Exotic resort offers taste of island life in light-hearted and fun setting
The Ramaphosa rebound that is instilling fresh optimism in SA’s economy could also benefit a luxury hotel in Mauritius.
The newly refurbished LUX* Grand Gaube is expecting a four fold increase in South African visitors through a combination of its well-timed reopening after a revamp and SA’s new economic sunshine.
"Travel is an incredibly strong barometer of consumer confidence. In fact it’s the best barometer, because people won’t invest in an expensive holiday if they are not fairly confident," says Julian Hagger, chief sales and marketing officer for LUX* Resorts.
"You book your holiday six to 12 months out and only do so if you are confident with the economic situation. There are a lot of positive moves for SA — the political situation is changing for the better and the economy should rebound — so there’s renewed enthusiasm for travel."
The five-star Grand Gaube on the north coast of Mauritius closed for eight months for a €50m overhaul and reopened in December. South Africans have been visiting Mauritius every year since it first became a tourist destination, says Hagger, and know its hotels well.
"There’s a tendency for new hotels and renovated hotels to take market share from the others. This is very much the latest flavour so we are expecting that demand to come and South African bookings to go up four-fold," he says.
That is not mere wishful thinking. Its sister hotel, the Belle Mare, closed for a revamp in 2014 and when it reopened the number of South African guests instantly spiked. "We thought South Africans didn’t go because it was too expensive, but when we renovated the Belle Mare they flooded in, killing that perception," Hagger says.
To ensure a surge of interest is maintained, the Grand Gaube has made a huge effort to stand out from the "sea of sameness" that makes one luxurious resort on a beautiful white beach interchangeable with all the others.
"We had creative workshops with every team member to rethink the customer experience. The aim is to surprise and delight. We don’t want to be formal and stuffy, we want to be light-hearted and fun," Hagger says. "You have to provide value too, and that comes from having amazing service and experiences at the right price."
The revamp involves several South African companies that would also benefit from an upswing. They include interior designer Kelly Hoppen, who has introduced a light, bright atmosphere with stylish and quirky touches. The wines come from South African vineyards and the mattresses are designed and manufactured by an aeronautical engineer in Pretoria.
If the Grand Gaube does lure a four fold increase in South Africans, it will be well ahead of the curve of rising popularity for the island as a whole.
A few years ago Mauritius was overpriced and beset by expensive airfares and lost business to rivals like Thailand or Sri Lanka. In response, Air Mauritius increased flight frequencies from Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town and cut some prices. That encouraged a 7% rise in South African visitors to 112,129 in 2017, up from 104,834 in 2016. Yet that is still only 8.4% of overall arrivals, with most coming from Europe.
One sure-fire way to boost the numbers would be to attract SA’s black upper-and middle-class market.
Hagger says LUX* is keen to do that but needs to work out how. "We did a big campaign three years ago to try to stimulate more business from the black diamonds.
"We did programmes on consumer TV and invited black social media celebrities to do videos, but demand remains incredibly low. I’d say it’s less than 3% of the demand from SA and that’s something we’re eager to change. We’d love to see more diversity," he says.
Duma Travel CEO Themba Mthombeni agrees that an upswing in business confidence has triggered more travel plans.
"There’s no doubt that what Cosatu called ‘the investment strike’ — when people have a lot of money but are afraid to put it into the economy — is ending now [Cyril] Ramaphosa is president. People are feeling there’s going to be proper leadership and we are already seeing an increase in business activities."
But overly extravagant travel is being pared back, particularly in government departments, and Ramaphosa was recently spotted flying economy class on Safair.
The lack of black visitors to a serene island like Mauritius is not a pigmentation issue, Mthombeni argues. "It’s a class thing rather than a black and white thing. In SA you have a small fraction of people who have been exposed to money for a long period of time and most of them are white."
When people are wealthy enough to travel they want to experience places like London or New York, or cheaper but equally vibrant Bangkok. Then they may progress to seeking out architectural gems like Prague and Berlin as their travel aspirations grow and evolve.
We had creative workshops with every team member to rethink the customer experience
"It’s like the Maslow hierarchy, people who are self-actualised are not going for shopping or booze trips but for history and culture," he says.
"It’s about how long you have been exposed to money, and generally black people with money are still experiencing high-life destinations to enjoy the nightclubs and shopping."
Mthombeni also says that an old cliché is true: "Black people and water don’t mix very well, it’s real.
"And sitting on a beach relaxing might be fine if you’re older, but younger people want to go to the parties and go shopping."
Shoni Makhari, the CEO of public relations company Ambani, sees other reasons why black people aren’t heading to high-class beach resorts.
Many who can now afford to travel are the first generation of black middle class, and there’s a perception that travelling means saving up a significant amount of money, he says. "In many white families, travel has always been part of their social life, even with limited resources. So culturally, white nuclear families will reserve any extra cash for travel as an important budget item they save towards."
Many black people live in extended families where travel is dismissed as a luxury when the needs of the extended family are competing for those resources. "Call it the black tax, if you will," Makhari says.
Marketing campaigns also miss the mark, he says.
"The white-dominated marketing machinery in SA still believes that how you market a destination to white people can be exactly the same as marketing it to other cultural groups, and all you need to do is put in a black face and they will come rushing in," Makhari says.
"They don’t bother to understand the psychographics of this demographic. We may earn the same salary, live in the same suburb, drive the same car and share the same values, but our interests are different. Changing faces on a billboard with the same message won’t appeal to a group of people whose idea of fun is very different."
For black travellers, group activities are far more likely to appeal than lazing on a beach as a couple. "Add a nightclub to your resort and we’ll be there," he says.