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Interview: Nils Heckscher

Nils Heckscher
"FIFA is the largest and most influential client South Africa has ever had," says Heckscher.  "When we bid for the event, we agreed to their terms."
"MATCH is the FIFA sibling responsible for contracting accommodation for the event.  "For the first time, they have expanded the pool to include guest houses – partially because hotels alone cannot fulfil their needs and partially to spread the benefit wider.
"In Cape Town, in the smaller accommodation sector, they have only managed to secure a total of 80 rooms to date.  Guest houses are not accustomed to dealing with tour wholesalers – whom major hotels regularly discount 30% to.
"MATCH wanted us to offer off-season rates but, very early in discussions, Fedhasa made it clear that it does not believe that June/July 2010 is off-season.  At Winchester Mansions we decided what we wanted out of the deal and then added their commission to that.
"MATCH has to meet FIFA's needs and will do whatever is necessary to do so.  It has already been confirmed that the QE2 is being brought from Dubai to provide extra accommodation and further cruise liners could be on the cards if sufficient local accommodation is not contracted.  That would be a pity because there is then no local benefit.
"MATCH has engaged the Tourism Enterprise Programme (TEP) to help them, and ungraded guest houses can get subsidised TGCSA grading as part of the package for three years."

Winchester Mansions Hotel MD, chairman of Fedhasa Cape and recently appointed to the boards of TBCSA and CTRU¹, Nils Heckscher has been at the thick of things recently.

The day he joined the CTRU board, the Cape Town City Council announced it decision to withdraw its majority R25 million a year funding of the organisation.  Industry-wide challenges, according to Heckscher, are the lack of skills, lack of airlift, business seasonality (which is improving) and effective marketing.

But recurring themes came up over and over again during the interview – lack of leadership, perception management and poor communication skills.

Heckscher sometimes reacts strongly to published criticisms.  He has very clear-cut ideas of how things should be handled and has tackled CapeInfo in the past, accusing us of negativity which contributed to CTRU's problems.  (He doesn't say we were wrong, but rather that we wrong to publish.)

"Criticism is important," he says, "but it's more effective to make changes from within structures, noting the criticism.  As the chair of Fedhasa, I would not serve our members or the industry by merely standing on the fringe, shouting "foul" at every opportunity.  Getting involved, getting "your hands dirty" is what eventually yields results.  When you are not involved, those criticised just close up and carry on as usual anyway."

A valid point, but one must wonder if sensitivity to criticism (and the 'into the trenches' mentality) isn't a sign that professional maturity and robustness, along with competent leadership, is lacking.  We cannot afford that mentality if we are to become a learning and responsive society.

He makes the point that "leadership in SA is absolutely bedevilled by politics.  Things are evaluated on the basis of whether it came from your grouping or not.  We have not learnt to work together yet."  He says it is easy to become disenchanted – with negativity over leadership issues and media negativity.

"Cape Town is a cosmopolitan and vibey city – we hear that from all our guests, but we are not good at putting that message out ourselves.  We have 76 rooms with 70% occupancy and, touch wood, we've never had any crime to our guests reported.  Many of our visitors keep coming back.  We manage our perceptions of crime badly – most crimes are in areas a tourist would never visit and most is by people known to the victims."

He quotes a recent statement saying that crime in Rio de Janeiro is almost a given, visitors expect it, but it doesn't receive the same bad press that crime gets locally.  "Here, it fills our headlines and billboards."  He concedes our point that Rio's petty theft does not compare to the violence often associated with SA crime.

It really boils down to communication which, he says, CTRU fared badly at in its three years of existence.  "Now Cape Town Tourism are doing a really great job... their environment is less cluttered by politics and outside interference.  This, together with a strong team, makes it all possible."

He is very upset by mayor Helen Zille's attitide to CTRU funding, and in fact attended the mayoral comittee meeting where mayco member for tourism asked the committee to rescind the decision to withdraw City funding.  When Grindrod pleaded that CTRU be given the certainty they needed, Zille responded that, "living in uncertain times" does not mean one cannot "make a proper contribution".

"For me, it is never a matter of I either renovate my courtyard or I go to ITB to market my hotel.  It can never be either or... whatever you do, you have to market.

"We have to work to get the City back in and it's not just about funding.  We need to get all the role-players around the table, rather than exchanges through the media and emails.  We need to grow more business, bringing more people here to create more oppotunities, addressing the inequalities of the past in a sustainable way."

Is Heckscher negative?  Certainly not.  He is gung-ho and can-do, with a flair for showmanship.  He is passionate and enthusiastic.  He thrives on making things happen (or at least trying).  Fedhasa has kept his hands full for the past few years but he will be stepping down next year.  Which brings the challenge of finding new blood to lead the organisation.

We can't see him stepping out of public life for quite a while though.

Curriculum Vitae

Born: 1962, Hamburg, Germany

11/95–present   Winchester Mansions Hotel, Cape Town – Managing Director. When I took over the, Winchester Mansions (53 rooms), was a three star graded property. We developed a new restaurant and built a new outside entertainment and pool area. This development also included the addition of 23 rooms and a spa. We were awarded four Stars of the TBCSA, and were the winner in the category "luxury hotel" at the 2001, 2002, 2004 & 2006 AA accommodation awards held in Durban.

In 2000/1, he was voted South Africa's Hotelier of the Year by Fedhasa

11/91–11/95   The Peninsula All Suite Hotel, Cape Town – Deputy General Manager, F&B Manager

02/91–11/91   Independent consulting work and travelling

05/88–02/91   Sandton Sun Intercontinental, Johannesburg – Front Office Manager, Assistant Front Office Manager, Night Manager, Assistant F&B Manager

06/87–05/88   Mayfair Intercontinental, London – Chief Steward

01/87–06/87   Belgravia Sheraton, London – F&B Controller - Purchasing

06/86–01/87   Independent consulting to a hotel in Bavaria / Germany

11/85–06/86   Inn on the Park - Four Seasons, London – Assistant F&B Controller, Assistant Chief Steward

03/84–07/85   Le Bristol, Paris – Secretaire de la reception - receptionist

11/83–04/83   Le Warwick, Paris – Caissier Room Service - cashier

09/80–08/83   Bristol Hotel KempInski Berlin – Chef's Apprentice, Page Boy

¹ Fedhasa : Federated Hospitality Association of South Africa
TBCSA : Tourism Business Council of South Africa
CTRU : Cape Town Routes Unlimited

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