At historic hotel, ‘shutdown’ means security, skeleton crew

GOSTELOW REPORT—“When a hotel like this shuts, it needs constant attention, plus it is amazing how the dust piles up in such a historic building,” says Xavier Lablaude, general manager of the 121-year old Belmond Mount Nelson in Cape Town, South Africa.

The world-famous all-pink “Nellie,” which sits on 7 acres of gorgeous rolling grounds, has a history that dates back to 1795, though the main, four-floor block is only from 1899. The 198 bedrooms stretch over other small blocks, and in individual two-floor cottages in terraces that were once public streets with such very English names as Green Park and Sydenham.

Xavier Lablaude in the gorgeous gardens of Belmond Mount Nelson
Xavier Lablaude in the gorgeous gardens of Belmond Mount Nelson

What are some of the challenges in maintaining such a complex? Bedrooms’ water supply is via class-0 pipes, and their direction-change units are constantly leaking. On drainage, fittings lead first into PVC pipes and then cast iron, and often subsequently into contact with deteriorated clay municipal piping.

And with South Africa’s recurring load-shedding, hotel generators must be meticulously maintained: Main switch room cables dating back to the 1950s have fortunately been replaced recently, but all circular breakers and distribution boards must be monitored. On top of it all, original roof tiles are no longer available: Today’s substitutes must be sprayed three times with a protective film.

Since the Belmond-owned hotel went into lockdown on March 25, Lablaude has retained a skeleton crew of 35.

“Because of the size of the property and because of the destination, we need a security team of 19, which includes two dog handlers. We also have two gardeners, three technical staff, three in housekeeping, one laundry man and three cooks to look after all the others,” he explained, adding that there is actually one guest, a Russian manager of Belmond’s Grand Hotel Europe, St. Petersburg, Russia, stranded when all airlift ceased.

The rest of the 268-strong Mount Nelson team are taking all their 2020 vacation time now. Knowing that his line staff are not completely computer-literate but do all have cellphones inspires Lablaude to send two SMS messages every week keeping them up to date. He also does a daily 10 a.m. Google Hangouts meeting with heads of departments. As Belmond’s area manager for Southern Africa, he must, in addition, keep in touch with managers at the company’s three safari lodges in Botswana.

“My program also includes twice-weekly Google Hangout updates, and virtual social hours, with local colleagues, including the GM of Ellerman House, who like me lives on site, and others, who are isolating at their homes.”

Xavier Lablaude, who was born in the Normandy region of France, and his wife, who is from Paris, live in one of the terrace cottages.

“We are isolating with our younger daughter — the other is back in Paris — but we have the hotel’s gym right next to us, and we have all these gorgeous grounds for exercise, plus food markets within a few minutes’ walk,” he said.

South Africa’s lockdown recently was extended to the end of April. Belmond Mount Nelson is working on various scenarios for re-opening, depending on access to the destination.

“Everybody wants to re-open but realistically we need to wait for airlift. Whenever, we can re-open very quickly. Once the pastry chefs get going we can be back to offering The Nellie’s world-famous afternoon teas at a day’s notice. We can have some bedrooms open in under a week — having seven different accommodation blocks will facilitate partial opening, and social distancing will not be a problem.”