The Kruger National Park catering – a national disgrace!

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Eighteen years ago, back in 1995, my outdoor banqueting and event team catered a gala dinner on the final night of the 5 day IUCN conference which attracted nearly 300 delegates from around the world. The event was held in the Skukuza rest camp in The Kruger National Park (KNP), in South Africa.

Situated on the southern banks of the Sabie River, Skukuza is the KNP’s largest rest camp, and the park’s administrative headquarters.  It was 480 kilometers (300 miles) and nearly 5 hours drive from our catering operational base in Johannesburg.

This was the first time the IUCN had returned to South Africa after the years of political isolation, which was a source of great pride for The Parks Board.  We were asked to cater this event by Dr Robbie Robinson PhD (Seattle USA), MSc (Stellenbosch), then the Chief Executive (CE) of the National Parks Board of South Africa

He knew the limitations of his own in-house catering team and wanted to ensure this gala event left delegates with a powerful and positive memory of this watershed event, which signalled the return of South Africa to the global conservation community after the isolation under Apartheid.

At that time, I was an operations manager for FEDICS Food Services, the largest catering company in South Africa. In addition to managing two high profile, high volume corporate catering contracts in Johannesburg I also managed the majority of the outdoor catering, banqueting and special events. I loved my role!

As an external catering company coming into the park, to cater the single most important international hospitality event in The Kruger’s history, you can imagine the unbridled resentment we were met with from the incumbent catering management team.  When the time came for us to take over the venue, far from wanting to work with us to help deliver a memorable event, the entire management team of the catering department simply walked out.  Frankly, we were quite relieved about this, since during the site visit, which we undertook to assess the facilities when we were quoting for the event, it was evident the onsite team were extremely unhappy that their CE had opted to take this event out of their hands and to give it to an external event catering company. Apart from not expecting any viable support we actually thought their presence might be disruptive so whilst we were shocked at their disappearing act, we were happy to see them go.

At that time, in the ‘90s, catering for park visitors was, at best, basic.  When you consider the expectations of increasingly discerning local and international travelers, the selection, presentation and diversity of the public catering offering available there, was woefully inadequate, and well below the high standards that were on offer in similar, high-footfall, leisure and tourism attractions elsewhere around South Africa.  The restaurant offerings were limited and grim. The waiter service was amateur, delivered by surly staff and was poorly supervised.  It represented a wasted opportunity from both a reputational and revenue perspective, and whilst I have always felt that The Kruger was, and still is, a national treasure, my opinion was that the catering was a national disgrace!

Once we were there, actually working onsite, I found the reason it was so bad to be glaringly obvious.  There was not one person within the entire catering department with even an elementary qualification in catering or hospitality management.  Beyond this there was also no training for the front-line catering staff in even the most basic service or customer care skills.


Knowing what to expect, in advance, we planned for the kitchen brigade to be 100% self sufficient.  The bulk of the food preparation had been completed in our kitchens in Johannesburg and transported up to The Kruger in a refrigerated truck.  Like pieces of a well thought-out jig-saw puzzle, it simply required a small and experienced team to piece it all together, to cook and assemble it prior to service. What we served in the African bush at that event was going to be as good as in any 5-star function room in Johannesburg.

However, whilst the kitchen brigade was self contained, I wasn’t so lucky!  I had been requested, as part of the event briefing, to use KNP restaurant waiting staff alongside my own core of experienced banqueting waiters who I had brought with me from Johannesburg.  This was a concern as not only had they never been exposed to classical ‘banqueting service’ before, but we had no time to train them prior to actually meeting them for the first time on the day of the event, due to the distance of the venue from our Johannesburg base.

What could have been a bit of disaster on the service front soon turned into one of the most amazing event experiences of my time in South Africa.  The lessons learned that day continued to serve me throughout my operational career and may help you in yours.

Within fifteen minutes of the disappearance of the disgruntled catering management, my Chef had several of the Park’s cooks return to the kitchen to ask if they could help.  A little cautious at first, he readily accepted their offer and in no time the atmosphere in the kitchen became infused with a new excitement, energy and enthusiasm.

Out in the front-of-house, where I was working with the waiters to prepare and set up the function room, I opened the day with a ‘team briefing’ which focused first on ‘Why’ we did things a certain way, specifically for banqueting service, not just on ‘What’ I wanted them to do.  In just half an hour I took them through several of the fundamentals of food and beverage service, which they had never heard before, then we explored service techniques related specifically to banqueting service, and I fully explained Why adhering to these classic European service styles worked for both server and guest alike. Far from obstructing us, or being resistant to ‘doing things differently’, they were all eager to learn, fully engaged and keen to be of our team! My fears evaporated as it was obvious, as in the kitchen, that these staff were fully ‘with us’.

The kitchen and service staff, who had clearly lacked even the most basic leadership and training in the past, responded like blotting paper to ink.  Keen to learn, they quickly and readily absorbed every insight Chef and I could give them.  They worked alongside my experienced staff with enthusiasm, a great spirit of camaraderie and hitherto unseen self-motivation.   What they lacked in technical expertise they more than made up for in sheer willingness and through their positive can-do/will-do attitude.  It was a joy to work with them and as you can imagine, the banquet was a huge success.

I had a tradition of organizing a ‘staff parade’ after the food service was complete (and before the rest of the function’s formal activities continued). This was to give the guests a chance to express their appreciation for the great food and service, directly to those who had delivered it.

First, the kitchen brigade was assembled and presented to the guests and then the service staff joined them. Even the guests knew they had been on the receiving end of something special that night. The applause the guests gave was rapturous and whilst we all enjoy praise, it was probably the first time the Kruger Park staff had ever received this sort of recognition and they were positively overwhelmed.

I made new friends among that staff that night, and on my many social visits to the Kruger, in my personal capacity, I was warmly welcomed back to the park by those same staff, for many years after the event itself was over.

The change in the staff was so notable that in the congratulatory letter that he sent to my Chief Executive after the event, Dr Robbie, the Kruger Park CE, wrote: ‘the change I witnessed was so remarkable that they were unrecognizable as Kruger Park staff’

This was a great lesson.

Whatever I do, I always take the time to explain the: ‘Why’… before I continue with the: ‘How.’   I never tell people what to do; Rather  I explain ‘Why’ something should be done in a certain way, ‘What’ the outcome will be and ‘How’ it will be of benefit to them, personally, and to those around them, as a team.

I find that once people grasp ‘Why’, the ‘How’ becomes easy and something they are keen to adopt, for themselves.  It ensures people buy-in to new ideas in a way that telling them what to do can never achieve.

I learned that day that most people hunger for knowledge and that by taking the time to share mine, I had given them the greatest gift: Respect. They repaid this far beyond my expectations and the result was that everyone, staff and guests alike, had a rewarding experience. The staff also left with satisfaction of a job well done and with the thanks and recognition of the guests ringing in  their ears.

For those who will heed this simple lesson, I’m confident it will help you to improve your outcomes when working within diverse teams and to more easily achieve your goals.

Whilst this sounds like common sense, we know that often ‘common sense’ is not ‘common practice.’

My question to you, today, is:  What techniques do you use which help you lead your own teams to success?  

It is the many cherished experiences I have, like this, from my time living and working in-and-around South Africa, that explains why though I live and work in London, my soul smiles when I think of Africa.

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