It was Futurist Faith Popcorn who predicted a trend of ‘Recareering’ back in the ‘Seventies, one having multiple careers in a lifetime, at a time when I myself was in my first career as a Futurist. I could not have foreseen that my career path from Futurist to Market Researcher, Marketing Lecturer, Research Consultant, Food PR Consultant, and then Guest House owner for the last 19 years would lead me to my new and seventh career, to that as a Food Tour Guide.
My Guest House career was the longest of the six to date, and in this period we started off as a small Bed & Breakfast in Hermanus in 1996, followed by one in Camps Bay two years later, then in Franschhoek in 2004, another in Bakoven, and finally opening in Plettenberg Bay in 2008. We were the first branded Guest House Group in the country, and become bolder in opening guest houses with up to eight rooms, formalizing our service, and striving to become small hotels with personalized B&B service levels. The industry was small in those days, but has become a sector with low barriers to entry, and soon we saw the threat of competition as the industry grew. In Camps Bay I started a Guest House Association, and we worked together in passing on referrals to each other if we were fully booked. We created a joint Camps Bay Info website, to attract business to our guest houses, and we socialized, hosted by the Camps Bay restaurants, wanting us to experience their menu so that we could refer their restaurants to our guests, and to thank us for the referrals.
In early years we were beholden to Portfolio, the company advertising our properties in their booklets, which controlled us very strictly, so much so that Noseweek‘s headline ‘Bed & Bondage‘ for a story about former Portfolio owner Liz Westby-Nunn’s unfair dismissal of ourselves with two others guest houses as clients, for speaking out against unfair demands made by her, remained apt long after Portfolio lost its power and hold over the small accommodation industry! Over time our business became almost 24/7, and in June/July this year I managed to take my first holiday in seven years, realizing what a burden the business had become, both in respect of staff and guests. The writing was on the wall last winter, when we struggled for the first time in 18 years to pay our bonds, all insurance policy payouts having been invested into the business over time. In the previous years we were better able to make profits in summer which we used to pay the bonds in winter, Seasonality never having been solved in the Cape, despite promises by the tourism authorities to do so year after year! The global economic slump in 2008 came just as we opened in Plettenberg Bay, and we never got off the ground in a holiday town that has a minimal tourist period compared to Cape Town and the Winelands.
The UK market was our bread and butter from the beginning, but in the past four to five years this source market showed huge declines due to the country’s delayed economic decline. Coupled with this is the noticeable effect on the tourism industry of the new Visa regulations introduced by the Department of Home Affairs last June, and the tourism numbers have dropped since then, even though the Visa regulations have predominantly affected bookings from India and China, and have not affected the small accommodation industry yet. TripAdvisor too is the bane of the accommodation and restaurant industry, and much has been documented about the anonymous reviews that are written, not reflecting the many happy guests who write in the guest books of the accommodation establishments, and could not be bothered to write on TripAdvisor too. We have learnt that industry competitors, belligerent wine writers, and Social Media staff of restaurants we have reviewed are able to write evaluations about our guest houses without ever having setting foot in the establishments, a weakness which TripAdvisor has not yet addressed! We were not prepared to play the dishonest widely-spread game of having false positive reviews written on our behalf to improve our ratings. We see AirBnb as a massive threat to the formal accommodation industry, with hotels and Guest Houses even offering their stock to the sharing website.
It was during my Guest House career that I discovered the joy of writing, something which I had experienced for the first time when I ran my PR Consultancy. It started with our WhaleTales newsletter about ten years ago, which evolved into daily blogposts on our WhaleTales Blog established six years ago. Writing became the yang in the evening to my very admin yin daytime persona, a perfect balance! It was in writing that I discovered my love for writing about the restaurant industry in particular, about its openings and closures, its winter specials, chef news, restaurant awards, and more. It has not come without a cost, not everyone being happy with my reviews or views, known to be honest at all times, and reacting accordingly by unfriending us on Facebook (as did the Grand Daddy of Cape Town chefs recently) or even threatening to ban us from their restaurants! Twitter abuse accounts set up to disparage us were a downside of being active on Social Media, but this phase of Twitter appears to have faded away. At all times we decided to maintain our independence, and have refused to accept any sponsorship or advertising on our Blog as a result.
It was when I realized that I enjoyed writing more than Guest Housing last year, coupled with the above-mentioned changes in the accommodation industry, as well as my son departing for the UK to build a restaurant industry career there rather than taking over the running of the Whale Cottage Portfolio, that I decided to approach estate agents and put all four my properties on the market. It has taken close to a year overall for the sales to be made and the transfers to go through, Hermanus being the only property still in the process of transfer. I had to learn to be patient throughout the sales process, as not all offers materialized, but new purchasers were found, and a number of challenges emerged along the way. I was hesitant about spreading the news about the guest house sales, but can do so now, with three of the four property transfers having gone through.
The reaction to the news amongst those that picked up on it has been funny to me when the question is whether I will retire! In my vocabulary I do not know such a word or lifestyle, given the 24/7 life I have led for 19 years. Even stranger is the question if I am moving to Europe – I am proudly Capetonian and will never leave this beautiful city! I now have far more time to write, am able to take on writing assignments, and I hope to increase the volume of Blogposts on our WhaleTales Blog. A book or two is also planned. Running a small AirBnb from my house in Fresnaye has not been ruled out either.
A journey of 19 years has not been possible without the support of many. I wish to acknowledge my son Alex, growing up in the guest house since he was four years old, tolerating the effect of this on having friends over, and for his (almost always) patient assistance in fixing technical problems with the wifi, TV, and pool!; former Hermanus managers Barry Lewis and Carole Cesano; guest house colleagues in each of the towns, who assisted in referring business, and for their collegiality, friendliness, and sources of information; the Pick ‘n Pays in each of the towns in which we operated, which delivered our groceries weekly into our guest house kitchens over this period of time, in particular Annie at the Gardens Centre branch and Jonathan at the Franschhoek branch; all our former staff, with the highs and lows associated with this; all our past guests, particularly the loyal ones who came back and back and have become friends; service suppliers such as electricians and plumbers, who came to the rescue to fix problems on the same day for the benefit of our guests; to the estate agents who sold our properties, two of them being Seeff agencies; our conveyancer Stefanus Malherbe of MHi, who has guided every property purchase as well as sale in the last 20 years; and to the close friends who shared this ‘secret’ over the past year, when I could not tell anyone else.
What I am excited about is the creation of a Food Tour service, to show off the artisanal and craft food bounty in Cape Town, Stellenbosch, and Franschhoek, and even further afield, including in KwaZulu-Natal next winter. Little is planned to date, a name has to be finalized, and a corporate identity created. As soon as this has been done, the details will be announced. We are excited about the new career path lying ahead!
Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.whalecottage.com/blog Tel 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@WhaleCottage Facebook: click here