Out of Africa: The end of a journey

As I prepare to leave my beloved Africa at the end of a lifelong journey of globetrotting adventures in the hospitality business, I recall how it all began for me as a 21-year-old chef shipping out to Nairobi, Kenya, in the summer of 1977 with a battered old suitcase full of shiny new Swiss chef’s knives, several sets of well-starched chef’s whites, two pairs of clogs (Crocs’ Dutch predecessor), a brand-new copy of Larousse Gastronomique, several bottles of mosquito repellent and a pocket full of dreams. 

Now, at the end of that fantastic journey, and a career spanning more than 45 years, during which time I have cooked for, served and accommodated kings and queens, dukes and duchesses, princes and pop stars, I am heading home to spend a year mentoring my youngest son, John, before he begins his own hospitality adventure in 2018, at which time he will commence a four-year hospitality/hotel management course in Switzerland, as a prelude to what will hopefully be the beginning of his own long and satisfying lifetime of service.  

I have written about John in previous posts and had often wondered if he would follow me into “The Business” given the unusual fact that he was actually born in a hotel. So now, as he approaches his 18th birthday, I am very pleased, and very proud that he has chosen a career that will provide him with the opportunity to travel around the world, and to meet, greet, seat and serve hundreds of thousands of guests, as I have done, while encountering and embracing new cultures, customs and cuisines in amazing destinations, which for me, included London, Paris, Nairobi, Abuja, Lagos, Shanghai, Hua-Hin, Bangkok, Bombay, Bahrain, Seoul, Dubai, Riyadh, Karachi, Ko Samui, and many more interesting ports of call along the way.

John spent the first few years of his life living with us in beautiful hotels in Bangkok, Seoul, Dubai and Riyadh, so he has a head start on his hotel school classmates in terms of “real life hotel experiences,” and quite naturally, he is a pretty good cook, so we are confident he will do well in the kitchen and classroom, and perhaps eventually, in the boardroom.

During my last vacation at home with the family in Bangkok, John asked me what I remembered most from all the conversations I have had with my “famous” guests, and whether any of these comments might be useful to him as a future leader and developer of people, processes, products, prices and profits. 

In reply, I showed him an image of me sitting with Nelson Mandela in my office at the newly opened Glasgow Hilton in 1993, at which time I told Mr. Mandela that I had recently returned from a two-year posting at the Iconic Nicon Noga Hilton Abuja, where I had learned and applied some valuable lessons about the need to respect, appreciate and honour your co-workers, because without their support and indeed their loyalty, we will always struggle.

Of course Mr. Mandela knew a thing or two about struggle, having been incarcerated for much of his life, so he agreed wholeheartedly and said, “Gordon, if you have loyal supporters, and good people who believe in you and in your struggle, then you have already won half the battle, but the outcome of the other half of the battle will depend on how you treat them.” Powerful words indeed, from a truly great and humble man that have guided me along the path to success, and to great personal satisfaction and happiness since that memorable day in Glasgow many years ago.  

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela

During my most recent African adventure here in Lagos, I was honoured to welcome to our hotel, H.R.H the Duke of Kent, who, when asked by me why he seemed to visit Africa more than any other continent, quoted David Livingstone, the “other great Scottish explorer,” who replied to the very same question by saying, “I consider it a privilege.” 

And I feel the same way, having lived and worked here in Africa for 13 years, the Kingdoms of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia for six years, Thailand, Korea and China for seven years, and in Pakistan for six years, during which time I developed a deep respect for all my hospitable brothers and sisters engaged in their own country’s hotel and catering industries. 

The Duke of Kent
The Duke of Kent

When meeting and greeting my second African Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s, and arguably Africa’s, greatest living playwright during a recent stay with us, I asked him for his thoughts on what makes a hotel, and indeed an hotelier stand out from the crowd, to which he replied, “To be truly appreciated, a fine property such as this must display a true and accurate sense of place, and its leader must display a real passion for that place.”

“Whether it’s a hotel in Glasgow, Bangkok or Lagos, the architect, designer, owner and manager must always do their utmost to bring into the property a sense of local community, local culture and local taste, because by doing so, you will surely engage with and become an integral part of that community whom you serve.”

Words of wisdom indeed for me, and for young John, as I now seek to establish my own “sense of place” at home after so many years of wonderfully enriching encounters such as these.  

Wole Soyinka
Wole Soyinka

And finally, may I ask my colleagues around the world what advice you might give to your sons or daughters when considering a career in hospitality? I say go for it and enjoy the ride, but be prepared for some turbulence along the way as you set out on your journey to discover your very own sense of place, where everything and everyone feels just right, whether it’s in Africa, Australia, America, or Timbuktu. 

God bless, and God speed.