Article by Dr Mati Nyazema – Director of Mbano Manor Hotel 

Part 1: Imagine launching a hotel, then closing down after six weeks…

Most people worldwide have their 2020 story to tell. Here is a short chronicle of mine…

So, January 2020 arrives. Mbano Manor Hotel Victoria Falls is about to open. Imagine the excitement of finally opening a luxury boutique hotel as a (not-so-young) entrepreneur, and following 42 months of painful, sometimes brutal hotel feasibility, challenging fund raising, construction, construction and construction (a story for another day). And finally, pre-opening planning, staff recruitment, and a mad rush to the finish line! All hotel public areas, kitchen, back of house and ten of the 18 suites were construction complete by 31 December 2019. The four-acre hotel grounds were lush against a generous rainy season. The dream was more than real…

I was excited but stressed as well. We missed the hotel opening deadline of 20 December 2019. The plan had been to capitalise on 2019 Christmas rush and enjoy a full house of guests. Instead, due to delays in Customs clearance formalities, end-December witnessed eight large containers embargoed and parked alongside the hotel perimeter wall. The crisis lasted four weeks while I made four trips to Harare to sort the matter.

Mid-January 2020. All Customs paperwork completed. The Mbano team excitedly unpacked tons and tons of goods – from hotel mattresses to linens, from kitchen equipment to lovely patio furniture and décor objects. A big shout of thanks to Interior Designer Ryan Illgner, hotel technical partner Norman Wallace and procurement consultant Bev Wallace for the top-notch items!!

Super-efficient Debra De Sousa, a long-time friend and former colleague, had flown into Victoria Falls a few weeks earlier to assist with the preopening coordination.  Debra was my right-hand woman and Operations Director during my ten-year stint at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg. So, together with hotel General Manager (GM) Ignatious Mambinge, she coordinated the unpacking, took numerous smoke breaks, and unpacked some more. Every item was meticulously recorded. As we simultaneously started testing all equipment – checking each of the ten starting suites, public areas, back of house, gardens etc.

Installation mistakes? A few. For example, the carpenter Jack attached the dining table tops upside down. For two days Debra and I felt something was not right. We video called Bev, who immediately identified the error!!! Then, electrician Lloyd installed the plantation-type fans all wrong. We thought parts were missing. Instead, the fans were sequenced incorrectly – that took a few more weeks to figure out!! Although the fans still looked superb just as ornaments…

February 2020. Mbano Manor Hotel was furnished and ready to receive guests. A few trickled in. We even enjoyed 100% occupancy during the second week of February, due to a large international conference in town. More encouraging for me was that the hotel guests included two Ministers from African countries, and diplomats and delegates from international organisations. Just the right type of profile of guests that Mbano had positioned itself to attract.

This was actually happening – all showers worked, breakfast and dinners were served, suites were cleaned on time. What a great start to the hotel and to the year!

From about mid-February – news of the Corona virus started dominating the media. As a former journalist, I watched, read and listened with attention.

End of February. I flew to South Africa for marketing meetings – mainly updating our website to display the clear message that Mbano was now open for business. Marketing meetings went well – as the Corona rumble was increasing.

From Johannesburg I was scheduled to fly on 2nd March to Germany for the 2020 ITB show, the largest travel show for our industry, which had been hosted annually in Berlin for over 50 years without interruption. All my flights and hotels were booked and paid for. Including the post ITB roadshow planned for the UK to meet with travel trade. On 26th February – trade news said that ITB may be cancelled; 27th February – no, the show was going ahead; 28th February – ITB was definitely cancelled.

Eish, eish – as my South African friends would say. Or in Shona, yowe, paita basa!! The world and we, were in trouble.

March 2020.  I quickly returned back to Victoria Falls to manage the unfolding situation. Within days, all forward bookings in the Mbano reservations system were cancelled or postponed. Our last guest stayed on 10th March.  We were hosting a key tour operator and her team around mid-March, who also cancelled. That was a big blow.

With each passing day in March, the global lockdowns began. In Zimbabwe, authorities announced that the lockdown would come into effect from 30th March 2020.

The hotel General Manager and I planned for shutdown. We consulted labour authorities. We made the tough call that of our then staff complement of 25, only a small team of six people would stay on working mornings only, to tend to the four acre-Mbano gardens and to check on rooms and equipment.  Some of the remaining staff were laid off. Others were placed on long leave.

Imagine the pain of laying off staff who had only worked for Mbano for 30 or 60 days. The sinking knowledge that most of the staff were probably breadwinners and/or parents with families to care for. I recall several staff opting to leave town immediately– one left for Harare, another went to Mutare and about four went to Bulawayo, to join their families.

April 2020. Victoria Falls fell silent as full lockdown took effect. Being a tourist resort town, nearly all the hospitality businesses shut down temporarily. I believe several thousand persons left town within days, to avoid house rental payments, or simply to join their families in other towns. Mbano Manor hotel was also temporarily closed. The GM and his small team received police waiver to go to work in those early days.

I stayed at home for the first 14 days. Filled with a sense of disbelief and intense exhaustion. Disbelief that this dream of four years was unfolding in a manner I had not imagined. There was a lot of time to rest. I was so exhausted following years of planning, negotiating, and worrying about hotel completion. I created a 100metre-circuit around my home and started walking each morning and evening. A big change from the regular routine of taking a 5 or more kilometre walk around the beautiful and serene Victoria Falls town, always complemented early morning by the rumble and high-spray spectacle of the waterfall.

The lockdown was extended from the initial 21 days. Global news was not encouraging. Italy and UK were recording large numbers of hospitalisations and deaths.  My own family oversees was not spared. We had a harrowing 5 days while a close family member in the UK was hospitalised. Thankfully she survived.

Despite all, during April 2020, I still had a sense of optimism. Surely this whole Covid 19 pandemic would be over and done with, in a few months’ time? Little did we know or appreciate about the Covid 19 pandemic.

A pause on the Mbano Manor hotel story for now… to be continued…

December 2019. Mati and GM Ignatious Mambinge take Tourism Minister Mangaliso Ndlovu (right) on a tour of Mbano Manor Hotel