Women running successful hospitality and tourism businesses say the playing field is wide open to any determined entrepreneur entering the sector.
Hospitality and tourism work is challenging and potentially highly lucrative, say Johannesburg-based hospitality and tourism professionals. For those who are passionate about their work and prepared to put in long hours, there are no gender-specific hurdles to overcome. The only real challenge one might face as a woman in this game is how to look after the kids while you’re working.
Laura Vercueil, public relations and communication manager at the Johannesburg Tourism Company, says Joburg Tourism is seeing more women entrepreneurs entering this space. “We’re seeing a growing number of entrepreneurs — a large proportion of them women — attracted to the industry, partly due to its relatively low barriers to entry, but also because it is a vibrant and exciting field to work in,” she says. “As in any sector, women are often challenged in juggling family and work life, and some sub-sectors — such as catering — are physically very demanding. But women are running highly successful tourism and hospitality businesses across the city.”
Putting guests in their place
Salome Tshungu, who co-owns three guest houses with her husband, and runs one of them (The Orchards guest house in Midrand), uses her status as a mature woman both to make guests feel comfortably at home and to run a tight ship. “I introduce myself personally to each guest as ‘Gogo’. Everybody out there respects their grandmother, so they treat me with respect. If guests are drinking in the bar after closing time, and I go in there, they scuttle to their rooms,” she says.
Tshungu believes that while some may have doubts about women’s ability to succeed in business, a woman can do anything she sets her mind to. “From day one you were born you go head first. The world won’t meet you half way, you have to kick doors down by yourself, hit hard walls by yourself. But the most important thing in life is you — you are by yourself, sister. People might say you won’t make it, but you have to believe in yourself. When you start tilling the ground, everyone watches you saying it won’t work. But it will and it takes a woman to make it work.”
Tshungu has encountered some challenges since the launch of the first guest house in Ermelo in 2005. When she and her husband were transferred to the region and found a lack of suitable accommodation, they ended up buying a four-bedroom house. Based on their experience staying in other top establishments, they set out to create a top quality guest house themselves. “My first mistake in this industry was charging too little,” she says. “We were a four-star guest house, but we were trying to compete on price with inferior accommodation in the area.” It took corporate guests to point out that the Tshungus could charge higher tariffs.
This was just one of many lessons learnt over the years, says Tshungu. She also discovered the value of persistence, when financiers did not believe in her vision and turned down her applications for financing. However, now, with three guest establishments including the busy 21-room The Orchards, which boasts a spa, gym, cultural village and conference facilities, Tshungu is proof that persistence pays off. “In the corporate world, I was reaching a space where I was being seen as too old, and being overlooked. Running my own business means longer hours and harder work, but it is worth it. I don’t have to answer to anybody. I don’t know why I didn’t do it many years ago,” she says.
Hitting the streets
Jo Buitendach, who runs Past Experiences Walking Tours, has been growing the firm for the past five years. As an archaeology graduate, she is passionate about the history and people of Johannesburg. She finds that the type of people who participate in the walking tours have similar interests. Surprisingly, many of them are local, rather than foreign tourists. From small beginnings, the company has grown to include two fulltime staff, three part-time staff and and a large network of partners and casual assistants. “I went into this not knowing anything about business, but that may have been a good thing,” she says. “If I had known what lay ahead, I might not have started it.”
Buitendach found the cost and complexity of registering a business and securing appropriate tourism accreditations quite a hurdle. However, once Past Experiences launched, she was pleasantly surprised at the public’s response. “On our first tour, 28 people signed up. We were surprised at how many locals wanted to see their own city.”
Guiding walking tours through the gritty inner city of Johannesburg, and now also Pretoria and Soweto, may sound risky for a young woman, but Buitendach is positive about how well received her tours are by the communities they pass through.
This is partly because she takes tour groups to visit local enterprises and organisations, which generally benefit from additional trade and support as a result. Buitendach believes the success of Past Experiences has a lot to do with her passion for the work and its deep levels of engagement with communities it operates in. Being a woman in the industry has presented no particular challenges, she says, with the only occasional negative comment relating to the fact that she is young for someone talking about the history of the city.
Cooking up a storm
Lunga Mhlongo, managing member of catering firm Elobuntu Contracting and Trading, left a career in banking to launch the company in 2010. Now with a team of six permanent staff, the company caters large corporate and private functions in Gauteng. However, when Mhlongo first launched, she worked alone, with the help of family members and occasionally with casual employees. It wasn’t always easy, she says.
“I expected everything to go with a boom, but it doesn’t work like that. Because it’s easy to register a business, you think you’ll just start one and automatically succeed. But I had not done enough research and I did not market myself well enough at first.”
Mhlongo’s challenges were common to start-ups and were not gender-based, she says. “The catering industry is dominated by women, so being a woman in this industry is not an issue.”
The real challenges were those faced by any start-up: securing regular clients and learning to manage cash flow effectively. “I could have used more muscle in the early days, because this is physical work — you have to carry crates of plates and heavy pots a lot,” she adds.
Only one hurdle was difficult to overcome, she says — balancing motherhood and running a business. In an industry where she has to work nights and weekends, Mhlongo found she could not always be available for her children, who are now aged 9 and 13. “I had to put them in boarding school, because I could not always be there to help with homework and projects. I’ve had to miss school events and birthdays. So balance is a major challenge. But in the long run, my kids benefit from the work that I do.”
On the road
Busi Madisakwane is operations director of Pogiso Tours, which she and her husband Tumi launched in 2008. The company offers guided tours throughout Gauteng and to tourist attractions such as the Kruger National Park. “When my husband decided to launch this business, he was in the transport industry and I was a merchandiser. We got the necessary tourism and drivers’ qualifications, and set out to offer tours. Starting in this business is challenging, because few people take you seriously when you’re a start-up. We had to prove ourselves and go out and seek the business.”
Launching with no staff meant the couple were often driving tour groups simultaneously, which meant a challenge in caring for their three young children, who were all under the age of four at the time. “I have a nanny, but I also had to depend a lot on my mother and mother-in-law to look after the children,” says Madisakwane. “It’s not always easy when you are on a five-day trip to a game reserve and one of your children needs you. I tried to give motherly love on the phone when I could, but sometimes it felt I was sacrificing a lot for the business.” However, the hard work is paying off, and now with a team of 17, Madisakwane is able to go home to spend time with her kids after work.
Aside from the challenges of achieving work-life balance, Madisakwane does not believe anything stands in the way of a woman rising to the top in the industry. “The only glass ceiling is your own attitude,” she says. For example, she occasionally encountered mistrust from male clients about her ability to drive the large tourist minibus, but she deflected comments with humour and a can-do attitude. “By the time I dropped them off, they’d be agreeing that in fact, I am a very good driver,” she recalls.
“This business has its ups and downs, and our main challenges at the moment are e-tolls and the petrol price, but it is a good business to be in. To thrive in the sector, you have to love your work,” she says.