Inheriting a passion for hospitality

Luxury lifestyle and travel writer Brian Berkman discovers that values instilled by hotelier parents are distilled and amplified in their children

Oude_Werf_Hotel_Pool.jpg

In January this year the long life of one of South Africa’s hotel industry great family matriarchs came to an end. Kitty Petousis was 92 and died, as she had lived, independent and headstrong to the last.

Although their three hotels, the Vineyard, Oude Werf and Townhouse, are all luxury properties and of historic importance, their founders Francois and Kitty Petousis and children George, Adam, Riri and Lex, who continue to run the business, are unexpectedly down to earth and without snobbery.

“Kitty used to make and mend her own clothes”, son Lex and CEO of the hotel group tells me over a Single Estate coffee at the newly launched Long Cafe’ at the Vineyard—for now, the only SA hotel with its own coffee roasters. Chatting to Lex and the Vineyard’s decade-long General Manager Roy Davies, I get a very different picture about what drives the family than I arrived with.:

Francois Petousis was born into a family of hoteliers and trained in Lausanne, Switzerland. He sold his parents’ hotel, the Criterion in Johannesburg, to buy the Trocadero near Parliament in Cape Town. On the site, in 1973, he built the first of the three Petousis hotels, the Townhouse Hotel.

Francois and his wife, Kitty, saved the Vineyard Hotel, and its six acres of parkland, from planned subdivision into 33 plots when they acquired the property in 1980. While the Townhouse Hotel was built from scratch, albeit on a site of historical significance, the other two establishments are heritage properties which occupy important positions in the fabric of hospitality in the Cape. The Vineyard Hotel was built for Lady Anne Barnard, whose documentation of her five-year stay in the Cape (1797-1802) has shed much light on life in the young colony, and on her own engaging and intriguing character. Oude Werf is the oldest, continuously run, hotel in South Africa. Oude Werf in Stellenbosch was added to the Petousis portfolio in 2007.

Lex explains that it was no easy thing to evolve the family-run business into a professionally managed one but it has allowed them to expand the business “exponentially.”

In their operations, the emphasis the Petousis family place on service, heritage, community, and responsible, sustainable operation stands as a blue-print for excellence in the hospitality industry.

At the Vineyard, Roy tells me, 35 members of their long-serving staff have over 30 years in the business. “20% of our staff have served in excess of 1200 collective years. People like Cheryl Marrock, Robyn van Oudtshoorn and Denise Roman are among the stalwarts,” he says.

The sensitive restorations and upgrades to the Vineyard and Oude Werf hotels are anchored on meticulous research. When he acquired the Vineyard Hotel, Francois Petousis spent two years investigating its history.

Research into Oude Werf was conducted just as thoroughly, turning up an astounding coincidence - one of Kitty’s great-great grandfathers had been a dominee at the first church built in Stellenbosch, which had stood on the Oude Werf property until it was razed by fire in 1710.

A large Cape Dutch residence was built on the grounds and from 1802 welcomed guests. There have been various changes, but the 2015 upgrades of the Oude Werf Hotel won Revel Fox and Partners an award from the Cape Institute of Architects.

Kitty’s handwriting remains as fresh and present in the hotels despite significant upgrades and modernisation. The needlepoint work is her own and her passion for antique chairs, in particular, is evident.

If the meticulous attention to the heritage of their properties is impressive, so too is the Petousis focus on the carbon footprint and sustainable operation of their properties. The group’s efforts have been recognised in various awards categories including sustainability, waste-management, and alien-vegetation clearing. The group implemented Fair Trade Tourism (FTT) principles and achieved their FTT status.

“The group has made the essential shift to low-carbon and resource-efficient operations. Even just a one percent reduction in total energy needs—such as we have achieved via our solar panels—has reduced CO2 emissions as if we had had planted twenty eight more trees on the property! I would encourage all those in the tourism niche to seek out similar ways to advance the green economy,” says Lex.

Another area where the family leads by example is their focus on maintaining the group’s status as an employer of choice. Annual Wellness Days are held where all staff can get full medical check-ups, while skills-development initiatives are ongoing and include exchanges for staff with the restaurants of wine estates with which the Petousis group has relationships.

Commitment to the extended community includes the Petousis’ Our Kids of the Cape Fund which supports local children’s charities, including Baphumelele Children’s Home, Anthea Pieters Safe House, Woodside Sanctuary, SA Children’s Home and the Aquarius School Feeding Project. This is done through a voluntary guest donation per room night which is then matched by the hotel. Big annual fundraising efforts include a golf day and The Vineyard art auction.

The three Petousis hotels each have a unique character and ambiance; rich heritage is seamlessly integrated with contemporary technology, comforts and facilities, including award-winning restaurants and premier conference venues. However, it is the Petousis family’s Responsible Hoteling ethos that binds them together.

Sadly, both Francois and Kitty Petousis have passed away, but their vision, integrity and old-world sense of stewardship lives on in their three sons and daughter, all of whom remain deeply involved in the family hotel business. Respecting the heritage of their hotels while moving boldly and ethically at pace with 21st century innovation, the Petousis family have established a legacy their parents will be proud of.

Lex explains that with a professional management structure in place future expansions can be planned for like the recently acquired adjacent erven to The Vineyard; the creation of The Long Cafe and Roaster in the front of the hotel to better spread the flow of people and increasing on-the-floor staffing ahead of the busy summer season and, a game changer when it happens, the remodelling of the Vineyard’s reception desk, slated to happen in the next two years, which will transform the hotel’s public areas.

Not everyone is aware of the wine grape vines growing in Newlands. Roy Davies explains, “Wine-growing in this area of the southern suburbs actually pre-dates wine-making in Constantia —only a few hundred metres from where our vineyard is, the first vines were planted along the Liesbeek River in 1658. There were almost 22 000 vines on this property when Lady Anne Barnard moved into her newly built home and named it The Vineyard.”

In October 2008, approximately 350 years after the first vineyards were planted in this area, five renowned wine producers were invited by the Vineyard Hotel to become involved in reigniting the history of wine in the Newlands area by establishing a private vineyard in the gardens of the hotel. Klein Constantia, Meerlust, Simonsig, Warwick and Waterford became the Vineyard Hotel’s five official wine partners, and each takes a turn to craft the wines produced from the Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes grown at the Vineyard Hotel.

Understanding that passion is what drives the Petousis-family engine it won’t be long before coffee-related activities, one of Lex’s personal passions, becomes the focus of activity much like the sell-out run of Hotel Plays, a collaboration spearheaded by Riri Petousis and Fred Abrahamse which combined performance of Tennessee Williams’ Hotel Plays with wine and dinner evenings. A completing of the love-of-theatre circle started by Kitty, who was recognised at the 50th anniversary of Afrikaans radio in late 2015, as the oldest known broadcaster in South Africa.

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