When you manage a hotel that is a train on a bridge in Kruger, dreaming up crazy ideas are the norm

2019-08-09 12:00
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The value of the tourism industry is often overlooked. 

While hundreds of thousands of tourists travelling across the incredible urban and wild spaces of South Africa - the industry supports a fair amount of indirect employment, as much as 1.53 million jobs are supported by tourism currently, according to Gillian Saunders, an Independent Tourism and Hospitality Adviser - and "around 800 000, through the multiplier effect,” she says. 

Saunders detailed the potential of the industry in a recent column featured on Tourism Update saying, “Tourism is an amazing industry. It is one in which you can still enter unskilled at the bottom, and make it to the top. There are many stories of cleaners, rangers, bar staff, and the like making it to lodge owner, hotel general manager, restaurant owner etc.  Motivated people can make it to the top with no formal qualifications,” says Saunders.

One such woman is Judiet Barnes, the General Manager for Kruger Shalati: Train on a bridge, and Marketing Manager for Thebe Tourism Group. 

She has learned to juggle a busy travel schedule with family life and most importantly that you're never too important to get your hands dirty. 

This is her story... 

PICS: The new luxury train hotel on Kruger's Selati Bridge will make your jaw drop

train accommodation on selati bridge over sabie ri

Q: Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

The great metropolis of Middelburg, Mpumalanga. Moved to JHB after school where I studied and lived for 10 years, moved to Cape Town in 2010 for nearly 9 years, and been in Skukuza for a year now.

Q: Which women do you admire the most?

Jacinda Arden (NZ Prime Minister); Michelle Obama; Maya Angelou.

Q: When did you start in hospitality? 

This is the first stint in hospitality specific – I’ve been on the Kruger Shalati project since 2016, but I’ve been tourism since 2011.

Q: How did your career grow from there? 

I started as marketing manager in the tourism sector, with Cape Point being one of the primary businesses I focused on at that stage.

Pretty soon I discovered my love for people and creating the best guest experience one could, while making a destination relevant to its visitors by giving it context.

During this process I started getting involved in business development and given the opportunity to visit many different sites and carte blanche to dream up some crazy ideas in what could make a product stand out and become a desirable destination.

Most of these are simply concepts at this stage which I am really hoping could become reality in the future, the one I worked on from tender stage is in the process of becoming a reality which has given me the opportunity to oversee the concession on which the products are located – I am honestly living the dream right now.

Q: How has your family supported this journey of yours?

Absolutely. I couldn’t have asked for better support. My kids have adapted beautifully to the environment in Skukuza where we are now based, and my husband has made many changes to help give me this opportunity. I will forever be grateful for their support during this process.

Q: How do you juggle career and family?

I believe in flexibility on both sides. There are times when I am more career focused, and other times when the family needs me more, but it is about finding the balance.

I will be absolutely honest and say it is tough at times, especially when I travel a lot and I’m absent at home. Although I personally still battle with this and question myself daily, I have learned to accept the help where I can –that I don’t always have to be everything for everyone, but I can be the best I can be where it matters. I try not to miss the big things nor sweat the small things.

My kids come first above all else, and while it’s easy to often slip up on this, I am reminded to be present and fully attentive when it’s family time.

On the flip side, career-wise I try to be professional at all times. I work hard and give it my everything at all times. I have a slight obsession with no one ever doubting my commitment or my work ethic, so that drives me in the work-place. I am passionate about what I do and absolutely in love with the exciting journey I am on and sometimes one has to compromise on both sides, but I feel that I am teaching my three daughters that it is absolutely okay to love your family and love what you do – you don’t have to sacrifice the one for the other.

Q: What have you learnt as a manager?

To always find the best person for the job – employ people with more knowledge than yourself where you see the gaps – even if it means they earn more than you. To listen more, take advise from people on all levels and adapt all the time. You are never too important to get your hands dirty – leading means joining the hard work. Be human – we all go through tough times and a little compassion goes a long way

Q: Any advice for other young women?

Find your passion, even if it takes you 30 years to recognise and then build on it. Believe you can do something and put in the hours to achieve it. No one achieves anything by getting it handed on a silver platter, you have to make mistakes, learn from them and grow all the time. Don’t only see your obstacles but figure out way around, over or through them – the saying where there is a will there is a way couldn’t be truer. If you truelly believe you can achieve something you will get there regardless how long it takes. Sure, we all doubt ourselves, but celebrate the small wins whatever they may be. Be hard on yourself and push your limits, but stay kind to your emotions.

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