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Putting quality in hotel experiences

Victoria McLachlan is the business optimisation director at Boulevard Hotels. She looks for areas of the business that need improvement. She tells Margaret Harris that she left a career in banking to join the family business.

What do you do at work each day?

Every day and every week is different as I am project-and task-driven; I focus my energy on where I am needed most in the business. I, with my two business partners, identify these areas.

For instance, we have a new hotel in Mpumalanga called the Malaga Hotel that we recently acquired. We have made a lot of improvements to the property, so we need to promote and get the word out in the market. Due to the poor management in the past, we also need to change the perception in the market.

I travel there once a week to assist the new general manager to get the hotel running smoothly. This consists of operational activities — training staff, ensuring the quality of the product is up to our standard, ensuring the proper procedures are in place, marketing, sales and relationship building.

I also visit the properties on an ad hoc basis to encounter a real “guest experience”, following which I provide feedback to management. The manager of the hotel cannot be everywhere all the time, so the more feedback they get on what guests experience, the better.

What drew you to this particular career?

I am a Chartered Institute of Management Accounting (CIMA) graduate and used to work in banking. Five years ago I was approached by the family to come and work in the hospitality industry.

At that stage the business had three hotels — one in Pretoria and two in Witbank. Having an opportunity to work with family and for a business that is already up and running is a great privilege and not something I could have turned down.

But it was a tough decision to make as I loved my career in banking. I did know that working for a smaller business would allow me more scope to grow and give me good overall business experience.

The corporate world, with all the red tape, did not always cater to my need for constant change and excitement and being able to see a task through from start to finish. I enjoy the hotel business, but business in general is what motivates me.

What did you want to be when you were a child?

I remember amusing my grandfather by telling him I wanted to be an asset manager or banker. He enjoyed this thoroughly as he assumed I would then make a lot of money, and “girls” did not work in this kind of career in those days.

It was clear from an early age that I enjoyed pushing boundaries.

What about your job gets you out of bed each day?

The fact that every day is different.

I also work with two very inspirational partners who have enormous amounts of energy and zest for life as well as the ability to make decisions quickly — this keeps me inspired, energised and on my toes.

What about your job keeps you awake at night?

A new project is renowned for giving me sleepless nights. I usually can’t stop the ideas streaming into my head, and this is usually at bedtime.

What are the benefits and challenges of working in a family business?

The benefits include that I get to spend more time with my father. As I grew up I tended to spend less time with my parents, so having this opportunity has resulted in a stronger relationship, which is a special gift to have.

Disagreements tend to be resolved quicker — after all, blood is thicker than water.

Working for a business that is yours is more rewarding and exciting for me. It also means having more free rein and, being the adventurous type, it helps keep me engaged. The downside is there is more responsibility. If the business were to turn in an unfavourable direction, it would end up being on our personal shoulders. It’s a typical case of more risk, more reward. I’m sure that when I first joined the company, staff thought that I had “landed with my bum in the butter”, which meant I needed to go the extra mile to earn the respect of my colleagues.

Being emotionally connected to your business partners can result in conversations that are “loaded” with other personal issues.

What would you do if you could not do this job?

I am not a career-specific kind of person; as long as it is project-driven and I have variety in my career I am happy.

However, if I found myself jobless with some money to spare, I would buy equipment for an anti-ageing clinic as I think there is lots of money to be made in this industry. It is also something that I find very intriguing.

What qualifications do you have and how do they help you do your job?

I did my honours in BCom management accounting at Stellenbosch, followed by CIMA. More recently I went to Cornell University to do a diploma in hospitality management.

CIMA changed the way I think. Having completed all the levels of CIMA, I am a qualified chartered management accountant, and I am a member of the CIMA association in the UK. It’s the same as completing your CA.

I really think it is an excellent degree to have for general business knowledge as it covers a lot of avenues that one needs in general business practice. The CIMA case study (final exam) gives you great theoretical experience in dealing with business and its tribulations.

The Cornell diploma was excellent for meeting people in the industry from all over the world. There were 47 hotel managers and owners from 45 countries. It was a great way to see how South African hotels compare with those in the rest of the world.

What is the best career advice you have received and who gave it to you?

I had an incredible mentor at Nedbank who believed in my ability wholeheartedly. There was nothing more inspiring and career-building than to have someone who had already “made it” in his career believe in me. He gave me lots of advice and books to read, which built my self-confidence and helped me to believe in myself. I also had a great female leader in this company who taught me that you can be a great leader while remaining in touch with your femininity.

Useful resources:
Business Times
Business news and analysis supplement with a popular, people-orientated approach.
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