Hospitality in her blood

Kerrin Titmas, Fancourt’s CEO
Kerrin Titmas FANCOURT (1).JPG

At only 34, a remarkable young woman took over the reins at one of the top ten golfing properties in the world and repositioned the 613-hectare George property as a top international lifestyle destination.

Highly motivated, driven and ready to make a change. While most other young executives in her industry would be concerned about climbing the corporate ladder, Fancourt’s 37-year-old chief executive Kerrin Titmas has one mission: to make a change in her industry – especially within the people from the communities surrounding her world. Food and wine fundi, and animal lover, Titmas – who was born in Joburg and raised in Cape Town by her restaurateur father and accountant mother – is one of the youngest and very few female CEOs in the niche hotel resort industry.

Under her leadership, the prestigious Fancourt resort, which is world renowned for its Gary Player-designed golf courses, has raked in a multitude of awards. Leadership finds out how Titmas did it.

Since you’ve become CEO, Fancourt has been voted among the world’s top golf resorts. How did it come about?

We focused on improving the product. I’ve never been one to go after accolades in my personal capacity. It’s not really something that drives me. I’m more of an under-the-radar kind of person who just wants to see the job well done. At Fancourt we are all about creating a product that we are proud of and that we believe is of an international standard, and as a result the industry has recognised us. Hence the accolades.

You are also involved in charity foundations and numerous community-based committees. Why the need to get involved?

From a business point of view, one has to get involved and give back. Our focus is largely on educational and youth-related initiatives. We support the George Child Welfare Society and through them support several crèches. Our work there entails helping the community to better manage their crèches. The Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation is also education-based – yes, there is golf involved, but education is the one thing our country needs to work really hard on. We need to develop people and empower them to better their own circumstances. We have just started three learnership programmes with government’s support. We have a caddie learnership programme, a chef training project and we’re about to roll out a programme for waiters. As I see it, it is all about developing the region and about providing the necessary skills. We don’t sell one hotel, we sell a destination. And by improving the training and skills levels of the people, we enhance the region.

What vision should a CEO in South Africa have, regarding social aspects?

We as leaders must find what we are personally passionate about. This makes it real so that the initiatives don’t become a token gesture to the organisation. Find what you are passionate about – that’s the first step. Then your passion will drive you and you will be able to make a difference.

You’re a member of the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), which is a global network of CEOs. How did it come about and what do you get from the association?

An acquaintance of mine, Philip Krawitz, the executive chair of Cape Union Mart, put my name forward at the YPO. At the time he said to me it was going to be one of the best things he would ever do for me. And it was. I’ve met the most incredible group of people. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s true: leadership is lonely; the higher you go, the lonelier it gets. Just knowing that there are people in other organisations to support you, to guide you in some instances and also to befriend, people who are dealing with similar issues, is very comforting. In George it can get quite isolated, so to keep the mind fresh and to be challenged with global ideas is very important to staying fresh and innovative.

On the subject of leadership, how would you describe your leadership style?

I’m quite an informal leader, so I’m not very big on formalities and hierarchy in the workplace. And that has its up- and downside to it. In general, if somebody is competent, I let the person run with things. There are people in my business who will be running with things where I have very little involvement, and then there are people with whom I am very involved, and I make a project of mentoring and growing them. 

What is your take on corporatisation?

We have seen a lot of that in our industry with the consolidation of many hotel chains into bigger chains. I think it is something that has happened due to oversupply of capacity after the global tourism boom. Now it’s time for consolidation and this unfortunately has seen a lot of bigger chains swallowing up the smaller, more boutique ones. 

But is it good or bad?

I think it’s a bad thing. I am a fan of the smaller chains who have their own stamp; they’re very niche and not just a big corporate brand. If I look at the Four Seasons 15 years ago, it was a company I really aspired to be part of. Today, if you work for an organisation like that, you become a number and so do your guests. It’s not what they portray, but the reality is that you do become a number and this impacts on your client relationship. Very few hotels are privately owned and run, unlike in the past when many were family-owned and passed down from generation to generation.

Your father was a restaurateur; how did that prepare you for where you are today?

It did give me an advantage. But the interesting thing is, when I was at school, I vowed I would never work in the industry. I resented the fact that my father was always at work and I didn’t have a ‘normal’ childhood, only to find out later in life that there is no such thing. After school I wanted to study veterinary science, and after my first year realised that it’s not who I am. Having grown up spending afternoons after school in my dad’s restaurants, I realised that the hospitality industry was in my blood. It prepared me for the strange hours, the diversity of the people I have met and exposed me to the unpredictability that I have grown to thrive on each day. 

You are well-travelled and you have an incredible passion for tourism. Please tell us a bit about that.

I try not to focus purely on hospitality and hotels, as it’s quite a superficial industry in many ways. At some point I was looking for more meaning in my life and I couldn’t affiliate with this world of plushness and pampering. I started to disassociate with it from a values perspective. Through introspection I have focused on what tourism does to develop the towns, communities and people where the activities take place. I place my focus there, and on what tourism can do to make a community sustainable. I no longer focus on the product, as I find that a little soulless at times.

What inspires and motivates you?

People who do great things. Just being able to break new ground and go places where others haven’t. People like Hasso Plattner who owns Fancourt and Helen Zille who doesn’t give up when things get tough. They just keep on going. That really inspires me. And Mandela – people who are nation changers. It also motivates me when I work in a team of people and see someone suddenly realise their own potential. I take a thrill in developing people, even if it means they leave my business – that doesn’t matter to me. 

And business tourism – is there really a need for it, or has it been created?

Yes, there is a need for it. If I look at the way we run our businesses, it is evident. Today I sit here for a meeting and tomorrow I’m in Joburg; regardless of modern technology, the world needs to travel to do business and to press the flesh.

In the face of the global recession, how has the industry been affected, and how has it managed to adapt?

The industry has been hard-hit with an oversupply of stock and a change in global travel and spend patterns. To adapt we hire less people, make sure that they are better trained and always reconsider what we do and how we do it. It’s important to always keep an eye on the economy, what we are offering and what the client really wants. We ditch what is superfluous for the client. Because the hospitality industry is so competitive, our leaders globally have to put a much stronger focus on especially service delivery because that’s ultimately what makes or breaks us.

What would you say are the biggest challenges in your industry?

In Cape Town and South Africa, it has been the oversupply of rooms post the 2010 World Cup. A lot of capacity was created that wasn’t sustainable in the long term. Subsequently, hotels have closed and some have sold parts off as real estate. Another major challenge is our labour pool: it’s hard to find skilled people who are passionate about our industry and who see it as a career. Our industry works very differently from, for instance, Europe where every person has to be skilled, whether you’re wiping the tables or cooking the food. 

Are people here just grabbing at the industry to get a foot in somewhere, to just get a job and get something on their CV?

It is the case. A lot of people move through our business as they use it as a stepping stone. In George we are one of the biggest employers and people want to have Fancourt on their CV. As soon as they find something else, they move on. I don’t see it as a waste, though, and I try to focus on the opportunities we provide rather than the skill we lose when people leave us. If you focus your attention differently, the lack of skill doesn’t demotivate you.

The latest reports show that there is an up in the tourism industry in the country. What has been your experience – has there been a rise in foreign visitors at your establishment?

In 2008 /2009 we saw almost a 50% drop in international clientele. Currently our client base is around 70% South African. There is a lot of foreign interest this year, mainly because the rand has weakened. We’re only now seeing the UK market showing interest again. The German market started to recover in 2012. If you look at the new world markets, Asia and India, there is growth, but they’re growing off a very low base. This season has been a bumper season; we are probably the only industry that celebrates a weak rand.

In what way are hotel industry leaders responsible for tourism in South Africa on a national level?

They should be responsible. My MBA thesis was on ‘co-opetition’ – the co-operation among competitors. I was a tourism study and I was surprised to see how poor the co-operation was among hotels in SA. We could be working together more closely to sell the destination, as opposed to competing at the expense of the destination. Destinations like Franschhoek, where everyone in the community focused on the growth strategy, are an example of how we should work together on a national level.

Doing your MBA at Stellenbosch University in 2008, you were the best marketing student. So marketing, CEO and cuisine – quite an unusual combination. How did it come about and how would you say your knowledge of marketing has benefited you?

Marketing is something that hoteliers have to be good at. You have to understand your market and position your business accordingly. You can’t offer one thing to the market and have your staff creating a different product – the alignment is essential. If you don’t understand your clients’ needs, then you’ve completely lost it. I often see hotels run by financially driven brands; they don’t have the emotion, they’re transactional and it’s all about the costs. Yes, that is part of running a business, but when it comes to which tea I’m selecting, it’s about what my clients and what brand they identify with. So yes, marketing and branding is hugely important.

Would you say that business conferencing is the way forward?

Yes and no. In a region such as the Southern Cape, business conferencing is our bread and butter in the winter. In terms of it being the way forward, it’s certainly going to contribute to other hotel groups. For us, a lifestyle and family offering is the way forward.

Can you tell us about the effects of the international markets on eco- and environmental tourism?

We are big on it. About three years ago, The Links golf course was accorded the status of Certified Audubon Co-operative Sanctuary, awarded by the international Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf. This means that, rather than having a golf course that stereotypically is environmentally unfriendly, we’ve managed to restore the environment back to its natural habitat. We’ve literally created an environmental haven with buck, bird life and small rodents, which we monitor. We have cameras everywhere so we can see what wildlife is moving around the course. That’s quite a special project. Over and above that, we recycle and practise other environmental best practice, as our clients demand this.

Lindsay King

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