Monday, June 1, 2020

Advocacy for citizen-owned hotels, lodges makes perfect sense but …

Every day, public officials who left behind overflowing in-trays back in their offices are lodging at some hotel for a conference, workshop, symposium or any other kind of meeting that is more important than doing what their job description stipulates. This brings in a lot of money for the hospitality establishments and if these meetings were to stop, some hotels and lodges would close down. Responding to President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s state-of-the-nation address, the Leader of the Opposition, Dumelang Saleshando, said that it is time that the small man also benefitted.

“We will be demanding for government expenditure to be refocused on assisting citizen owned small and medium sized businesses,” said Saleshando who is also the Vice President of the Umbrella for Democratic Change and Maun West MP. “Recently in Kasane, I called for government to desist lodging public officials in five-star hotels. There are many citizen-owned lodging facilities that deserve a portion of the government budget.”

A week from today, Botswana will, like the rest of the world, commemorate World AIDS Day and the main national event will be held in Maun. Saleshando expressed hope that the Minister of Health and Wellness “is working on a plan to give residents of Maun a bite of the cherry.”

“Rather than sourcing government vehicles from places outside Maun, I will be happy to assist you in identifying public transport vehicles that are of a standard that will meet the transport needs of the Ministry officials whilst in Maun,” he said.

Re: hospitality establishments getting a bite of the cherry. The MP has a very valid point. On account of an underdeveloped private sector, Botswana has this peculiar situation in which the government is the largest consumer of products and services. Virtually all businesses that thrive have to do business with the government and if small and medium-sized citizen-owned hospitality establishments in Maun are to thrive, they also have to do the same. However, up and down the country, there is a problem that is very well-known to people who patronise this class of establishments that has never really been officialised but that can’t be denied: poor customer service standards. Interestingly, while Saleshando talked about standards with regard to public transport vehicles, he didn’t do the same with hospitality establishments. Officially, the Botswana Tourism Organisation is supposed to be regulating these establishments but what it mostly does is give them a pass over and over again.

Online, there is a Facebook page called Name & Shame em (Botswana) which shames poor service providers by naming ‘em. Sometime last year, one woman related an experience she had a Mahalapye lodge. The lodge encourages feedback through a suggestion box at the reception desk and when she checked out, the woman obliged the lodge by providing what she thought would be viewed as constructive criticism. A day later when she was back in Gaborone, she received a phone call from an irate manager who told her off and for good measure, informed her that she if she felt special for his lodge, then she should never set ever set her foot again. She gave this account on the Name & Shame em (Botswana) page.

The woman’s description of the customer service at the Mahalapye lodge was what many more people who patronise citizen-owned can relate to. Those people can recount different but thematically similar stories of ordeals they suffered at this class of citizen-owned hospitality establishments. To be clear though, there are few-and-far-between exceptions. On the same page and about the same village (Mahalapye) there were customers naming and praising a riverside lodge for its excellent customer service. One customer actually went as far as to say that s/he thought that the lodge was owned by whites. The latter probably caught you off-guard but people say these things and there is no need to pretend they don’t.

In much the same way that some people think that if they can raise P20 000 to buy a second-hand car at a Mogoditshane dealership, then they can operate a taxi business, there are those who think that if they can secure a CEDA loan, then they qualify to operate a hospitality establishment. Adopting customer service standards that are commonplace at five-star establishments that public officials prefer is never a consideration. The result is disastrous: unattended reception desks and restaurants with no bell; rooms going without rolls of toilet paper for hours on end; TV sets that rarely work; slicing a loaf of bread with a tablespoon because the only bread knife available has been misplaced; offering beef steak but not having a single steak knife; swimming pools whose water turn and stay yellowish-green for days on end; kitchen and waiting staff that is completely clueless about food safety and hygiene; shriveled-up fruits; housekeeping staff that breeze through rooms at the speed of a whirlwind; a menu more aspirational than realistic; elaborate excuses for failure to provide hot water in winter; dead electrical outlets or plugs whose pins don’t match such outlets; maintenance men who are not always around to maintain faulty appliances – the list is endless.

Courtesy of second cousins who missed one too many lessons at the local brigade, in some cases the rooms would be structurally unsound and aesthetically displeasing. In some (admittedly rare) cases and as happened to this writer in Gantsi, the odd guest house owner can ask guests for a loan – P500 in the writer’s case. Saleshando would himself have had a bad experience at a citizen-owned lodge or guest house. One appreciates that some deficiencies are a result of slow business but sloppiness has nothing to do with not having enough money.

Even without Saleshando making any kind of advocacy, there is very strong public sentiment to patronise citizen-owned businesses. In most cases, however, owners of such businesses sell customers short. That notwithstanding, some operators harbour hopes of penetrating the lucrative safari tourism in the Okavango Delta – which is entirely white. The reality though is that if you can’t do half a decent job with a lodge or guest house in Maun or Serowe or Molepolole, you should forget about ever running a Delta lodge that caters for Hollywood A-listers and European royals.

A good portion of the money that goes to the five-star hotels that Saleshando spoke about ends up being repatriated abroad. If it went to citizen-owned establishments, it would stay and be used within Botswana’s borders. For now, while it would be ideal for the latter to happen, it is extremely difficult to make a strong case for it. There is also a consumer rights dimension to this issue. Consumers have a right to choose a service provider as well as to get their money’s worth. It is a fact that one too many citizen-owned establishments don’t give consumers their money’s worth.

In conclusion, the MP is right on the money about the need to channel some business to small and medium-sized citizen owned hospitality establishments. However, this advocacy should always be accompanied by stressing the need for the owners of such establishments to earn that money – not to just hold their hands out because they are citizens. While one fully understands the political deployment of the rights-over-responsibilities ethos, the latter would be antithetical to the impulse that animates commerce.

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