By Tony Rubin –

It’s that time of the year again: professionals from across Africa will gather at the fourth annual Attractions Africa conference in Tshwane next week.

I became involved in Attractions Africa when I was a speaker at the inaugural conference in 2014. As a strong believer in the importance of tourist attractions, I have been part of the organising committee ever since. All events of this nature need a small group of committed people to ensure that they continue annually, and this is exactly what galvanises this extraordinary forum.

For me, one of the main advantages of attending is that I mix with like-minded people in the industry – people who understand the sector and whose top priority is to deliver an exceptional experience to every visitor, every time – and that we learn from each other.

The wide range of attractions professionals attending the conference include representatives from aquariums and zoos, family entertainment centres, heritage and cultural attractions, museums and science centres, natural attractions, game reserves, parks and recreation facilities, wine farms, theme and water parks, and markets.

I’m especially looking forward to Attractions Africa 2017 as I’ll be leading a discussion about creating an attractions culture in the workplace – something that Disney has been nailing since the original Disneyland Park opened its gates in Anaheim, California, in 1955. At Disney’s parks and resorts worldwide, all staff – from Mickey Mouse to the street sweeper – are seen as actors; the moment they’re in the public eye, they’re considered to be part of a cast treating visitors to an unforgettable experience all the time.

I’m hoping to get a discussion going that will assist attractions in training their staff as “actors” and getting them to perform their scripts in such a way that visitors will either want to return or recommend them to others.

In my almost 50 years in the hospitality field, the best thing for me has always been the people. It takes special individuals to become successful in this industry, and my biggest thrill is to see people accepting my input and to watch them flourish.

I myself have had a couple of “aha” moments in my career. One of the first was when I realised that, in the attractions industry, you can (and should) think out of the box. Working at tourist attractions allows us to dictate the job descriptions and duties of our employees, because the general public are there to be entertained.

When I first started working at a tourist attraction (Maropeng, the official visitor centre of the Cradle of Humankind), I told my staff that we’re actually in the entertainment industry and have a responsibility to provide visitors with edutainment. They thought I was crazy (which I am!), but eventually realised that, to help people understand science, you need to entertain them and make the process enjoyable.

Another important lesson I’ve learned is that all clients, whether they’re considered visitors, guests, diners or residents, are looking for the same things: enjoyment, quality and value for money. For me, the most inspiring thing about working at a tourist attraction is seeing the instant enjoyment. You don’t have to wait days or months to know whether a group is having fun – just observe. This goes equally for the hospitality, restaurant and conference sectors.

Both at Maropeng and the SAB World of Beer in Newtown, Johannesburg, where I’m currently general manager, what I have been most proud of is my staff. Getting employees to understand their roles in the business is one of the most gratifying aspects of my role. None of my staff members ever says, “It’s not my job.” We all know we have a shared responsibility to ensure visitor satisfaction.

There are three things I always tell attractions owners and managers, and I would like to share them with you:

  • If your employees aren’t happy, you can’t expect to have happy visitors.
  • Your staff are your eyes and ears – listen to them and ask for their input.
  • “No” should not be a word in your vocabulary.

Attractions Africa 2017 will be held at the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa, also known as the Pretoria Zoo, on 7 and 8 June 2017. The programme includes international and local speakers sharing trends, benchmarks and best practice.