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Down but never out! Zai Oat Hotel overcomes COVID challenges

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5 min read

An entrepreneur at heart, La-Duma Thembe is not about to let the COVID pandemic get him or his tourism business, the Zai Oat Hotel, in rural South Africa down.

La-Duma Thembe

“The impact of the virus will not diminish the value of the tourism assets that the country has.  The challenge is to deal with the psyche of traveller. As players in the tourism industry, we need to assure them that we will go the extra

mile to make our facilities safe,” he explains.  “Individually and collectively, we have to reach out and inform current and future clients that it is safe to visit.  In this way, SA Tourism can stand out and attract even bigger numbers than previously.”

La-Duma is the Managing Director of Zai Oat Hotel in the rural village of Jane Furse. The hotel bridges the gap between rural and urban lifestyles. Zai Oat has changed the way in which the business traveller, the leisure seeker and the adventurer can experience the rustic surroundings by introducing a high-value product at an affordable cost.

Zai Oat Hotel

An Entrepreneurial Spirit

After La-Duma returned from exile in 1991, he realised that he did not want to pursue a career in politics. Instead, he decided to become an entrepreneur in the tourism industry.

“I have been an entrepreneur from childhood selling vegetables from my father’s garden and sweets at school. So, when my family dared me to take over my father’s property and save it from total ruin (there were simply some mud structures beyond repair), I saw an opportunity, as there was no decent hotel in Jane Furse at that time,” he says.

Ngonidzashe Muchanyangi

From the outset, La-Dduma decided he wanted to offer future clients a world-class three-star facility. “My inspiration came from my ideals of having fought in a struggle for the betterment of African people,” he explains.

The business grew from strength to strength and became truly successful when Ngonidzashe Muchanyangi (now La-Duma’s wife) joined the hotel.  Says La-Duma: “I noticed her talent and passion and offered her shareholding upon achieving certain targets. In 2017, we recorded the highest ever turnover.  She is now a director and CEO of the hotel. Under her watch, Zai OAT Hotel was crowned the best in the category of Small Hotel by the Limpopo Lilizela Awards. What sets us apart is that we have become a team, and each member of the team is indispensable.”

Team at Zai Oat Hotel

The impact of COVID-19 on Zai Oat Hotel

When the COVID pandemic hit South Africa, Zai Oat Hotel saw its occupancy reduce from 85% to 3%. “We had a provisional booking for the training of teachers and school governing bodies that was scheduled to go on for two years. But now, corporate bookings have drastically reduced.  Of course, there are also no social events. These ordinarily contribute 5-10% of our revenue.  As a result of all these factors, we postponed expansion plans that would have seen our rooms increase from 42 to 94.”

La-Duma explains that in just a few weeks, the novel coronavirus changed the way thousands of companies operate. Businesses had to adapt to video conferencing, train staff on the virus and dispel myths.

Zai Oat Hotel reinvented its business model and worked with health authorities to ensure the hotel was accredited to receive Covid-19 quarantine cases. Today, the hotel is working with the mining industry in the area and offering them accommodation.

Zai Oat Hotel

Towards the future: inspire, reinvent, survive

The COVID virus (and possibly other new viruses) will be with humanity for the foreseeable future, says La-Duma.  The industry has to adopt disinfection measures as standard operating procedures and ensure that employees are trained to implement these measures.

La-Duma concludes: “Each time there is an outbreak (like was the case with HIV Aids), there is panic across the world.  The industry should realise this and give comfort to consumers that their property is safe to visit.”

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