Beach for the stars

2014-04-03 00:00

SEVEN o’clock on a Wednesday morning and Ethel Mzimela is setting out coasters, wooden spoons, colourful swimming shorts, towels and tablecloths at her stall on the Durban beach front.

Mzimela has an assistant trader permit from the eThekwini Municipality and operates alongside other vendors in one of the custom-made structures along the Snell Parade.

“I’ve been working here for 11 years,” says Mzimela, who supports both her own children and her sister’s. “Even when it’s raining or thundering, like yesterday, we must come.”

Today, when the sun rose above the Indian Ocean, surfers paddled out on their boards on a heaving carpet of gold, while joggers, walkers, skateboarders and cyclists were already out in force on the paved walkway stretching from uShaka Marine World to Blue Lagoon.

A 100 metres or so from where Mzimela is unpacking her stock, Samantha Croft, general manager of the Southern Sun Elangeni and Maharani Hotel, has just arrived in her office off the foyer of the Elangeni. “Every day is different,” she says. “The biggest challenge is to cope with the numbers and at the same time make it personal enough for each guest.”

The Elangeni and Maharani is really one hotel — with 734 guest rooms — separated by a block of flats named Maluti. During the hotel’s recent multimillion-rand make-over, the exterior décor of all three buildings was brought into conformity, reinforced by the shared garden frontage.

The Elangeni/Maharani belongs to Tsogo Sun’s Southern Sun brand and is just one aspect of the hotel group’s presence on Durban’s Golden Mile — add to them the Southern Sun North Beach, Garden Court Marine Parade, Garden Court South Beach and the SunCoast Casino and Entertainment World, which includes the SunSquare and the SunCoast Towers hotels.

The first thing John Aritho, Croft’s doppelganger based in the Maharani, does when he hits the office is check the review providing an update on what’s been happening in the “two towers” over the past 24 hours. “In a flash I can tell how busy we have been day by day, and per month, plus the same day last year as a comparison. Without giving away any figures, I can see there is great growth.”

Aritho is a great advocate of “management by walking around”. He’ll spend much of the day on his feet. Pausing for a break in the Panorama Bar and Pool Deck, he discusses the thinking behind ambient music. A beats-per-minute affair. “Breakfast is low key,” says Aritho, “but after 10 am it gets a bit more vibey.” Aritho might have stopped walking but his eyes haven’t. “I’ve already spotted five things that need fixing.”

In the bigger scheme of things, it was Durban’s beach front that needed fixing and over the past decade a municipal upgrade has resurrected what had almost become a no-go area. The 2010 Soccer World Cup provided the catalyst.

“It all began five years before the World Cup,” says Christo Swart, eThekwini’s deputy head of Parks, Leisure and Cemeteries. “The World Cup got people thinking. The time had come to upgrade the promenade again.”

The upgrade was done in two phases — the first from uShaka Marine World to SunCoast Casino, and the second extending to Blue Lagoon, before turning inland to the Umgeni Bird Park.

Old buildings were removed, gardens renovated, dunes regenerated. Threading it all together was the brick walk and cycle way along the beach front. “We opened up the space,” says Swart. “You get all-round views of the bay — and it’s also safe, you can see in front of you and behind, and to the sides. We lifted the tourism experience.”

Tsogo Sun came to the party. “We have significant stock on this beach front,” says Tsogo Sun’s CEO Marcel von Aulock. To date, they have spent R220 million on the refurbishment of the Elangeni/Maharani. But it could have been very different.

“We had 17 hotels in downtown Johannesburg, now we have none,” he says. As the Johannesburg city centre began to decay, the hotels headed to Sandton. “We ran away as fast as we could. We could have done that in Durban and moved to Umhlanga but we didn’t because the municipality fixed the infrastructure.

“I’m a runner and at six in the morning when it’s just getting light there are little old ladies with dogs and children running around. It’s totally safe. There are police officers every 100 metres.”

A Durban Metro Police station opened in December 2013, just a few steps from Mzimela’s stall.

“It’s manned 24 hours,” says Durban Metro Police spokesperson Senior Superintendent Eugene Msomi. “We also have a camera room, which is equipped with radio communication to patrols on the beat and manned by [Metro and SAPS] officers, and the security company contracted by the city.”

The Golden Mile falls within the jurisdiction of two SAPS police stations: Durban Central and Point, together with their satellite stations on the promenade. “Cognisance also has been taken by the station commanders of the special logistical needs within this zone and the vehicle fleet has been tailored to suit the circumstances,” says SAPS spokesperson Colonel Jay Naicker. “It includes the use of conventional police vehicles, 4x4s and segways.”

And it’s paid off both for tourists and traders like Mzimela. “There was a lot of crime — boys would try to steal things, now the police have chased them away. I feel safe. That is good.”

Von Aulock agrees. “We thought ‘right, we stay’ — the Durban beach front and Umhlanga are two separate markets. With the decay retreating, we thought we must do more than just refurb the buildings we needed to create a destination.” Now a R100-million refurbishment of the Garden Court is next on the Tsogo Sun schedule.

The daily scheduled 10 am meeting at the Elangeni/Maharani is held on alternate days in either Croft or Aritho’s office. The meeting is part post-mortem, part future planning: “There were 144 arrivals and 264 departures ... Any special guests? Mr X is back for three weeks. And there are several judges ... We need new uniforms for room-service staff. … The conference on Thursday — there’ll be ministers, so a lot of security … Banqueting will be dealing with 1 100 people ... The room attendants did a polygraph test for those missing sunglasses — they passed … A guest phoned and crapped all over me — said the waitresses in the Elangeni coffee area are not getting their tips ... From now on they must get their tips. No wonder we can’t keep girls in the coffee shop.”

Meeting over, housekeeping manager Lettisha Singh heads for the door. “Let’s start running the ship for the day.” Following Singh takes you below decks, the side of the hotel guests never see. A rabbit warren of corridors and offices, and meetings on the fly, checking towel audits, sorting out welcoming arrangements: “Two flavours — not apple juice — pink lemonade and orange juice.”

“What’s wrong with apple juice?”

“Apple juice is so ordinary.”

An unexpected group of 45 people are arriving early. “Check to see if rooms are ready. Otherwise it’s plan B — store their luggage until rooms are ready.”

Much of the backstage area is the preserve of maintenance manager Basie van Niekerk. What are his biggest challenges? “Water, electricity, effluent and air con.” In a hotel, water means hot water. “You can run out of hot water,” says Van Niekerk. The water is heated in huge boilers in the basement and pumped under pressure up 32 floors. “If everyone is showering at the same time there’s a danger of an airlock getting into the system. It takes hours to get it out. You have to bleed it out.”

Van Niekerk is now helping executive chef Shaun Munro produce the perfect pizza. Getting a constant 300°C temperature in the new pizza oven in the Vigour and Verve restaurant is proving difficult, thanks to a troublesome air vent.

Munro describes himself as “Durban boy”, born-and-bred. He’s been executive chef at the Royal Hotel and the Beverley Hills in Umhlanga, now he can hardly believe his luck working “in these two Golden Mile icons”, the Elangeni/Maharani.

“They don’t build hotels like this anymore,” he says, enthusing over the large kitchens and the banqueting rooms with their hanging chandeliers. “I enjoy the big numbers.”

Some big numbers: food turnover in excess of R6 million per month — R10 million in December 2013.

Munro heads up around 120 staff working in three shifts 24/7. He plans the menus, keeping in mind both the food, the clients and the price of beef. Or beetroot. Then there are the special diets for visiting sports teams: AmaZulu and Golden Arrows are regulars.

While everyone calls Munro “Chef”, he refers to himself as an “air-traffic controller”. “I spend my day checking rather than cooking.” That’s thanks to servicing 11 restaurants and bars, in-room dining and 15 banqueting venues — from weddings to large conferences. “Tomorrow we have to cook 2 300 meals ... you can’t suddenly have a chef saying ‘we have no onions’.”

The resurrection of the Elangeni/Maharani and the future investment of Tsogo Sun provides a lesson for politicians — create the right conditions and the investors will come. “Investors are incentivised to spend money,” says Von Aulock, “they won’t if the climate is hostile. In Durban they created the right environment and we responded to it. We put in money and it’s working.”


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