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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Chivas Regal and Hollywood Friends

Lauren Bacall, Gregory Peck and Frank Sinatra

Back in the day when Seagram was alive and well, there were many sponsored events, particularly when Universal-MCA was in the picture. It Chivaswas not unusual, therefore, for the company to be front and center, underwriting the event (or parts of it) in exchange for publicity and press. In addition to the “Step and Repeat” backdrop, the sponsoring brand received widespread exposure and linkage to celebrities.

Some events were strictly sponsorship (e.g., Crown Royal and the Rodeo) and many were charity events that a particular brand supported and even underwrote.

I’d like to tell you the story about one such charity event that involved Lauren Bacall.

The Event

It was in the late 1990s, and the Design Industries Foundation Fighting Aids (DIFFA) and the Motion Picture & Television Fund (MPTF) organized the fundraising dinner. Since it was held at the Cipriani in lower Manhattan, you can be sure it was way beyond a rubber chicken dinner. Chivas was the sponsor and other Seagram spirits and wines were served.

Based on the cause and the Universal-MCA connection, the attendees were all ‘A’ list. I remember stars of stage, screen and the fashion world in attendance, including Lauren Bacall, Michael Douglas, Richard Gere, Vera Wang, to name a few. It must have been a harrowing experience to organize and execute the event and photo shoots. But the Seagram corporate PR folks, led by Karin Timpone, had it under control.

The Request

Lauren Bacall
Lauren Bacall

I wish I could find the photo that included yours truly, Lauren Bacall, and a number of others, whose names escape me. But, trust me when I say it was a hoot to pose with the legendary Ms. Bacall, a Tony and Golden Globe winner as well as Academy award nominee. I’m guessing that she must have been in her late 70s at the time and still extraordinarily classy and  impressive. I’m not particularly star struck but, come on, she starred with (and was married to) Humphrey Bogart, was in films with Kirk Douglas, Gary Cooper and, all in all, an icon of theatre and film.

Lauren Bacall and Gregory Peck in Designing Woman
Lauren Bacall and Gregory Peck in Designing Woman

 

The photo shoot ended. I thanked her for coming, for the opportunity to pose with her and expressed gratitude on behalf of Chivas Regal. Her response was a courtly nod and she said, “I like Chivas Regal, can I get some sent to my home?” “Of course Ms. Bacall” I replied and asked Karin to have someone arrange for a case of Chivas to be delivered to her.

I no sooner got the words out when she said, “You know, my friend Gregory Peck also likes Chivas Regal, can you get a case to him in Palm Springs?” Gregory Peck? Holy cow, her co-star in the film Designing Woman and among my favorite actors. I couldn’t get these words out fast enough either – “Certainly… absolutely… we’ll take care of it.” She thanked me and the session was over.

The Aftermath

I totally forgot about the incident. Sometime later in the spring of 1998, I received this letter from Gregory Peck:

Dear Arthur,

Our thanks for the beautiful gift of a case of Chivas Regal. I am a great admirer of this beverage.

Contrary to popular belief, our friend Frank Sinatra did not partake exclusively of Jack Daniel’s. In his desert retreat, he sometimes joined me in a Chivas and Perrier, with perhaps a lemon twist, or a dash of bitters.

With appreciation and best regards,

(Signed)

Gregory Peck. 

The letter was dated May 26, 1998 and Frank Sinatra died on May 14, 1998 hence, the reference to Sinatra.

But, I was puzzled. Did Lauren Bacall get her case of Chivas? I was assured that it had been delivered but no acknowledgment was received. Oh well, that’s show business. I didn’t give it another thought.

Frank Sinatra, Barbara Sinatra and Gregory Peck
Frank Sinatra, Barbara Sinatra and Gregory Peck

That is, until a few months later.

I was having lunch with a good friend and principal of an ad agency. I told him the story and my thrill at the Gregory Peck note and surprise at the lack of response from Lauren Bacall. He laughed and said that he had an interesting comparable experience to share.

It turns out that his agency had hired her to be the voiceover for a cat food commercial. It was undoubtedly a 7-figure deal. After the day’s shoot she told a production assistant that she’d like to have a case of cat food sent to her home. The agency decided to send a case of each of the varieties, perhaps 3 or 4 cases of cat food.

“Did you hear back from her?” I asked.

“Nope, not a word… and here’s the strange part… we found out she doesn’t even own a cat.”

But I bet she drank the Chivas Regal.

(Thanks to Karin Timpone for refreshing my memory.)

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Follow up: The Captain Morgan Story

Things I overlooked

captmorgan label
Lots of different labels over the years. Note the prominence of Puerto Rico as the origin of the rum.

Booze Business is about to become five years old and throughout that time, no story or posting has elicited as much comment as last week. From emails to comments to the Booze Business Facebook Page to LinkedIn, the story has generated interest, memories and opinions.

Some of the feedback pointed out a few aspects that I missed. So, here are some additional elements to the story.

The People Behind the Brand

I referenced Alan Feldman and Sam Ellias, partly because of their role in launching the brand and partly because of the insights they provided when I interviewed them. But I didn’t set out to provide a list of all those who made it happen in the beginning. The story was about all the people at Calvert who defied the odds and overcame the negative expectation to make this brand happen.

If I had set out to provide awards or recognition, I certainly would have mentioned Marty Bart and Shelly Katz who ran the company and its sales team. For that matter, I should have mentioned, by name, all the people who worked long and hard in bars and stores. But this was about people collectively rising to an event.

The Legal Aspect

Before Captain Morgan came along the designation for such products by the BATF (the regulatory body at the time) required that if a brand was not “Rum” it had to be designated “Rum Liqueur” or “Flavored Rum.” The development team insisted that the legal folks push the BATF with the “Spiced” designation and to everyone’s surprise it went through. That designation, “Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum”, meant that the flavor description could be used in place of “Flavored.”

Had the new products team backed away, the allure of “Spiced” would not have happened and Captain Morgan would have gone to the Seagram new products graveyard. To their credit, the legal department, despite their misgivings, agreed to try and the rest is history.

So, add interdisciplinary teamwork to the mix.

Peach

I left out an important subplot from the early days of Captain Morgan – a line extension that failed.

Along about the mid 1980s, a new cocktail emerged that swept the country. It was called the Fuzzy Navel and was invented by Ray Foley, a world-class bartender and founder of Bartender Magazine. The key ingredient was DeKuyper Peachtree Schnapps. By about 1985/6 the suggestion was made by the owner to introduce Captain Morgan Peach Rum to capitalize on the Fuzzy Navel phenomenon. Bad idea.

Here was this swashbuckling, rogue pirate who came to life at drink nights in bars with trinkets (plunder) and his famous Morganettes — attractive, sexy and charming. Would this character be seen drinking peach rum? Much less be the purveyor of such a product?

Nevertheless, the owner insisted that this line extension be introduced. I don’t know who it was, but someone mustered up enough courage to suggest a test market before national rollout. To his credit, the owner saw the wisdom in the suggestion and agreed.

Leaving the image issue aside, the product had formulation problems and curdled on shelves in at least one market, Indiana.

Good thing it failed. It meant that ridiculous line extensions could wait for the current owner.

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