If you've been following our blog posts, you'll know that we use the word sustainable a whole lot. This word represents the ethos of Barking Wild - to only support businesses who are serious about conservation, upliftment of communities and a low carbon footprint.
turning Port Alfred bright green
In the sleepy little town of Port Alfred, along our gorgeous wild coast, lies a historic hotel with a penchant for sustainability. The Royal St Andrews Hotel is not only a landmark in this area, known for its beautiful amalgamation of the old and the new, but also because of their dedication to lowering their carbon footprint and helping local communities. From specialist water filtration systems to biodegradable drinking straws; to collaboration with Nemato Change a Life to donations towards Rhino conservation and everything in between. This hotel is the epitome of sustainability.
led by example
Alongside a team of dedicated owners, employees and managers who live and breathe sustainability, is a man who brings it all together, not unlike the conductor of a symphony. Hitting the right notes both behind the scenes and on the front lines for almost 2 years now is Difford Louw, General Manager Extraordinaire of the Royal St Andrews Hotel & Spa. We sat down with Difford to learn more about the history of this heritage hotel, his journey into the role of GM as well as his team's dedication to sustainability and future plans.
Can you tell us a little more about the history of the hotel?
Construction of The Royal St. Andrews Mansions started in 1924. The original owner was Sergeant Major Dunn, who intended to run a boarding house. The building was completed in 1925, just in time to welcome as the first guest, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.
The original building had nine rooms and later three garden chalets with two rooms per chalet were added.
In 2013 The Royal St. Andrews Lodge was purchased by Martin & Linda Bekker. They decided to refurbish the hotel, and soon realised that far more than a “face lift” would be required. During the refurbishment process it was discovered that the walls which had been added on the second floor had been built on the wooden floor and had no support. In one bathroom a horizontal beam (10 cm thick) had been hewn out to allow the addition of a room, a bathroom and a kitchen, leaving only 3 cm of timber for support! Due to issues such as these it was decided to fully refurbish the building and add extra rooms during the process.
A pile of old newspapers – dating back to 1914, was found under the floorboards of one of the rooms. It is a mystery as to why a building constructed in 1924, would have newspapers dating back to 1914 under the floor!
Some of the pages were in good condition so these have been framed and are on display in some of the guest rooms and the ladies restrooms opposite the Thistle Restaurant. The floors of the rooms, passages and the staircase are of Oregon pine, and date back to 1924. In 2013 this woodwork was almost black due to neglect. The woodwork was sanded down, and is now restored to its former, glorious condition.
Where did you grow up and what is your history in the industry?
I am from a very small, picturesque Eastern Cape town called Alicedale. It is situated almost halfway between Grahamstown and Port Elizabeth. The town was once known for its booming railway activity and even won the award for the most beautiful Railway station in South Africa for couple of years during the 1980’s. The main railway connection between Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg ran through Alicedale, so it became an important connection point for anyone from the more inland Eastern Cape who wanted to travel to Johannesburg as well as for companies wanting to ship goods between Gauteng and the Eastern Cape. Very sadly, however, during the 1990’s the railway started dying down.
At this time I was attending high school in Port Elizabeth and eventually went on to study at NMMU (then known as UPE). By the 2000’s the Railways has died down to the point of being almost non-existent. A group called the Mantis Collection, in partnership with the ECDC, embarked on the development of a hotel with a golf course, golf estate and game reserve. The project was called Bushman Sands.
This all happened when I took a year off after having completed my honours degree in Psychology. I was looking for temporary employment and when the opportunity to apply for a receptionist position at the hotel presented itself, I jumped at it. I fell in love with hospitality and have never looked back! I remained at Bushman Sands for almost 8 years where I worked and managed different departments including front office, reservations, accounts, banqueting, food and beverage as well as the golf club. I moved to Port Alfred in 2012 to work for the River Group where I initially headed up their central reservations department and later the revenue management for the group.
I never thought that I would ever end up in Port Alfred. My mom was originally from Port Alfred so my grandparents lived here and as a kid I intensely disliked coming here for holidays. I always told the family that one day when I grow up I will never set foot in this town again! Lets all take a moment to laugh at that! I am now working at the same hotel in which my grandmother and mom did laundry many years ago...
When did you start working at The Royal St Andrews Hotel and what led to your appointment as General Manager?
I started working at here in April of 2015 as Sales, Banqueting and Revenue Manager. In January of 2018 the then General Manager and one of my mentors, took a new position in deepest darkest Africa. The owner of the Hotel then approached me to step into the role of GM. After much hesitation and convincing by the owner, family and close friends I decided to give it a go. I am absolutely loving it and I am extremely fortunate to have been chosen to be a leader for such a world class hotel and world class team.
Your sustainable initiatives are great, how did these come about and what's in the pipeline?
Mr. Martin Bekker, had a dream for this town: to expose as many people to port Alfred as possible, contributing to a change in perception, turning the area into a destination and not just a pass-through or little spot on the map. The objective of the hotel has always been to build an iconic hospitality brand that is preferred and which delivers sustainable growth and value creation. The owners, Mr and Mrs Martin and Linda Bekker, are extremely passionate about growing people, social development and environmental responsibility.
In addition to all the things that we are currently doing, (e.g. the training and growing of staff, having an RO plant onsite, our micro irrigation and energy saving initiatives, strategic sponsorships to promote the destination -Royal St. Andrews Amanzi Challenge - supporting the Wilderness Foundation and CCFA), there are some new initiatives being worked on right now. To mention one or two: A skate park is currently under development in town with the Bekkers being the main sponsor and we are also looking at solar panels to go up all around the hotel to try and eliminate, or at least drastically reduce, the our reliance on municipal electricity/power.
What, in your opinion, makes The Royal St Andrews Hotel so unique?
There are a couple if things that I could list that many other hotel managers would probably also mention. Things like the unique design of the hotel, the rich heritage history, the different wings (heritage and luxury) with all the other facilities the hotel has to offer: 3 different restaurants, a CSpa Wellness by Camelot, a large state of the art conference venue etc. All these facilities are of course high end and cater to many different markets.
However I think there are three things that stand out for me:
The hotel is living up to the expectation of the owners in terms of driving sustainability and growth for the sunshine coast. We give so much back to the community. The owners of the hotel has always said that upliftment comes first and profits come second. They just want to hotel to be able to sustain itself and always offer employment security to all the staff, to give back to the community in every way possible to enable further economic and social growth and, at the same time, look after the environment as best we can.
The hotel is most certainly a one stop hub for a variety of markets. Being centrally located between PE and East London, it is the perfect meeting point for corporate groups for business meetings, conferencing etc. We assist leisure guests in getting the most value for their money through our “101 Things to do in and around Port Alfred” initiative. We have negotiated discounts from most of the service providers in town for all out guests. So from airport transfers to horse riding, boat cruises, movie night, Big 5 game experiences and deep sea fishing we can arrange it all.
Lastly and most importantly: our AMAZING staff!! They are so passionate about this hotel and what their role is in the sustainability of this entire project. Besides the fact that they are well trained (always ongoing), the integrity in their service and friendliness to each of our guests is a true testament to our brand promise – gracious hospitality. The staff are always the first thing guests mention when they give feedback. They excel in making each guests’ experience a truly memorable one.
Keen on a relaxing trip to Port Alfred? Check out our offers to The Royal St Andrews Hotel: