What are the origins of Signature Life Hotels?
Five of us worked together for a national hotel group and we saw a huge opportunity in the market, pre, during and post the 2010 Soccer World Cup. So we decided to seize the opportunity and start our own hotel management company. In 1998 we all left our previous employer and by March 2009 we were established as Signature Life Hotel Management Company with three brands: Quarters Hotels, Signature Life Hotel and Life Hotels. It just started gaining momentum and over a period of six weeks, we opened 14 hotels spanning Limpopo, Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg, just in time for the World Cup. By October 2010 we were sitting with 27 hotels. We’ve since added another six hotels and recently acquired the four-star Zebula Lodge under our Safari brand. By the end of the year, we hope to have another six to 10. Our focus is not just on South Africa – although we do have plans for towns such as Pietermaritzburg and Polokwane – we also have our eye on business in Mauritius, Mozambique, Central and West Africa.
What is your strategy in terms of acquiring hotels, related to your various brands?
We have three brands as previously mentioned, and are launching a fourth, “Signature Safaris in Africa”. We choose our hotels very strategically in relation to each brand. For example, the Quarters brand is geared towards the corporate woman, in terms of style and location. We won’t just acquire any hotel – they need to fit within a certain brand in terms of the needs for our markets and clients. We therefore only acquire hotels that we know will add value to that brand and ones that we can make profitable.
How lucrative is hotel management?
Once you get to a critical mass it can be quite sustainable. You are not going to be Donald Trump though. We do make a living, but we are also looking for that extra add-on, so we have a strategy in place to also get into real estate, where we will sell timeshare, sectional and fractional title properties. Just as much as we want to be successful, we also want to give back and sustain the success of our hotels, which rely heavily on our staff. Through our hotel school, The Signature Life Hotels Institute of Hospitality Studies, we train uneducated kids in disadvantaged areas to become great hoteliers. We work closely with government and take on about 400 kids every six months and train them at our school in various departments.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in the past two years?
People thought we were crazy establishing a new company in the midst of a recession, but we saw the opportunities which often present themselves in a recession and grabbed them. There were some pretty tough times, but we pulled it off. The 2010 World Cup also brought challenges of note – we were literally putting guests into hotel rooms with the paint still drying! Remember, we had six weeks to get our newly-acquired hotels revamped and running. After the World Cup, business was quite slow. Then there was the civil servants’ strike. The banks were difficult to deal with, because it was very difficult to show whether we would make forecasts. So, for a period between July and October we sat back and said ‘now what’? Then things gradually started to pick up and from November we started seeing positive flow again. Now in 2011, we are positive again and hence able to make forecasts and acquisitions.
What are the core values of Signature Life Hotels?
Flexibility, being able to negotiate and always being approachable. Hotel management is not about the level of skill you bring – it’s about the level of passion and dedication you have to provide good service. We want to make a mark in the industry by producing better hotels that people talk about and come back to all the time. We want to offer really nice products that make people feel at home when they stay with us, but we don’t want them to feel that they are in their mother’s house in terms of décor. They can expect sexy, modern and vibrant decor and ambience.