Bubbling over with a passion for hotels

Mark Wernich is like a bottle of fine champagne.  At first glance, he is slightly reserved but friendly… ask him a question about the hospitality industry, however, and the cork pops: he immediately fizzes with enthusiasm, bubbling over with irrepressible joy.  This is a man who loves what he does. 

He’ll tell you that he fell into the industry by accident, but he is so suited to the bustle and buzz of it that it is difficult to think of him doing anything else.

For the past 33 years, Mark has been working his way up the managerial ladder, and it all started back in 1989. While waiting to do military service (in the bad old days of conscription), he took a six-week job at a hotel where his sister worked – and the hospitality bug bit.  In the army, he worked as a chef and ran the officers’ bar, deciding then and there that this was going to be his life.

“It’s the people, it’s the energy, it’s the buzz,” he says.  “This is a great industry to be in.”

After studying at Tech and qualifying in 1996, Mark’s first job with Protea Hotels lasted for 17 years.  He then built a solid base with several prominent hotel chains and service providers and is now Africa General Manager for the ‘fragrance-of-India’ luxury chain, Taj Hotels (which has the only seven-star hotel in the world).

Hooked on the hotel high
“Hoteliers are huge adrenaline junkies,” Mark says.  “We enjoy working in a challenging environment.  We work at high speed, with a different curve-ball every day.  It might not always be dramatic or catastrophic, but it’s there all the time.  I call it organised chaos; there is always something waiting to happen.  The way to cope with this is to set a high standard from day to day.  You are always planning and preparing.  So not much comes as a surprise, and on the day that you get thrown, you are still OK.

“Obviously we can’t be too ad-hoc – we might be used to methodical mayhem, but we tend to be perfectionists too, so that’s the balance we need to maintain. Many times, it’s a case of ‘get the job done first and ask for forgiveness later’.”

Mark believes that the hospitality industry is currently poised for a huge revival, with a bumper summer season coming up.  The analyses and the figures support this, but he says it is also visible in the renewed energy and optimism around him. 

“We have a good summer ahead,” he says.  “There are still a few things missing, like MICE [Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions], but people definitely have the appetite to travel, and this is a global trend.  Everyone loves that buzz, so it is good to see the energy coming back.

The path ahead
“For the future, there are very promising signs.  A lot of youngsters are eagerly coming into the industry from hotel school, new players are coming in, there is a nice evolving space. It’s hip and new, and the demographic is changing, which is the best news.”

After almost five years at Taj Hotels, Mark has no intention of sitting back.  His work is his hobby, and he is devoted to ensuring that Cape Town keeps its reputation as one of the best tourist cities in the world.   This single-mindedness means that he won’t bring the revs down to anything below a muted roar.

“I’m not a worrier, but I am a perfectionist, so it is quite hard to switch off,” he says.  “I am always working.  Being connected to the international market means the action goes on all hours, but I’m used to late nights!”

Unsurprisingly Mark loves sports, the outdoors, city life, the energy, and activity.  But surprisingly, he also loves photography, that quiet, introspective pastime.  Not that he gets much chance to take photos himself, but he enjoys seeing other photographers’ work and learning from it.  He also loves architecture.

“As the years go by, I’m still learning,” he says.  “Life must always stay interesting.  Always challenge yourself, always talk to your peers, never get isolated – in talking to others you will find out people have similar challenges to yours.  I am lucky I have an international sounding board, for dialogue, for benchmarking.  We are all focussing on this revival, and I am predicting a buoyant market in the next two years.  This is a road we can all walk together.”

For a moment the gravitas of a fine, aged Bordeaux peeps out, but within moments the effervescence is back, and Mark overflows again with the hotelier bonhomie that has made him such an effective manager and inspirational hospitality champion. 

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