The Last Word: South Africa

From Booze to Boutique Hotels—The Peter Fleck Story

My wife and I, and another couple, recently returned from a trip to South Africa. A wonderful experience as we toured from one end of the country to the other—major cities, photo safari, animal reserves, seaside towns, and, of course, wine country.

I’ll be writing about South African wines at a later date. But, now, I’d like to tell you about a former Seagram colleague and the incredible boutique group of hotels he owns, called The Last Word.

About Peter Fleck

Peter Fleck
Peter Fleck

Peter’s work life started as a journalist for a local newspaper, which led to a PR position with KWV South Africa (Pty) LTD, a large wine cooperative, and currently a leading producer of wines and spirits. From there he moved to International Distillers and Vintners (IDV), a predecessor company to Diageo, starting as a brand manager and ending up as the South African CEO. Along the way, together with James Espey and Tom Jago, he created Malibu Rum. (He also has been involved with James and Tom in the Last Drop Distillers.)

In the early 1990s, he joined Seagram to start a new affiliate in South Africa and was the country’s GM until the sale of Seagram in 2001. Those of us who knew Peter in those days always admired his tenacity, business skill and sense of humor—an all around terrific guy with a focus on innovation. But I didn’t realize just how innovative.

On a business trip to the Cameroons, in West Africa on behalf of Seagram, an idea struck him. He had just finished lunch at “the best eating place in Africa.” The restaurant was part of a small hotel that was an oasis amidst “Africa’s trademark poverty.” It was an oasis of warmth, friendship, and full of hopes and dreams. In his words,

No amount of imagination could have anticipated such contrast; leafy-green palms, bamboo and lawns surrounding a sprawling mansion in immaculate condition. Inside were seven luxurious bedrooms and, of course, an intriguing restaurant. The smiles, laughter and charm were enchanting… The restaurant, like the accommodation, was Africa’s hidden secret.

Despite an old colonial style it was authentic Africa, full of hopes and dreams… This was my kind of place, a diamond discovered in the rough, a vivid memory of geniality where time and space worked together to produce one of the world’s best places to stay. 

In 2003, the daydreaming stopped and The Last Word was launched.

The Mice That Roar

Peter and his team put together an employee manual in the form of a book for the staff to understand the properties, their goals and values and what it takes to exceed expectations. How many employee manuals are you aware of that are 170 well-written and thoughtful pages? How many hotels—or any service entity for that matter—have “delight the customer” at the heart of their business proposition?

An excerpt from that manual:

The mice that roar

While we are a little known travel product we take on the quietness of a mouse, moving into new space as though by stealth, under the radar. We act with grace; our preparedness nevertheless has to be extensive. Even in mice survival requires a big heart. And if we are heard about only in whispers initially, this is also by design, for to be discovered as a hidden gem and whispered about like a secret has an innate power of its own.

The Hotels

Let’s look at the three Last Word properties. All are a 5 star experience and none have more than 10 rooms. They are all consistent in their spaciousness, ambiance, hospitality, and the staff’s desire to make you feel welcome and at home. The only difference among them is the locale, which is why we stayed at all three.

Franschhoek Hotel

The Last Word Franschhoek 2015 (91)

In the heart of wine country, with amazing vineyards in Franschhoek and nearby Stellenbosch, this hotel consists of 10 rooms (including 2 pool suites), and is in the heart of the city. The hotel reflects its Huguenot heritage, and has been a consecutive finalist in the World Travel Awards for South Africa’s Leading Boutique Hotel.

Constantia Hotel

Constania

Here is how I described this property in TripAdvisor. It is in a Cape Town suburb and near to sites like Cape Point, Victoria & Albert Waterfront, a penguin reserve, and more.

“All the boutique hotels in The Last Word group are magnificent and special. But, this property was outstanding. The grounds, the rooms, the overall ambiance, and the helpfulness of the staff were just terrific. The setting is not to be believed and a joy to come back to after a hard day of sightseeing.”

Long Beach Hotel

The Last Word Long Beach 2015 (20)This was a wonderful way to relax and unwind on this beach property, which is exactly how we ended our trip. Each of the 6 rooms overlooks the beach and ocean. In fact, you go directly on to the beach from the hotel. It turns out this was the first of three properties and started as a B&B in Peter’s home.

Long Beach

* **

The worlds of spirits/wine and hospitality have much in common. Both thrive on product excellence and innovativeness. And, selling entertainment in a bottle is not all that different than selling entertainment in an experience.

By the way, an outstanding breakfast, wifi and premium spirits and fabulous South African wines are included.

The Last Word locations
The Last Word locations
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Cops and Robbers

A most unusual brand-building agency

In my last posting about Bom Bom, an exciting new product in the cream liqueur category, I mentioned Cops and Robbers as the agency that developed the concept, branding and product strategy.

The agency name is a playful approach to duality and a kind of yin yang thinking whereby two opposite and conflicting forces are actually connected. In the case of Cops and Robbers the duality is the balance between insights and creativity, between strategy and creativity. It also reflects the two founders, Patricia Verdolino and Richie Beretta, who come at branding projects from different standpoints but whose output becomes a sharp strategic blend.

image-1Born and raised in Queens, New York, Patricia and Richie studied design, but most of their influences, inspiration, and approach to working with brands come from a combination of their cultural and musical backgrounds. They met when Patricia was a vocalist in the Metro Stylee group (I bet you’re gonna Google it) and Richie was a producer. Turns out they grew up in the same neighborhood.

Richie is still very much involved in music and he is the design and creativity side of the practice. Patricia is the strategic, insights and innovation side. She has worked at a number of well known and high profile agencies such as Landor, Future Brands, and Anomaly.

What makes them special?

When I was first introduced to them, they had done some work for a leading beverage company and my friend there described them as particularly unique at translating insights into strategies and action. She went on to say, “They understand the consumer and culture better than the large bureaucratic agencies and translate this understanding into innovation…true innovation, not copy cat.”

Here’s how they put it on their website:

Tired of being handcuffed to traditional agency models and deliverables they have formed Cops & Robbers, a multidisciplinary agency that’s part think tank part creative studio where collaboration, music, art, strategy, production, and design seamlessly merge for fully integrated brand solutions.

The Bom Bom Case Study

Kevin Mowers (founder of Liquid Innovations and Bom Bom) had an incredible cream liqueur that, in his view and others, coco-mochanutwas superior to Rumchata and Bailey’s. So check the box marked the liquid is great. But, who is the target market? What’s the brand? How do we appeal to them? What packaging should be used?

Cops and Robbers were given the brand development assignment and went about it in both a traditional and unorthodox manner.

They identified the millennial consumer but focused in on the 21 to 31 year old women. More than that, based on their insight work, they sharpened the focus on a particular segment of that group with a definable set of cultural and life style values. From what I’ve seen (and in the spirit of confidentiality) all I can say is they more than painted a picture of these consumers – they all but came alive in their presentation. Insightful, clear, and concise.

When they focused in on Bom Bom they covered the brand’s territory in terms of community, motivation, occasion, brand ‘friends,’ signature drink, flavor profile, motto and inspiration. The result was more than a roadmap; it was a travel guide.

Inspiration
Inspiration

The inspiration aspect is worth focusing on. Some people have looked at the Bom Bom packaging and told me either they “don’t get it” or “I’m not sure about it.” But hold on. If one of the consumer calls to action is to “release your inner kid,” then this works well.

Further, the design inspiration came from the contemporary fashion look inspired by Jeremy Scott, Pharrell Williams (BBC Ice Cream) and Moschino. It’s designed with the target audience in mind.

With the permission of Cops and Robbers, here is an excerpt from their presentation that sums up the brand and it’s marketing components:

BOM BOM is a part of a shift in spirits that’s not ashamed to break the serious rules of the game and just have some adult fun. Yeah, maybe that means acting irreverent like an anti-grown up and accepting that you really don’t give a (bleep) anyway. Boring is the enemy. BOM BOM is the cure.

Keep your eye on Bom Bom when it enters the market in early 2016. And, for that matter also keep your eye on Cops and Robbers. They are both going places.

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Built in Brooklyn

A truly hand crafted, small batch vodka. The best you ever tasted.

In a part of Brooklyn’s Sunset Park area is a 6 million square foot manufacturing district known as Industry City. This is the home of Industry City Distillery and a very unique product called Industry Standard Vodka.

Industry Standard Vodka
Industry Standard Vodka

A Brooklyn hipster friend well versed in matters of food and drink set me on to it. “You have to try this vodka, it’s unlike any you’ve ever had,” he said. So I bought a bottle and he was right. Not only was it sensational in a cocktail but also it’s also great sipping vodka.

What makes it unique?

Well, just about everything. But, even after a number of visits to the distillery and lots of conversations with the team running it, I’m not sure I can explain the uniqueness of their process. No matter how many times I read their description I think I get it but not really. Here is how they describe themselves on a sell sheet:

At New York City’s only vodka distillery, we build everything for our beet sugar vodka from scratch – from bio-reactors (glass continuous fermentation vessels) housing rare house-grown French sugar beet yeast, to ultra high separation batch fractional reflux still. Utilizing a uniquely precise distillation method, we take 30 cuts off of the still rather than the usual 3! The cuts are then rigorously tasted and the best notes are selectively blended together, allowing for exceptional control over the final taste, aroma and texture of the final product. Because of the care and precision of this process, Industry Standard Vodka has no need for any carbon filtration and is entirely free of additives, sugars, or modifiers. The result is vodka with a delicate, subtle flavor and unprecedented smoothness.

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Part of the distillery

They usually lose me at the “ultra high separation batch fractional reflux still.” All I can tell you is that they’ve created a new method of distillation and, as a result, it is terrifically smooth vodka that’s best enjoyed straight.

They are also energy efficient and have limited waste so of course they are environmentally friendly. But these aspects also have financial value.

Speaking of which, they are currently distributed in the Metro New York area and have the capacity to ramp up to four times the current production.

The team

On their website and even on their label, they described themselves as “nerds.” I think that’s a self-effacing way of indicating their love of the unique process they are using that combines biology, chemistry, physics and engineering. Every piece of equipment they use is developed by them and built in their own machine shop.

These are the guys you wanted to sit next to during your chemistry final.

The partners are David Kyrejko who is the master distiller and engineer, Zachary Bruner, a distiller and machinist and

The team
The team

Ronak Parikh who handles sales, distribution and operations. Their love of what they are creating is very palpable and their enthusiasm is contagious. They really are reinventing the art of distilling by using rigorous science. Oh, and they develop their own yeast and blend by hand.

Industry City Distillery shares space in Brooklyn’s Industry City with the research, development and support systems located there. Not many distilleries have a laboratory, a machine shop, or a letterpress studio, but their operation wouldn’t exist without them.

Technical reserve

The other product they make is called Technical Reserve. It’s described as the first ever liquor made especially for the spirits craft making market. It’s also 191.2 proof (95.6% ABV) and the highest proof spirit produced in America.

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Technical Reserve

What is it used for? I’m glad you asked. Here’s how they describe it.

We take advantage of our glass ultra high separation distillation system, and create a unique spirit made specifically for the bitters, tinctures, and cocktail craft enthusiast.

This spirit is highly refined to the point of being entirely neutral without any need for charcoal filtering or chemicals. Whether you’re crafting a new bitters or trying to re-create your grandmother’s Limoncello recipe, Technical Reserve’s neutral character and strong proof make it essential to any craft spirits maker’s tool box.

The part about making tinctures with it got me curious. I learned that it’s a medicine made by dissolving a drug in alcohol. Like tincture of iodine.

But, I also learned that weed tincture can be made with it but that’s considered the least popular way of consuming marijuana. Although, one marijuana maven website thinks it’s worthwhile and underrated. My advice is to stick with using it for crafted homemade products. I tasted a gin they made with it and very much enjoyed it.

Friday night tours

You have to see this operation to really appreciate it. So, if you’re in the NYC area, their tasting room is open to the public. Cocktails, nibbles and amazing views of New York Bay every Friday and Saturday from 4 to 10PM, no reservation required. Check their website for details.

Now about that “ultra high separation batch fractional reflux still process,” I think I finally got it.

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