Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was the first “long-stay guest” of the island of St. Helena, on the “invitation” of the British government. The deposed emperor checked in on 18 June 1815 and never left the island, located in the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 2,000 km west of Namibia.
On my last visit to South Africa, I had the pleasure of meeting Sipa Mzamo, a graduate of Stenden South Africa’s School of Hospitality Management. Sipa followed Napoleon into “exile” for nine months as a member of the pre-opening team of Mantis St. Helena. In a simulated post-project review, Sipa shares with us the main challenges of opening a hotel in this extreme remote location
Sipa Mzamo at check-in of the Mantis St. Helena
Challenge 1: Scarce resources
“There is no large-scale manufacturing or retail on the island, only local fresh produce and small-scale farming. All construction materials, fixtures, furniture & equipment, hotel operating equipment and supplies, and manpower must be shipped in from the mainland. You can’t hop in your car and pick up a box of coffee mugs at the local Ikea if delivery of your restaurant equipment is late.”
Challenge 2: Logistics
“At the time of opening, the island was accessible via Royal Mail Ship only, a six-day voyage from Cape Town. The ship makes a loop between Cape Town, St. Helena, Ascension Island and London, and docks at St. Helena once every six weeks only… Shipment of all FF&E and hotel operating equipment from South Africa, Europe and Asia, as well as key personnel, contractors and service providers had to be coordinated based on the departure date of the ship from Cape Town. The opening date was impacted by people missing the boat; this delayed the hotel opening.”
Challenge 3: Termites
“St. Helena has a history with termites, eating into any type of wood, disintegrating furniture and doors within in mere weeks. Iroko (chorophora excelsa) is the only type of termite-resistant wood. This constraint put a strain on sourcing, delivery, shipping and installation.”
The lobby, with an iroko wood floor to stave off the island’s voracious termites
Challenge 4: Local culture
“There is a strong local island culture with a different work mentality, and a clear leisure and family time priority, which eats into productivity. One needs to figure out and adapt to different working styles and get local buy-in. That includes bridging the local British and French, as well as expatriate subcultures, and being able to cross-communicate and relate to, but not belong to, any group in particular.”
Challenge 5: Remoteness
“Assignment on St. Helena affects one emotionally, in terms of remoteness and isolation. The best way to describe it is a ‘Cast Away’ feeling. Because of access by Royal Mail boat only, team members could not go on R&R. The island is 122.5 square km, with contrasting landscapes ranging from arid desert, tropical rain forest, black sand beaches (because of a non-active volcano) and great reefs. To combat the feeling of isolation and loneliness, you have to become part of the community and be social, and take up hiking and scuba diving. St. Helena is one of the few spots where you can swim freely with whale sharks.”
“A whale watching trip had to be canceled and the project was stopped because two construction workers had gotten into a brawl. This was a first on the island, which is very peaceful. The incident made the local news!”
“At dinner parties, you have to bring something. It was very common for two or three people to bring the same wine or dessert due to scarce resources.”
“Tungi is local moonshine is made from fermented cactus, then distilled. It’s like tequila and has a kick to it. There are century-old anecdotes around tungi, and it is rumoured to give hallucinations if consumed at mid-day.”
In the meantime, the airport has been built, and four weeks after the hotel opened, regular flight operations started. The flight takes six hours from Johannesburg, with refueling in Windhoek, Namibia, in case the plane cannot land due to poor visibility on the island. The Royal Mail boat was discontinued. Sipa has meanwhile left the island and currently works as support project manager – Africa for a South Africa-based limited service hotel developer.
Well done, Sipa, and thank you for sharing! Not many of us can claim to have been part of such an extreme remote and unique opening experience!
Happy hotel openings!
Sipa on the black volcanic sand beach of St. Helena