OPERATING an accommodation facility is no easy task particularly in a country surrounded by South Africa whose hospitality sector has become one of the most competitive in the world.
Despite South Africa’s prominence as a pacesetter in the global hospitality industry, Lesotho’s status as the only country surrounded by another has also attracted many tourists fascinated by this geographical rarity.
However, such interest from visitors has also meant the country’s hospitality sector should evolve, motivating the government to introduce a star-grading system that would help make the sector competitive and unique.
In 2013, the Lesotho Tourism Development Corporation (LTDC), working with the World Bank-funded Private Sector Competitiveness and Economic Diversification Project, started rolling-out the star grading programme to help improve standards and ensure tourists stay longer.
The grading has been particularly tough for family-owned establishments as it meant taking bold steps which required funding.
LTDC Chief Executive Officer, Mpaiphele Maqutu confirmed the aggressive nature of the initiative which saw the corporation recently returning to the drawing board to reorganise itself and reconfigure the programme.
The reconfiguration was largely promoted by the need to have a sector that provides exciting packages while at the same time, responsive to a market that usually visits South Africa first before coming to Lesotho.
According to Mr Maqutu, the whole essence of the grading system was not just to give out stars but ensure the owners understood what the whole process meant and demanded. The stars, he explained, would inform both domestic and international tourists of service they should expect, hence their utmost importance.
“So far, we have graded 15 accommodation facilities and already, the country has started reaping the benefits. We are convinced the tourism bug has since bitten more facility owners who are now showing interest to have their facilities also graded. In this important development, we have no plans to leave anyone behind, including local communities to help create a tourism-centric country,” Mr Maqutu said.
To encourage the participation of local businesses whose facilities are in strategic tourism locations, the LTDC introduced a “hand-holding” mechanism, which meant the corporation would evaluate facilities and walk the owners through all the changes they needed to make for their facilities to become eligible for star-grading.
“So far, we have hand-held 50 accommodation facilities and assessed some for grading. We will continue providing support to ensure the owners make the right and cost-effective investments that would significantly improve the outlook of their facilities and enhance services provided. In some cases, it is about making small changes that can produce big results,” Mr Maqutu added.
One of the facilities “hand-held” by the corporation this year is the 70-bed Molengoane Lodge and Conference in Nazareth. In addition to accommodation services, the facility boasts of a conference centre which accommodates 200 people, wedding facility that accommodates 150 people, a boardroom for 30 people, a camping site and the newly established Machache Mountain Range View Deck, where 20 people can sit and relax while viewing the surrounding beautiful misty mountains.
‘Mamothe Mohapi, who owns the lodge with her husband, says the transformation at Molengoane has been unbelievable. The couple invested in the recommendations made by the LTDC and the facility was already reaping the benefits, she added.
“Although the transformation was painful on the pocket, it was like a surgical operation that corrected a medical condition,” Ms Mohapi said in an interview this week.
Changes started outside the lodge through a lasting impression of striking features visitors see first as they enter the gate. Signage had not seemed important when the lodge was established in 1998, Ms Mohapi said. But since introducing it, she says they no longer have incidents of lost guests, among other negatives that affected business.
“Seemingly small things we previously dismissed proved to make quite a huge impact by increasing the value and outlook of the outside space,” she said.
However, many other small details recommended by the LTDC also played a part in improving the interior of the lodge.
“Some days before the corporation’s evaluators visited us, we decided to repaint the facility. For us, that was a big deal because it helped in creating the clean facility we wanted. Little had we known that it was about that missing table and reading lamp, the movement of plugs to be strategically positioned, the functionality of the rooms and other spaces, enhancing hygiene in the bathrooms and eating areas, environment issues and creating a disability-friendly facility, among others,” Ms Mohapi said.
Following the evaluation, the lodge introduced solar-geysers, as well as outside and interior signs for ease of location, improved the meal preparation areas, redecorated the rooms for the right ambience of relaxation and comfort and took various steps to improve the meals and services, among other improvements.
“Looking at how this place has transformed also changed how I view the business. It is no longer about how many stars we are going to receive but understanding the importance of continuously making improvements and rebranding; spring cleaning if you like. I strongly feel this is a new beginning for the hospitality sector, and would like to urge fellow owners to come on board for us to develop together,” Ms Mohapi said.
She also noted while the accommodation sector had demonstrated that tough changes can be achieved, a lot was still missing to ensure they provide a total package.
The lodge depends on the surrounding community for labour, particularly in the area of housekeeping, but Ms Mohapi said there was need to employ professionals who would train the local people. Molengoane employs 23 people and 15 of them are women.
“We have challenges in getting the right skills we need particularly in providing culinary expertise that will go with the type of standards we are aiming to achieve. While we have local support in housekeeping, there is need to have qualified supervisors to ensure excellent service. For this sector, it is not about making a bed anyhow, but the application of professional skills required to create the ‘wow factor’ as the visitor sits on that bed,” she said.
Such skills are hard to come by, she lamented, adding efforts should be made to establish a hotel school where students can put to practice theoretical studies and get acquainted with the expectations of the sector.
“What we are seeing, and sadly so, is that most graduates fall short in terms of expectations, especially when it comes to management skills and meal preparation. This could be due to lack of sufficient practical experience and poor quality of training. While they are supposed to have skills that can help enhance services, we are seeing graduates being taught by the local villagers. It’s an area we need to urgently attend to compliment efforts by facility owners,” Ms Mohapi said.
She also said while expertise in the treatment of food was one area that has hooked some visitors to Molengoane Lodge, sustainability was equally crucial.