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When working for the Israel Government Tourist Office in my twenties, my Israeli manager Zvi Nevo always told me about his previous position in South Africa and how much he had enjoyed his time there. He highly recommended me to visit Africa in the future whenever I would be able to. Such a different world, he always said: you would love it! 

This always stayed with me. When running my own business TravelMarketing, I was lucky to visit the African continent a couple of times with groups and I was hooked; the people, countryside, culture, wildlife, and even the smells; totally resonated with me. After selling my travel business when I turned fifty, an opportunity just knocked on my door. My neighbors in Amsterdam were looking for a couple to manage their hotel lodge in Uganda for three months. It was still during the time of Covid 19, but I did not hesitate and packed my bags.

I was not prepared for what was waiting for me. Upon arrival, I noticed the hotel lodge, directly located on Lake Victoria, was not in good shape. The premises needed fresh paint, a big clean, renovations and maintenance. 

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The next day I planned a visit to a nearby grocery store, so I asked one of the local staff members if I could buy her some cookies or chocolates. ‘No Kisa’, she said. ‘Some bread please’. This was a total wake-up call. Uganda is a third-world country where locals are resilient in their struggle to survive. I realized cash would be key for the staff. It would be hard to motivate them as they had never stayed in a hotel themselves. I explained to them I only came out to help, to get the lodge to a higher standard, and to get more guests in, so they could earn more money. So following days I woke up super early, helped set up breakfast in the restaurant, cleaned the public bathrooms, brushed the garden, and checked guests into their rooms. I was the last one to go to bed practising leadership by example. In the meantime, explain to the staff what has to be done daily and the reason behind it. Of course, accompanied by a big smile and a thank you. I showed the guards how to use the computer (they had never touched a computer in their lives) so they could close their shift and have an overview of the guests staying that day at the lodge.

Within one week we had our first event: a BBQ for an Indian family of 30 people: 40 showed up turning it into a disaster. Tables were not set up properly, food was not ready, and guests all wanted fresh fruit juices which we did not have in stock so we needed to make this on the spot and we were running around like crazy. It was a mess and the client left 0 tips for the staff.

The next day I organized a staff meeting for the entire staff where I decorated the table with tables cloths flowers, cookies, and drinks were on the table. They all look surprised when entering. I asked them how this made them feel. They said: ‘Very welcome’.  I told them this (plus making a strict timetable, this was my fault) is how we will tackle future events. Thank god for this first experience, as the second event was a three-day complete buyout of the entire lodge by the US Embassy.

I informed the Event Organizer we would be available 24 hrs. per day and if he was pleased with the lodge services leave a huge tip for the local staff. The lodge looked spotless and the event was flawless. My partner Paul also flew in to help with the logistics. When the staff got their tip they were dancing and singing in the kitchen. It was their biggest tip ever. They were so happy and I felt humbled to be part of this. The tone was set.

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I introduced weekly staff meetings in which I shared upcoming events that were taking place and which groups and guests we could expect. I also told them to come to me with problems. And please not all at the same time haha. Every day there were new issues; from rats in the kitchen to broken windows, malfunctioning refrigerators, and heavy rainstorms leading to no warm water and no internet. It was a lot, but I took every problem they brought up seriously and tried to solve it immediately. In the meantime, the number of guests visiting the lodge was increasing day by day, along with the confidence of the local staff.

One day I wanted to double-check the so-called Cave room as we were expecting a honeymoon couple. One of the housekeeping ladies Grace was laughing and telling me I could not enter. I was a bit confused. Before the guests arrived she called me out to come inspect the room. To my surprise, Grace had fully decorated the room with red and white flowers from the garden. It was so beautiful. Also, our maintenance star Bosco decided to paint the entire reception area. He told me “This is the first thing guests are seeing’’. These were words I used daily! I could not believe it. Without any proper hospitality business training the staff was completely switched on and took initiative. Saying our goodbyes after 3 months was one of the hardest things.

My methodology of Attention, Love, and Encouragement was sharpened during my time managing the lodge. Do you have a (hotel) property anywhere in the world that needs an operational boost? Kisa is up for the challenge.