I went away for a few days and don't really want to tell you where, because the next time I try to book a little winter or early spring getaway, you'll all be there . . .
Let me start by saying that I have always loved the old hotels on the Kwa-Zulu Natal coast. Sadly, most of them have been bought up, built up into skyscrapers and "minimilised" into a coma to look "Zen uber-chic" or "industrial OTT". There's one place left I know of on the north coast that has managed to maintain "welcoming" while updating to "Africa enchanting": The Salt Rock Hotel.
Now, this is not an ad for the hotel, which was (over the past few weekends at least) completely full. Rather, it's a comment on how to make an evolutionary change to a well-loved product and delight both old and new clientele.
The hotel has undergone an almost-complete refurbishment, which has added to its charm rather than detracted from it. Most importantly, though, it appears to me that it put service and PR initiatives in place while upgrading, so that the final product is one of an holistic improvement and not a mere paint job.
A recently appointed PR lady called Debbie Ahern is available through the weekend to deal with customers and encourage staff. The staff members themselves have very obviously been well trained to complement the hotel's new style, while still giving guests the feeling of stepping back in time to a friendlier, more caring service ethic.
In short, all systems were upgraded before anything was thrown out at the public. Now, in my opinion, that's the way to launch - or relaunch - a product. As we see certain products currently getting a new look and new ambassadors, little appears to have changed behind the scenes to make customers ditch their current providers and opt for the "new logo's" services.
What this hotel has done is to build on its reputation of a charming family-oriented operation - which always appealed to young families and the elderly - and add to it extensions that reach other markets: Wedding facilities (marry on the beach, have the reception upstairs and come back with the kids as they grow up); a small massage service that is probably among the best and least expensive in the province; a food and beverage team that have taken good, standard fare and added the wow factor. Many of the rooms have already received the interior designer's touch, turning them from clean and comfortable to clean, comfortable and rather elegant.
In taking the steps to ensure that every part of the product has been overhauled and then implementing a PR machine, the Salt Rock has done what many brands neglect to do, in the mistaken belief that their brand reputation alone will enable them to keep current clients and grow market share by merely giving the brand a facelift. Hats off to a family-owned concern that has pulled off a change bigger budgets may well envy.