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’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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.