One of our family’s favourite luxury holiday destinations has been Mount Grace. My father was a friend of the founder, and so I have known about this hotel literally since attending its opening many years ago. Before our youngest child came, Mount Grace Easter breakaways were a favourite – as children (not normally allowed at the hotel) were catered for spectacularly. This was the hotel I took my wife to on our first “parents only” night away after the birth of our first child. And, as a professional conference speaker and facilitator, I have been a day and overnight conference guest at the hotel many times. A Sunday drive was well worth it – the buffet lunch the stuff of legends. We’ve also made use of the Spa on stay overs and day trips. Sure, they know how to charge for this luxury and reputation, but it has always been well worth it. And so, it was with great anticipation that my family and I (with in-laws in tow) set off for Mount Grace Country Hotel and Spa for an Easter weekend getaway!
Our expectations were rudely shattered. Short version: we shall not be going back to Mount Grace anytime soon! What a disappointing and shocking weekend we’ve had!
You can read the gory details below, if you’re the type of person who tends to slow down to rubberneck at car crashes on the side of the highway. But, for casual readers of this blog, let me start this piece by giving you the lessons that can be learned.

  • The hotel was recently taken over by a new company. They have clearly lost key staff. But when you take over an existing brand, you should be absolutely sure that systems are in place, that you know what these systems are, that you have the staff to back you up, and that you have a proper transitional process and knowledge continuity plan in place. This has clearly not happened at Mount Grace, as systems have almost entirely collapsed and staff are undertrained. What a waste of such a good brand (I shudder to think what was paid in goodwill, and how much of that payment has already been lost!)
  • “The Luxury Touch” is what distinguishes the truly great from the also rans at this end of the market – see the previous blog entry for four things that must be maintained in order to ensure the luxury touch is always there.
  • When a problem occurs, admit it, and ask the simple question: “what can we do to make this right?” Apologies are one thing, but when they come from a junior manager, who’s obvious role is to just stand there and take your abuse with an appropriately sad looking face, they are meaningless. When a customer indicates they’ve had a bad experience, agreeing with them, but obviously not having any intent to resolve the issue just serves to inflame the customer even more.
  • It takes a team – it was obvious that there were certain staff members who knew that the systems were collapsing and were incredibly frustrated at the rest of the team who were messing things up. This is understandable, but should not be allowed to come into the client space. It showed distinct low morale amongst the competent staff. It would not surprise me if Mount Grace lost even more of its talent very soon. So sadly, as always, its likely to get worse before it gets better.
  • Communication is the basis of all teamwork. The most basic error made over our weekend was a breakdown in communication between different people, and different departments. Some were actually hilarious in their magnitude – read below for some of the howlers. A lot of our frustration could have been avoided by simple communication between staff.
  • Leadership required. Ultimately this was a lack of leadership/management. We left detailed written comments for management, and I will be interested to see if they respond. BREAKING NEWS: AS I WRITE THIS, I HAVE JUST RECEIVED A PHONE CALL FROM THE GENERAL MANAGER. He has said, “No apologies, we dropped the ball. We were overwhelmed, and our new team couldn’t cope.” Well, maybe that accounts for some of what you’ll read below, but not all of it. Anyway, they’ve offered my wife and I a free weekend to attempt to show that the Easter weekend was a once off slip. I suppose I can’t ask for much more, and I really, really hope that they will get it sorted, as I love the venue. When that weekend happens, I will write a follow up to this blog. For now, our story is what our story is…
  • You only get one chance. In the 21st century, with so much consumer choice, your customers will only give you one chance to impress or disappoint them. There’s no need for my family to go back to Mount Grace – there are plenty of other options. And so, we won’t. It costs you about 5 times more to get new customers than it does to retain existing ones. And bad news tends to travel, especially when it comes from people who are perceived as knowledgeable in the field they’re commenting on. So, make sure you know what’s going on with your customers, and keep them in the fold!! HAVING SAID YOU GET ONLY ONE CHANCE, I suppose if you really grovel you can get just one more :-). This is what Mount Grace have now done, and my wife and I will give them another chance. It’s going to cost them the price of a weekend for two, but I suppose that’s ultimately cheaper than losing us forever, and living with the bad press we can create.

Simple lesson: stay away from Mount Grace – at least until they have their systems sorted.
So, now for our story…

It all started badly when we tried to book for our time away over the Internet a few months ago. Clicking on the booking form link took you nowhere. Eventually, after digging around, I got an email address. Sending an email to this address received no response either. Finally, a few weeks later, after unsuccessful attempts, we finally phoned. We were told that they knew the emails weren’t working, and took our booking by phone. There was some fun around faxing, emailing and so on. Maybe we should have read the warning signs then.
On arrival, the carpark was jampacked, with no room to park anywhere, and no-one to assist us to find a space. No porters were available to help take our bags to our room, or even to show us where our room was. We were given a map, a key and a “good luck” from the front desk.
My parents-in-law had taken over a booking that some friends had cancelled some weeks before, but when they arrived at their room, it was set out for our friends’ family, with two sleeper beds for their kids. These were removed fairly quickly by the staff. But, then my parents-in-law discovered to their horror that the bathroom in their room was in a disastrous state. The basin was cracked, the shower falling apart and just generally in a shocking condition. They eventually asked to be moved the following morning after the whole bathroom was flooded while they showered. To the hotel’s credit, they moved them immediately into a nice upgrade suite. But, my question is, why did they put someone in that room in the first place? Where was maintenance? It is for this reason that I’m not so sure they just had a “bad weekend”, or that we were caught in the middle of a “perfect storm”.
I won’t bore you with the small things, including the fact that there were no towels at the pool, and no attendant to assist us in finding any. There were, however, four women doing massages for a hefty price at the pool. Normally at Mount Grace, you can hardly move without a waiter trying to offer you something to eat or drink, but this time we watched some day visitors wait over 40 minutes to get service, with 3 different waiters all promising to find someone who could help them, and even a manager getting involved without success. The legendary cake selection at tea time was reduced to shop bought hot cross buns and inedible, stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth shortbread. No-one ever seemed to be manning the tea table. The children’s food was always just that little bit late – which is serious business for parents of 3 kids. And so on. These were small things, but all added up. And I am sure you’re not that interested.
But there were a few fantastic moments….
At breakfast on Saturday, after waiting for more than 10 minutes to be seated at a table we were waved to one by the waiter. The meal descended into chaos – there didn’t seem to be any system at all, as all the waiters ran around looking very busy, but nothing got done. No-one seemed allocated to look after us, and everything we needed, we had to ask for – twice at least – and wait for. We had great fun watching a short, squat gentleman get up and physical hit a tall, lanky waiter on the back to get his attention. Again, I will not go into labourious detail – its not relevant to you, as reader – suffice to say that it was horrific.
My favourite moment came on the second evening. We decided to eat in the Pub, but were told that we were not going to be allowed to, as the kitchen would not do orders when a buffet was being served. This had happened to us at lunch time, as well, and we had confirmed then that we could eat a Pub meal if we took the (excessively expensive) lunch buffet. Anyway, we insisted so much that they let us have a Pub meal. This just smacked of exploitation. Having waited 15 minutes for our waitress to appear after handing us a menu, we eventually caught the eye of a lurking staff member (literally 20 minutes could by at a time between any appearance by any staff member whatsoever in the Pub). We asked her, “what is the linefish?”. She was clearly untrained, and also clearly battled to speak English. Neither are her fault, but her response was brilliant. “Well, err, its a fish.” Clearly our faces told a story, so she continued, putting her hands out in front of her, using her fingers to show something the size of a small half brick, “Its about this size…”. At this point, we couldn’t help it, and between giggles asked her to check what fish it actually was.
That evening’s dessert also descended into chaos, after we asked for two slices of peacan pie, one with ice cream (instead of cream), and the other with nothing. A fairly standard request, you’d think. It took over 45 minutes, 1 manager, 2 waitresses, 4 journeys to look for staff by myself, and 3 returned orders to get that one right… And when the bill finally came, it was completely wrong. Our food (sans peacan pies) and someone else’s drinks.
Another fun moment came with our babysitter, who sat in our room with our sleeping daughters while we went to supper. We had been told that in order for our youngest daughter to attend the children’s functions, she would need a child minder (at the cost of R35 per hour or part thereof). This had never been communicated to us at any time, and was not something we were happy with. We were also not happy to discover that our babysitter (one of the room cleaners by day), who could hardly speak English would be allocated as child minder on Sunday. So, when we paid her on Saturday on our return to the room (something we were later told we shouldn’t have done, as it is “managed” through reception – I wonder how much of the money actually gets to the babysitters if she was prepared to circumvent the system like this?), we told her that we would not be needing her services the following morning. The next day, however, she arrived at the previously scheduled time. We sent her away. 15 minutes later, her manager appeared. We explained the situation – she told us we shouldn’t have paid in cash. She left. 15 minutes later another woman arrived saying she was now a properly designated child minder, and would assist us. We sent her away. But we later discovered she was the switchboard operator, and the child care manager knew nothing of her. Frightening really, since we went there because we wanted a safe place for our children and ourselves to have fun…
When this type of stuff happens, its natural that you start to look for faults. And when you look, you’ll always find, of course. At that point, the hotel would have had to be absolutely excpetional to get us back on side. Unfortunately, this type of incompetence continued all the way until check out, which took nearly 20 minutes!!
All in all, a shocker!!
I’ve since chatted to the manager on the phone, and he apologises and says it was a momentary blip, and that they have everything in order. He’s given us a free weekend (he initially offered just a lunch, which my wife scoffed at). We’ll give them one more chance. Of course, we know they’ll be working extra hard that weekend to impress us (we hope they will anyway), so it won’t be a fair reflection. But, really, last weekend was so bad in every way, that we’ll be able to tell pretty quickly if, in fact, it was just a bad weekend at a great venue, or if a change in management and ownership has brought about the collapse of a legend.
I’ll let you know….

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