All About ‘Experiential’ Hospitality

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Birchwood Management Company MD Lindiwe Sangweni-Siddo went from strutting her stuff at the Sandton Sun to launching her own company, becoming a Holiday Inn franchisee, opening the Soweto Hotel, and then taking up her current position, all in the space of about seven years. Now she oversees both the Soweto Hotel & Conference Centre and the Birchwood Hotel and O.R. Tambo Conference Centre. I met her for coffee in Sandton and set about picking her brain.

The latter part of the Lindiwe Sangweni-Siddo journey starts in Sandton in 2005, when our subject decided to turn her back on corporate life and start her own company. The experience proved more difficult than she anticipated, but she saw an opportunity in the Sowetan newspaper, pitched for the right to build a hotel in Soweto, and once again was up and running.The backing came from the IDC and the brand name from Holiday Inn, but the process wasn’t a smooth one.

“It just became very expensive for a new start-up business,” she says.

Being a Holiday Inn franchisee also didn’t appear to work for Sangweni-Siddo. “I took a leap of faith as an individually-owned hotel and relinquished the Holiday Inn brand, and instead used other methods to bring marketing value to myself. I decided to create a brand and call it the Soweto Hotel, starting again from scratch. We opened in October 2007.”

Sangweni-Siddo’s next major change followed in 2011, when she was approached by Birchwood’s management team and asked to come on board as MD. “I was at a crossroads, so I turned it around and said ‘I’ll join as MD, but let’s be partners – I’ll be a partner in your business and you be partners in mine. It was a no-brainer.”

The guys at Birchwood know a little about conferencing and they immediately set about advising Sangweni-Siddo on what they thought should be done to help turn the Soweto Hotel around. “I didn’t have a conference centre, only two boardrooms,” says Sangweni-Siddo. “They made me bash down my office and said ‘you don’t need this office space, and any case, what are you doing in your office anyway, when you should be selling?’”

Now she has a foot in both camps, covering the Soweto Hotel and the Birchwood, which is South Africa’s largest conference venue, with over 650 guest rooms, over 50 conference rooms, and can accommodate in excess of 5,000 delegates. Sangweni-Siddo is unequivocal about which market segment the company is after next.

“The African continent is exploding with business and South Africa is seen as a hub. Many international organisations find it more convenient to convene here. So, as an organisation, from an international perspective, absolutely ‘yes’ for both Soweto Hotel and Birchwood.”

“But, we are going to have to rely on experiential hospitality. It’s easier with Soweto, because it’s at a national heritage site and has so much history. So, as a starting point, you’re already a destination hotel.”

The hotel traffic at the Soweto Hotel is largely corporate and government, which has led Sangweni-Siddo to develop a keen eye for what makes for a great business hotel. “Free high-speed Wi-Fi, good security, good service and great food.” “And in Johannesburg, you don’t need be in Sandton to be a successful hotel entity. What I think I’m paying fees for in Soweto is ‘trailblazer fees’, which is what you do when you pave the way for everyone else.”

So, is she expecting to see more hotels go up in Soweto? “It’s a matter of time,” she says. “There’s going to be a need for another 3-star and there’ll be fewer bed and breakfasts. Location, though, will be critical, because Soweto is very big. If I had to start all over again, I would go into the centre where it’s happening – Chris Hani Road.”

And the future for Birchwood and Sangweni-Siddo? “We just need to continue keeping ourselves unique. We need to remain at the forefront of what the expectation of the business traveller and leisure traveller is.”

Dylan Rogers