Pearl among hotels

2010-03-20 00:00

MY recent stay at the iconic five-star Oyster Box Hotel in Umhlanga was remarkable for two reasons. Rarely does an organisation achieve such a high level of success and efficiency in both client-facing customer service and backroom operations.

The general organisational culture of excellence permeates throughout the establishment, extending from its backroom operations right through to its frontline staff.

Constructed in 1869 and originally used as a navigational beacon, a beach cottage known as The Oyster Box was converted into a hotel in the 1930s, says the hotel’s general manager, Pietermaritzburg-born Wayne Coetzer.

“The very first Oyster Box Hotel was built on the site next to the lighthouse in 1947. The main building complex has undergone a number of changes since, with the most notable architectural interventions occurring during the 1950s with the addition of components such as simplified archways, a spiral staircase and a variety of largely unrelated, vaguely Mediterranean decorative elements. This almost haphazard approach led to a relaxed, comfortable look and feel that guests easily related to,” he explains.

Mr and Mrs Tollman, the founder and president of Red Carnation Hotels, purchased the property in 2006 when it came up for sale.

A superior service experience in a country noted for its lackadaisical approach to service is rather refreshing and that is exactly what I experienced at the hotel.

Prineven Naidoo was a highly efficient and friendly waiter who served me at a delicious and comprehensive curry buffet lunch upon my arrival, and at breakfast the next morning.

The remarkable Hendry Pakiri has been working at the hotel for 46 years. He manages the five-star Grill Room Restaurant, a venue for discerning clientele.

A fascinating aspect of the business is the vibrant backroom operation. Interestingly, Coetzer and the team have in some cases moved away from outsourcing and back toward a self-sustaining model, characterised by maximising their in-house capabilities through innovation and the latest technology.

Sourcing their own oysters and running their own laundry site are two such examples.

“We pick from four oyster beds running north from the lighthouse to the Tugela River mouth. This is done, tides dependent, by a team of professionals. The rationale behind this is simply to have the best, biggest [and] freshest oysters available. We also have holding tanks [in] our kitchen, which allow us to have fresh oysters all year round. These tanks have a capacity of 8 000 litres of water and can hold over 1 000 oysters at any one time,” explains Coetzer.

The hotel also boasts its own laundry facility, employing 15 people. The innovative in-house facility reduces the number of harmful chemicals used in the cleaning process, while also conserving energy and water.

“The hotel uses the latest German laundry technology and detergents made from renewable resources such as grapeseed oil. [We] use biodegradable enzymes in the washing process — protease for protein-based and lipolase for fat-based materials. To clear the hotel’s sewage system, only products harvested from natural microbial cultures, which degrade the fats, oils and greases into natural gases and water, are used.”

Born in Pietermaritzburg in 1972, Coetzer went to school at Merchiston and then Howick High School and studied personnel management in the city. He began his career at Champagne Castle Hotel and later moved to England where he worked at two of London’s top five-star hotels, Dukes and the newly opened Covent Garden Hotel. Coetzer then worked at The Royal Hotel in Durban. He joined the Oyster Box Hotel following a stint at the Durban Hilton as general manager and later as executive director.

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