“It became very difficult for me to give my full attention to the business, because my husband needed me more. I didn’t have a contingency plan for what would happen to my business if something were to happen to me,” recalls Kruger, the founder of Tzaneen Country Lodge, a four-star hotel situated in South Africa’s northern Limpopo Province.
Kruger later appointed Lorraine Ntimana – who joined the lodge as a receptionist about 10 years ago – as the general manager.
“When we started the hotel, I was over-protective and was trying to be involved in every little detail. I spent more time at the hotel than at home. I was the first one at the hotel in the morning at 6am and leaving as and when the last guest will go to bed, which was sometimes, especially with weddings, at 2am.
“Now I am slowing down. I let my general manager handle things basically. I know that I am getting better, especially having a team that was handpicked and trained by myself, but I am still very much involved in everyday business and looking out for my guests and staff morale.”
Making the dream a reality
The lodge was launched in 2000 on a piece of dilapidated land next to the Krugers’ property that came up for auction.
“I saw it as an opportunity,” recalls Kruger. She reckoned the proposed hotel’s proximity to the world-famous Kruger National Park, would add to its tourism appeal.
The business started off as a four-room guest house, but within three months expanded into 22 rooms, and then 36. Today the 67-room facility also comprises a wellness and beauty spa, three swimming pools, and a modern conference centre that can accommodate up to 300 people. In 2013, the lodge was awarded the best responsible-tourism business in Africa by industry association SATOA.
Kruger had no formal hospitality training, and taught herself by reading books.
“I also asked questions at any hotels I visited. But I think one of the most important things I did during that period was to look at things from my own point of view, especially how I would like to be treated if I go to a guest house or hotel,” she explains.
There were naysayers. “Many people told me that it would never work, and that there are too many accommodation establishments. But I realised that I must follow my dreams and let my passion speak for itself.”
‘Never easy starting out’
During the early days, Kruger wore many hats in the business, including playing the roles of receptionist, wedding planner, waitress, and housekeeper.
“I think it is never easy starting out as an entrepreneur. The first problem we faced was financing the business. However, what I did was to ensure that all the money coming in was invested back into the business. I didn’t spend the money on myself or any personal stuff.
“Another challenge we faced at the beginning was the number of hours dedicated to running the business daily. When we started, we had a pub which was managed by my husband. He was my backup. I could always call on him and trouble him with a difficult case. Now, we have grown so much and we have staff in place that can handle different aspects of the business. It just took time to get there.”
However, she says her biggest battle in the business is getting employees “to buy into the vision and keeping them”.
“This is a huge problem in South Africa. There are lots of people who come and go because they don’t have proper training. Another problem I have realised is that you employ people who have a different skill entirely from what you hire them for. For example, there is this person in my staff that has a passion for bookkeeping but he is only a waiter in the restaurant.”
In the future, Kruger hopes to start a hospitality school that will address these challenges. “I have realised how difficult it is to hire the right person for the right job. For me there is a huge opportunity in Africa to work on skills development. I want to get young people engaged in their passion. That will be a huge achievement to fulfil my own passion, which is to make a lot of small differences in such a way to leave a huge legacy.”