by Ralph Staniforth

PREMIER HOTELS: AN EMPIRE IS BUILT

Nearly three decades ago, Samuel Nassimov arrived in South Africa to meet with some of the suppliers and distributors of his business, which he ran from Israel. This “visit” became permanent once the opportunity of his dreams presented itself.

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Life wasn’t easy for Nassimov, especially not in his early years—moving from Russia (formerly known as the Soviet Union), he had to adjust to a new culture and language in Israel. Fortunately, he learnt the language and managed to work in the hospitality industry as a chef but soon enough, he started his own business, which eventually led him to South Africa.

The hospitality sector was always in his blood, and the opportunity to purchase an old rundown hotel in East London could not be turned down. A risk, yes, a risk worth taking, yes, but it didn’t always seem that way. During the refurbishment of his first hotel, he suffered massive losses—in one instance, the hotel was flooded and on another occasion, a fire broke out.

“I was down for a few days and I did think of just packing the project up, wondering if it was really worth it, but I had great staff back then, and some of them are still with me today—I knew I had to persevere if I wanted to achieve my dream of running a hotel,” explains Nassimov.

If it wasn’t for the accent with which Nassimov speaks, and perhaps his surname, you could be forgiven for thinking he is a fully-fledged South African. Having a braai and watching rugby is one of his favourite pastimes—he has even followed the Springboks on some tours. Braai and rugby—not something one automatically associates with Russia but, approaching 30 years in our beautiful country, Nassimov has learnt the rules of the game and enjoys it because it is “fast and action-packed”.

The Head Office

Nassimov now owns and runs one of South Africa’s premier (the name says it all) hotel groups, Premier Hotels. Unlike many other major hotel groups, Nassimov set up base in East London, where he started his first few projects.

However, growth continued and reached a national level, and while the Premier Hotels Head Office remained in East London since inception, the time for a change has arrived.

The love Nassimov has for the city of East London is evident when he speaks about it, but the groups’ growth has meant he needs to be closer to the business hubs in a bigger city and thus, the decision has been taken to move their Head Office down to Cape Town.

Expansion

The moving of the Head Office has not stopped Nassimov from further expansion or investment either. In recent years, they have moved away from being solely hotel based to purchasing, investing and renovating resorts.

“We recently acquired Cutty Sark Hotel on the South Coast, which has been running for around 50 years, and which we are now redesigning and upgrading—this property has great potential. We are looking at an upgrade to around 270 rooms, but there is the opportunity for a mini golf course and tennis court and, because part of the estuary falls on the property, there is also the opportunity for canoeing or a kids programme on the water,” says Nassimov.

Further to the Cutty Sark property, Nassimov expects to invest around R15 million into their White River property, Premier Hotel The Winkler, whilst also expanding the Knysna Resort, among others.

But Nassimov is keen to stress that the project he is most excited about is, indeed, their new property in Umhlanga. By the time this edition of the magazine is in circulation, the ground on this property is likely to have been broken already with the development of two hotels.

The one will be a 128-room 4+ star hotel with a pool, parking area, bar and a conference centre, which will be able to host between 400-500 delegates.

Differentiating hotels

The other will be a 3-star hotel with around 190 rooms and a conference centre, which will be able to host 415 delegates.

Another interesting change to the Premier Hotels brand is that they are now distinguishing between their 3- and 4-star hotels. While the 3-star hotels are still very much under the Premier brand, it is important to them that customers can distinguish between what they are to expect.

Thus, they have launched the Splendid Inn brand for the 3-star hotels. Clientele will now know whether they are visiting a 3+ or 4+ star hotel, and what to expect in terms of services.

Nassimov explains that they don’t want to “confuse clients with the different level of the hotels”, thus the restructure.

Another new innovation that will come to fruition in the coming years will be the Express Inn by Premier.

“Our Premier Hotels and Splendid Inn’s are only differentiated by the star rating—they both still offer very similar services in terms of breakfast, washing, conference facilities, etc., but with Express Inn, the services will be more limited.

“As an example, there will be no conference facilities, but rather large boardrooms for meetings, breakfast will still be full English but dinner will be simpler, like burgers or fish and chips.

“It will have a younger, funkier look and feel to it, not like the classic feel of our Premier and Splendid Inn brands,” explains Nassimov.

Education

While business is flourishing at Premier, new ventures are being entered into and developments are going up at the rate of knots, there is also a far more human side to the brand. In any environment around South Africa, education is key, and skills development is high on all agendas.

For numerous years now, Premier Hotels has embarked on an education programme for its employees, however, that has now been advanced.

“We have created the Premier Employees Education Trust Fund, and a certain amount of our income goes into it to enhance the education of our staff. We start with the employees and once they are done, we will move down and start getting their children involved. We also now enrol in-house training with a qualification for a university.

“For example, we will do a one-year orientation training programme with the University of Johannesburg and once the staff has passed that, we will enrol them in a three-year programme. They will do their practical with us and theory at the university—we send them to Johannesburg for six weeks and we pay for their accommodation, food and education there.

“The plan is that perhaps by 2019, all our staff with have some sort of higher education qualification. The idea behind this is that without education, the hospitality sector cannot operate—you need educated people who understand the hospitality industry,” Nassimov explains.

While the hospitality sector is exceptionally competitive, especially here in South Africa, where a smile on your face or a helpful hand can make a difference as to whether someone returns to your hotel or not, it is quite pleasing to hear about the work done behind the scenes to get staff beyond the pure basics and into university.

Conventions

As competitive as the hospitality and tourism sector is, there are far more layers to it. As Nassimov explains, “One gets business tourism, holidaymakers and incentive conference tourists, and a large amount of effort is being put into the latter.”

In East London, Premier owns and runs the East London International Convention Centre (ELICC). It is a magnificent venue with great views, but he explains that the majority of conferences they have there are for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the government.

Now, they are working on increasing the number of private company conventions across the board at all their hotels—one look at the facilities on offer and something tells me it won’t be a struggle.

Many businesses rely heavily on conventions because it is not only for the hotel—if people are spending a few days in the area, it is good for the local economy and as per Premier’s model, as far as possible, they try to use SMMEs for outsourcing work.

As we delve deeper into the history of the city, Nassimov explains that, despite not being in East London yet, he has been told that in the 60s and 70s, the city was a premier holiday spot for locals, but by the time he arrived, it was in a depressive state. Despite that, he has made a great success of his hotels there and would love to welcome business conventions to once again put East London on the map.

“Around 40% of the revenue comes from groups and conventions, so it is quite a substantial amount,” claims Nassimov.

Conclusion

What is evident from spending more than an hour with Samuel Nassimov is that he is very much a ‘people first’ type of person. He trusts those who work around him to perform their duties and in so doing, he overshot his dream of owning a hotel and, instead, he now runs one of the most successful hotel groups within South Africa and perhaps in years to come, outside too.

As we finish our discussion and I depart through the front foyer of the Premier Hotel Cape Town, I hear Nassimov communicate with a staff member in Xhosa and I’m left to wonder, how South African is this man from Russia? Of course, there’s the braai and rugby, too!

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