Hospitality operators head east to socialise, strategise

When Zimbabwe’s hospitality operators meet for their congress each year, they head for a leading tourist destination and try to make sure the benefits of a gathering of 100 or more people are felt by as many different local hotels as possible.

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The venue in 2015 was Mutare, where about 100 people registered for the Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe congress, themed, In Search of Hospitality Innovation. The conference itself was centred in the Golden Peacock Villa Hotel, while the hospitality awards banquet was held at the Amber Hotel and pre-conference welcome events were held at Musangano Lodge, near Odzi, and Forest Hills Lodge in the Bvumba mountains.

A gathering like this is half-business and half-social activity — the latter equally important for people who come from all over the country and see each other possibly once or twice a year at most. The conference itself featured speakers like Tourism and Hospitality minister Walter Mzembi, Marketers Association of Zimbabwe founder and director Gillian Rusike, Air Zimbabwe acting chief executive officer Edmund Makona, outgoing HAZ president Tamuka Macheka and others. William Chatigu, chairman of the newly-established marketing and promotional campaign for the Eastern Highlands Experience (EHE), used the platform to launch EHE, which drew praise from all over the country.

On the business side, George Manyumwa of Rainbow Tourism Group was elected new president of the association, with two new vice-presidents in support — Naomi Size from Gweru and Innocent Manyera of Chinhoyi University of Technology Hotel. There were presentations on the way forward for the hospitality industry and reports were given as to how the industry is faring at the present time.

On the social side, delegates arriving before congress enjoyed a braai lunch at Musangano Lodge — a delightful bush destination on a hill overlooking the hills and valleys around Odzi village — where we were hosted by Leonard Bwanya. Among his many focuses, he is also vice-chairman of EHE.

The welcome party that night was hosted at Forest Hills in the Bvumba, where a welcome dose of cool mountain air delighted everyone, especially at it was immediately preceded by the first rains to fall in the area this season, in a short, sharp storm.

Lunch on both days was in the dining room of Golden Peacock, a hotel built in the past few years with a strong Chinese flavour, from ownership and design style through to culinary infusions. The lunch buffet was good, with a range of very tasty options complemented by some Eastern-style treats.

On the last night, the remaining delegates — about 50 to 60 in number — gathered in the Glow Bar for a Chinese meal, balanced with a braai. I have eaten at Golden Peacock before, and have always been pleased by their Chinese offerings, and have to say the buffets this time for lunch were both well above average; this in contrast to a previous experience about six weeks beforehand of a very plain and inviting buffet. For visitors to Mutare, there is a Chinese restaurant in the city centre, which I have never been to, but which comes highly recommended by Inns of Zimbabwe executive chairman Gordon Addams. On the basis of my experiences at Golden Peacock, I would also heartily recommend a trip out to the hotel for a Chinese lunch or dinner, too. It is situated south of the city centre, just off the road to Chimanimani, Chipinge and Masvingo, and although its fortress-style walls look off-putting, the inside area is attractive and clean and staff are very friendly and welcoming.

A chance to don black tie came with the hospitality awards dinner, always held at congress and an occasion for the association to commend and reward people and organisations excelling in what they do in and for the hospitality industry. This was held in the main banqueting room of the Amber Hotel and was well-attended by delegates and guests, among them former minister of Natural Resources and Tourism, Victoria Chitepo, who was honoured with a silver tray as a thank you for her contribution to the development of the travel and tourism sector back in the 80s.

There was a standing ovation for Meikles Hotel, which a few days earlier celebrated its 100th birthday, and HAZ members toasted the success of the hotel, led by outgoing president Tamuka Macheka. On hand to take the accolade for their colleagues were Tham Mpofu, Tinashe Munjoma and Tandi Tshuma, delighted by recognition from their peers of this remarkable achievement (covered in last week’s The Standard Style).

The Amber has had a number of incarnations: it was originally built in 1974, when it replaced the original Meikles-owned Cecil Hotel on the site right next door as the new Cecil Hotel. That name was changed in 1980 to the Manica Hotel, by which time it was fully a Zimbabwe Sun hotel. It became Holiday Inn Mutare back in the 1990s, but changed a few years ago to the Amber, still within the African Sun stable. I understand it will change back to a Holiday Inn shortly, linking with the other two Holidays Inns in the country, in Harare and Bulawayo, as part of a division of African Sun.

My first meals in this hotel were in the 70s, when — as a journalist on what was then called The Umtali Post (now The Manica Post) — we would dine in the Vumba Restaurant (where our HAZ banquet was held, now a banqueting and conference room), or in what was first called the Van Riebeeck Room and later became Arches Restaurant, or on the pleasant Terrace, now built over as a casino! The great Kuda Gumbanjera was chef at the hotel in those far-off days and I understand he is now living in the Kwekwe area, though no longer a chef. Managers back then included such stalwarts as Helder Pereira — now resident in the UK after serving as Southern Sun CEO in South Africa for many years — and Barry Pickett, who resides in New Zealand but served Cresta Hotels for many years in the 80s and 90s. Paul Matamisa, now CEO of the Zimbabwe Council for Tourism, was a manager in the mid-80s.

The team at the Amber excelled themselves, and presented a four-course meal that did not disappoint. Starter was a pickled trout and smoked bream duet, served with a lime-flavoured tomato confit. Soup was an extremely delicious mushroom soup, topped with biltong shavings and served as in a cappuccino cup.

Main course offered a choice: one was chicken breast stuffed with cheese and spinach and served with an orange sauce and basmati rice. The other choice, which I selected, was Filet Mignon, and I was delighted the waiter adhered to my call for something less pink than most people like. It was juicy, tasty and served with vegetables and croquette potatoes under a red wine and berry sauce. The chicken eaters seemed somewhat jealous of my choice, though feedback on the dish was positive.

Dessert was choice between a pina colada-flavoured fruit salad or — my choice — a panacotta on sponge served with a mango sorbet. The panacotta was flavoured with rooibos, which gave it a tartness that added to the pleasure. Wines at the dinner were very kindly sponsored by African Distillers, whose Eastern Districts regional manager, the very personable Martin Nyaundi, was present to chat and help. He is a great asset for Afdis and is very popular with hospitalty operators in the area.

Speeches were few, as they should be at a gala event, and the main focus after the meal was on the awards. Edwin Shangwa, CEO of African Sun won the prestigious Hospitali Award, given to recognise many years of behind-the-scenes efforts on behalf not only of his company, but the industry as a whole.

Kanondo Lodges at Victoria Falls won the Creewel Plate of Excellence, while Charlton Chimbira, now general of Troutbeck Resort, was awarded the David Geddes Trophy for young host of the year — given annually, if deserved, to someone under 40. Susan Makadza of Masvingo won the Eric Chademana Award for SME of the year, while Meikles Hotel’s Jacqueline Fleming — a 43-year veteran of the hotel — was awarded the Charles Bvunzawabaya Award for a female operator who has excelled.

The Zimbabwe Chefs’ Association trophy was awarded to Rainbow Tourism Group chef Peter Nyagato, recognising his contribution to culinary development, while Shupai Marware, also of RTG, won the HAZ President’s Special Award in recognition of his marketing initiatives this past year.

A great many sponsors made this congress happen and there are too many to include here, but suffice to say that they were heartily thanked and applauded at the event and their efforts should always be commended.

One of the disappointments of congress this year was the failure to get under way a trip to Mozambique, to enjoy lunch at Casa Musika, on the shores of Chicamba Dam and about 40 minutes from Forbes Border Post. HAZ achieved this back in 2001, and had previously done something similar in the 1990s with a trip over to Zambia when congress took place at Kariba. I understand it was transport that was the problem for this, although the authorities had cleared the way for swift cross-border formalities for the party.

It was a chance once again to recognise the value of Mutare as a venue for conferences and leisure travel. Prices in the area are lower than for many years and it’s a great time to visit, with everything greening up with the rains. The problem road into the Bvumba is being sorted out – thanks to efforts by Gordon Addams and the team in the Eastern Highlands Experience, as well as from Leopard Rock’s Samir Sasha. It is essential for all the roads in the Eastern Highlands to be attended to, so I hope the relevant authorities reading this will get into quick action. After all, would this not be a good direction for the money being earned at the many tool gates around the country?

HAZ may have a surprise in store for its members in 2016. In line with what a lot of regional associations are doing, HAZ is looking at the possibility of an over-the-border congress for the first time… something innovative, stemming from their theme this year. So, look out Botswana, Mozambique, Zambia or South Africa… here comes HAZ.

The Eastern Highlands is a leading destination, with the city of Mutare in the centre and the Nyanga mountains to the north — along with the beautiful Odzani-Penhalong area — and with the Chimanimani mountains to the south and the Bvumba mountains south-east of the city. There’s something for everyone and in the Bvumba there’s the world-famous Tony’s Coffee Shop. Get to the Eastern Highlands as soon as you can.

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