advice to myself would be do it all over again and make it more fun.