Tolene van der Merwe is the UK Country Manager for South African Tourism. Claire Roadley caught up with her on behalf of Brand South Africa to find out a bit more about her background and South African Tourism's plans for 2017...
Hi Tolene. Please tell us a bit about your early years to start with...
I grew up in Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape – the 4th oldest town in South Africa and the heart of the great Karoo. My schooling was at Union Schools right from pre-school to Matric and I loved every minute of it.
I grew up with three older brothers and school holidays were spent visiting my grandparents on their farm in Middleburg EC where all I ever did was swim and ride horses. I was at my happiest out in the “veld” with my horse and my cousins. We would spend about 3 or 4 hours out riding, get back for lunch, have a rest and then head out again. We had the fittest horses by the end of the holidays!
When did you - and what inspired you to - move to the UK?
My husband and I moved over to the UK in January 2005 as we decided we needed to gain some international work experience. I had only ever been to the UK for short work trips - so this is where we headed, initially for two years - but as time went by, we grew in our careers and we are still here.
Tell us a bit about your previous jobs in the tourism industry?
I always wanted to work in conservation but back then, women were not really out in the field, so tourism was the next best option - and by default a space opened up at the college in Port Elizabeth. I studied for a year and got a job at Exclusive Getaways in Cape Town where I started as a Girl Friday and worked my way up to Senior Consultant over the five years.
I loved that job and the people - but I wanted to get into sales and marketing and to be "on the road" and meeting people, so when I was offered the role of International Marketing Manager for Lanzerac Hotel in Stellenbosch I took it and worked there for 4 years before coming over to the UK. It was the most beautiful place to work.
Once in the UK I got a role as Product Manager for African Affair and I spent 2 years there before starting my own hotel representation company that I ran for 7 years. When the role for Country Manager at South African Tourism opened up I knew I was ready for it! It was my ultimate dream job – to be representing the country I love dearly and in a position to showcase it to a UK audience.
We were all delighted when you took over at SA Tourism. Can you tell us a bit about your job and what your role entails?
Thank you ☺. I am responsible for the overall marketing and brand management in the UK for South Africa. I manage a team of 6 amazing people. We take our global message and localise it to the UK consumer. We also work closely with the travel trade to help them inspire would be travellers that call up or walk into their local travel agency to sell South Africa as a destination to them and give them to tools to "close the deal" by getting them to book.
Tell us a bit about your team?
I manage the best team! I have Kgomotso Ramothea who is my Marketing Manager and Ana Candido is the Marketing Assistant. All those campaigns you see in the UK such as #FINDYOURWILD in September at South Bank - and all the social media channels – that is what these amazing ladies do. They inspire the traveller.
Nina Farrimond and John Fair are in the Trade Division and they are our face with the UK travel trade, training agents on how to sell South Africa, what we offer and why they should sell us over and above our competitor destination. They close the bookings.
Wiqar Sayed is my Finance Manager who keeps the cogs going - with assistance from Navreet (Reet) Gill who is also my Assistant. Reet is responsible for keeping us happy, travelling and makes sure we are all where we need to be.
What do you love the most about your job?
I get to sell my country. I inspire people to travel. Every person who walks through O.R. Tambo, Cape Town International or King Shaka Airport will spend money in South Africa which maintains and creates jobs. I wake up in the morning knowing that the 407,486 British travellers that went to South Africa in 2015 (we are waiting for final figures for 2016) spent ZAR6,214 billion in the country, which in turn created jobs, boosted the economy and put food on tables of every day South Africans. The figures show that 1 in 25 individuals were directly employed in the tourism sector (4.5% of the total workforce) in 2014 - an increase from 3.8% in 2005 (statssa). Tourism brings foreign spend into the country - but when South Africans visit other countries it also takes currency out - which is why South African Tourism is also focussing heavily on the Sho’t Left domestic campaign, as we want to encourage South Africans to explore the treasures in their own country too.
What are the challenges?
A key challenge in getting the British to travel is their perception of South Africa. As South Africans ourselves we can be the greatest or worst ambassadors for our own country. If we, as the expat community, tell our British friends about the amazing diversity of cultures, the variety of experiences, the scenic beauty and best areas to travel at different times of the year, South Africa will undoubtedly be one of the top destinations out of the UK. Another big challenge is the cost of getting to South Africa on direct flights - but South African Airways often has amazing offers.
We also have British Airways flying from Gatwick to Cape Town three days a week in peak season (in addition to its usual departures from Heathrow to Johannesburg and Cape Town). Thomas Cook Airlines as well, are also putting on one flight a week on from January 2018 from Manchester to Cape Town.
You juggle this very high profile role and a lot of travel with being a wife and Mom. What is your secret? Any tips on getting the right balance?
Sanity and support. I have a wonderfully supportive husband and an amazing South African community near where I live, who jump in to help out with collections etc when I am away. It is important to have a work/life balance so I ensure that I get additional work done whilst travelling on the train to and from the office so that if I need to leave early to collect my son I am not losing work time, but I don’t check my emails whilst I am at home with my family. In true South African style, everyone always pulls together to help out.
What is your favourite part of South Africa?
Oh WOW – this is a tough one as we have so much on offer in our country. In December we went to Knysna and spent two nights there. I have always gone there on work trips for just a night, but having spent two days there I just fell in love with the town all over again. We had gorgeous weather and everyone was so friendly and warm. Johannesburg is another amazing city that has the urban vibe. Having been to Maboneng last year for a quick visit, I can see how our visitors always come back and say, “We need to spend more time in Johannesburg”!
Aside from travel, what are your passions or hobbies?
Horses! I have always loved horses - and growing up, all I wanted was to work with horses. It is where I feel the most at home. I also used to enjoy playing Hockey. It is such a wonderful team sport, but alas, running after a 4 year old is what keeps me busy at the moment.
What achievement are you most proud of?
This role at South African Tourism is my greatest achievement from a career point of view. Watching our arrival figures grow year on year makes those times when I am away from my family more bearable - knowing that each arrival is growing the economy, creating jobs and feeding families.
Personally, apart from my little family being my greatest achievement, finishing the London Marathon is another thing I am very proud of. I never thought I would have been able to do it!
Any exciting programmes that Global South Africans can support or get involved in?
We are busy working on our strategy for 2017/18 in the market. We will be working with Brand South Africa closely to engage with Global SAFFAS. We want our expats to be our biggest tourism ambassadors - to help us get our positive messages across to potential travellers. Highlight to potential tourists the amazing the value for money, the variety of experiences on offer - and share with them that South Africans are in fact the warmest and friendliest people out there. We are happy to teach you how to promote your home country and to learn more about what there is to do - so that hopefully next time you go home to visit friends and family - you too will go and experience some of these attractions first-hand.
What is the one element about being South African or about South Africa that has shaped who you are today?
Family values – I think as South Africans we have grown up in a society where family is everything. It taught me to respect my elders, to be graceful in defeat (perhaps not so much in Rugby though ☺ ), to fight for the rights of those oppressed and to work hard to get where you want to be. South Africa has been through so much. If as a nation we believe in the words of Madiba,that I love, “The greatest glory in living, lies not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail” and the most vital one is “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” we will grow in the way Madiba envisioned.
What would you like to see Global SA’s doing to contribute to tourism back home? Or what is your message for them?
Take your love for South Africa and its people and share it with anyone who will listen. Tell them to visit the country, tell them what they can see, experience and that they will leave the country wanting more. Be our ambassadors to break down the barriers and perceptions the international traveller has about South Africa. Without you as brand ambassadors supporting the work we do and the money we spend in the UK to promote the destination, it will take longer to create more jobs, ease poverty and build dreams for those back home.
For more information visit SA Tourism's website
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