A five-star hotel the quality of the service is as much a part of the experience as the fabulous facilities and décor.That ’s why I was surprised when the young man taking my drinks order at the Houghton Hotel in Johannesburg wasn’t familiar with a Steelworks. I discovered why later. Almost 10% of the staff here are trainees, probably in their first job and with no previous hospitality coaching. The hotel’s CEO, Arnold Forman, cares enormously if the guests have any reason to co mp l a i n . But he cares even more about giving township youngsters a chance to carve out a career and become economically independent.
High-spending guests don’t expect to interact with staff fresh from township schools without any five-star finesse, and there have been minor mishaps, he admits. “Obviously from a brand perspective it has its repercussions. It’s a risk, because you haven’t gone to hotel school, you’re not polished, you’re coming here straight off the streets and we’re giving them an opportunity. So I could damage my brand by bringing in youth that aren’t trained. But if you don’t give these kids a job, how are they going to get the experience to help them get a job going forward ?
The hotel tries to educate its guests on how it’s doing its bit for society and some guests adore the youngsters. Others have given critical reviews, but as the first year draws to a close, the Houghton Hotel Academy will soon welcome its second batch of 20 novices.
The Houghton Hotel was voted Africa’s Leading New Hotel in 2020 in the World Travel Awards and the Best Hotel in SA 2020 in SA’s Finest, a publication of The Tourism and Hospitality Counsel. So it has a lot to lose, but its industry-leading internship scheme seems more likely to enhance its reputation than tarnish it. The move was inevitable, given Forman’s background. The scheme is run in partnership with Afrika Tikkun, a nongovernment organisation founded by Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris and philanthropist Bertie Lubner to mend a society broken by apartheid. Forman, CEO of the Lubner family’s investment business, was also brought on board.
Afrika Tikkun has grown to offer cradle-to-career support, at crèches and centres where children can get a meal, do sport, use computer labs and join vocational training. Its Afrika Tikkun Services unit focuses on skills training, because what will happen to SA if its most energetic and productive generations sit at home bored, frustrated and aimless? Forman asks. In the intervening years, his own career had taken a twist. The Lubners were involved in the Houghton, a development of elite apartments and a hotel that tanked in the 2009 financial crisis.