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 Entrepreneur finds her natural home in hospitality trade

 

 In August 2012 Salome Tshungu brought her 100-year-old father out from her ancestral home in rural Limpopo to her luxury guest house in Midrand to celebrate his centenary.

She showed the aged former teacher around the four-star establishment with its 21 rooms, arranged as a “cultural village” dedicated to South Africa’s vanishing cultures, the luxurious conference centre, wedding facilities, gym and spa.

When she saw her father, his mind still sharp as ever, having a quiet chuckle to himself she asked him: Why are you laughing? He told her that he realised that this sanctuary of hospitality that she was showing him had been a long time coming. He reminded her that as a little girl, she had always insisted that the bed mats and traditional African cottage cheese (thick creamy sour milk) were ready at their homestead in case visitors came by, which they did often.

 

She started off as a highly trained nurse in a mission hospital in Limpopo, but when she relocated as a young wife and mother to a city hospital in the 1980s she was so horrified by the conditions and values at the state hospital where she had found work, that she left nursing forever. She felt defeated, but with encouragement from her husband she enrolled for a degree in personnel management and public administration at the University of Fort Hare.

She had no bursary or finance, but in an early sign of her enterprising spirit, she negotiated with the university that she would act as a sub-warden of a 60-student residence in return for enrolment.

After her studies she followed a successful corporate career, first at the human resources department of AECI and later at the corporate social responsibility unit of Revlon. She decided to start her own business when she almost missed her daughter’s matric dance due to an overloaded work schedule. Wanting more control over her life, she bought a tiny cleaning-service franchise in 1994.

Soon her work schedule became fuller than ever as she landed bigger and bigger contracts from the likes of BMW, the South African Mint and later from the South African Airways. Within 10 years she had built a business of 420 workers.

But she felt that something was missing. In the cleaning industry, she explains, you don’t really get to build something tangible. You win contracts based on your growing reputation, but those contracts are never really yours. They are easily lost to a competitor at any time on quite arbitrary grounds. She was further disillusioned when a staff member was killed in a national strike in 2008.

Her conversion to the hospitality industry came when she and her husband spent a night in “the guesthouse from hell” in Ermelo, where they had gone to set up a labour supply contract at Eskom Power station, Camden. She still shudders when she remembers the freezing night and cold breakfast they were served.

The experience prompted the couple, almost on a whim, to buy a large house in Ermelo and fix it up as a guest house, which they called The Orchards Executive Accommodation. With no experience in the hospitality industry, she set out simply to create a space and service that she would have liked to experience. Her natural instinct for hospitality proved true when the guest house won a 4-star grading on its first assessment.

The success of the Ermelo guesthouse prompted Salome and Cliff to see if they could replicate the success of the Ermelo guest house in Gauteng. They bought a dilapidated property in Midrand because of a magnificent wild fig tree on the property, and set about building a guest house themed on South Africa’s vanishing tribal traditions.

They had managed to build it into a 13-room establishment when she one day happened to sit next to an executive from Business Partners on a plane to Cape Town. It was the start of a process through which Business Partners would help finance the expansion of The Orchards Midrand to 21 rooms.

It is the excellent service and determination that won her the Tsogo Sun Cares initiative Guesthouse of the year competition, the Gauteng Emerging Tourism Entrepreneur of the Year Award (ETEYA) overall winner and the ETEYA National 2nd runner up. This guesthouse has been graded 4 Star, 4 years in succession. It was also chosen as one of the World Cup accommodation provider.

Partly because of the service quality and partly because of its excellent location in the heart of corporate Midrand, the guest house never had a problem filling beds, with scarcely an off-season to speak of. The slight lull in December comes as a relief for her staff who are then able to take a break.

But she still takes international marketing very seriously. Through various development programmes, she has managed to attend international tourism shows, which served as a crash course in networking for her. She learnt that in order to make the most of a trade show, you need to be an active participant rather than standing passively at your stall. The secret is to network, mingle, join conversations and seek out travel agents.

Most of Salome’s businesses today run largely on their own under the able management that she has recruited and trained, including her seven remaining cleaning contracts, The Orchard in Ermelo and a self-catering house in Marloth Park near the Kruger National Park.

While many entrepreneurs in their sixties would be thinking of retiring, Salome dreams of expanding her “cultural village” into an active centre of traditional dance, music, crafts and stories. As busy as she will no doubt remain, you could say that The Orchard is for Salome a kind of retirement – a return to a home that she can constantly keep ready to receive strangers. This time, at a price!

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