Sun International CEO, Anthony Leeming, shares his insights on the post-pandemic future of the SA tourism industry
In early 2020 leaders in the tourism and hospitality sector were faced with unprecedented turmoil in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down the industry for four months. Since the start of lockdown, the industry has undergone various levels of restrictions, which for many establishments in the sector dealt a final blow to business.
Some, however, have weathered the storm and are positioned for recovery, with a renewed focus on optimising the guest experience as a way of maintaining a competitive edge. Among them, is the Sun International Group.
At the helm of Sun International is CEO, Anthony Leeming, who discussed the future of South African tourism and hospitality in the latest PSG Think Big webinar, which forms part of a series featuring dialogues with high-profile personalities on burning issues. The series provides independent insights, prompting South Africans to form their own opinion on pertinent issues.
“Experiential tourism” is the buzzword for the sector, says Leeming, who asserted that the latest travel trend is all about experiences, over and above sight-seeing. “Today’s tourists are looking for an experience filled with interesting activities that they can participate in, in a new environment with a diverse offering. In this sense, with our multi-faceted offerings, South Africa is strategically positioned for a prosperous tourism future.”
Leeming is optimistic about the future of the travel and hospitality sector, believing that (all things considered), the worst is over. “We believe that 2022 will be a good year for the sector. As South Africans, we have rich history and beautiful geography to share with the world. We have done everything we can to prepare for business to pick up. When they return, we’ll be ready,” he adds.
Looking back, Leeming believes that a “back to basics” approach to people management has played a key role in how the Group has adapted to changing COVID-related restrictions and increased economic pressure. He says there were three major challenges that became apparent when the pandemic hit, namely reducing inefficiencies, cutting costs, and prioritising guest experience under a very new and unconventional set of circumstances.
“We took a people-first strategy to tackling these challenges because our employees were severely affected, and morale was low across the board. We employed a range of methods to remedy this, including incentivising staff for performance using a personable and relatable communications strategy to acknowledge them and show our support,” said Leeming.
The strategies employed at Sun City, as a microcosm of the greater Group, mirrored the same “back-to-basics” approach. COVID-19 really highlighted the need to compartmentalise – to maximise the effectiveness of onsite employees and to outsource work where it was more cost-effective and efficient to do so. The maintenance at Sun City, for example, was outsourced, allowing onsite employees to work on improving the guest experience.
Digital innovations also formed part of the recovery strategy for Sun City. Leeming says that the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of IT systems were considered, and the necessary upgrades were implemented. “We also designed an app that will serve as a way of disseminating information and developed a new booking engine to make online bookings quicker and easier, which we have just launched. Ultimately, we asked ourselves how we could serve our guests better, and we acted on those points.”
He says that in hindsight, lockdown and the restriction levels that followed provided Sun International with a much-needed hiatus to focus on the finer details. Some of these details included trimming excessive vegetation to allow more natural light to filter into rooms and improve views of the resorts and removing weeds and cleaning the pump rooms in the ubiquitous Valley of Waves at Sun City. The Group seized the opportunity to use the extra time for essential improvements – the kind that make their destinations world-class.
“When we prioritised all aspects of the guest experience, from check-in to the use of our amenities, we found that the changes made to ‘back-of-house’, affected ‘front-of-house’ and the small improvements became part of a bigger picture,” said Leeming.
Having come through a complete shutdown, he observes that with the gradual lifting of restrictions, footfall to holiday destinations is increasing, but prominent gamers are not necessarily spending as much time as they previously did at gambling venues, because of the curfew. After lockdown, the popularity of weekend getaways for families has been restored, with more domestic clients looking to spend time away from their homes but not necessarily being able to travel internationally yet.
As Ronald King, the Head of Public Policy and Regulatory Affairs at PSG concluded, “An important point that this webinar brought to the fore was the fact that the recovery of the travel and hospitality sector is in the hands of all South Africans. From governmental regulations, to clients who are encouraged to support local establishments and leaders who are responsible for creating an immersive guest experience, its ‘all hands-on deck’ for the industry.”