Polynesian Spa Chief Executive Officer Gert Taljaard knows that creating a memorable visitor experience is more like theatre. The venue is the stage, the staff are the actors, and the audience are the visitors. Bring them all together brilliantly and magic happens. And that’s exactly what is on show at one of the world’s most famous luxury thermal attractions.
Gert grew up in Pretoria, South Africa. At age 19, he started a three-year management development programme with Protea Hotels by Marriot, one of country’s leading hotel chains. His first job was on reception.
“When you work at the front desk, you need to remember you’re on stage. The worst can be happening behind-the-scenes, but out front everything needs to be hunky dory. No flapping around. Always calm and attentive to your customers,” says Gert.
Hospitality and tourism provided him with the chance to play to his outgoing personality.
“I really enjoy creating something enjoyable that will remain with people through their life.”
Gert reached executive level in South Africa’s hotel industry, and in 2011, he moved to New Zealand where he worked for Auckland’s Carlton Hotel. He then became General Manager for Sudima Auckland and Sudima Lake Rotorua Hotel.
In 2015, he dived in at Polynesian Spa. This was far from a random act. Earlier in his career, a stint at a hotel property located next to South Africa’s popular Kruger National Park, hinted at his destiny in New Zealand.
“It was interesting to work with a team to understand what the drivers are for people on holiday. And it became apparent that I really enjoyed the bigger properties. They have a real character to them with all sorts of people and all sorts of activities. The leisure properties are the most appealing to me because that’s when people are open to enjoying themselves.”
Right now, he’s found the perfect solution in Rotorua’s world-class thermal resort.
“The Polynesian Spa is an icon in New Zealand, a beautiful brand with a great story around how it started, and the amazing role it has played in the city and community,” says Gert.
For a number of years, the attraction was rated one of World’s Top Ten Spas (natural/thermal/medical) by readers of discerning UK travel magazine Condé Nast Traveller. The accolade is an inspiration and a challenge for Gert whose goal as leader is to “replicate that high level of service to make the site worthy of the award if was still offered it today.”
Like his own career, professional development is key to excellent standards and success. This calls for quality training across the spa site, something that Gert has a sixth sense for after years of hotel training.
“I’ve experienced a lot of training courses. Some have been really great, such as learning financial skills and human resources. But there have been others that were such stupid, fuzzy nonsense that I wondered why I was being asked to do them.”
In 2016, he met with one of ServiceIQ’s tourism training advisors, to see if there was a decent training option that could be of benefit for his team and the business.
His choice was ServiceIQ’s NZ Certificate in Tourism (Visitor Experience) – Level 3 programme, which, as well as solid customer service skills, the training gives the team the ability to sell not just the Spa but also the wider region.
“This programme is a lot more than just the importance of a smile,” says Gert. “It covers all the essentials, from customer service to regional tourism knowledge, and embraces the spirit of hospitality in line with Manaakitanga, a central concept in New Zealand’s tourism strategy.
“We were also able to provide the team with a real qualification that they can use to grow their career. It’s something they can take with them and use if they leave us.”
To date, thirty-seven staff have gained skills and a nationally-recognised qualification, a further ten are in training, and the business is flowing smoothly with a confident, knowledgeable team.
Training has changed the paradigm around some of the team with regards to what they have the capability to do, “which is to make our customers feel they are the most important people on the planet,” says Gert.
“I can see a broader awareness of the need to engage and be proactive. It’s the team’s empathy and warmth coming through that makes a difference.”
For Polynesian Spa, the programme provides a practical solution to running what can often be time consuming and cost intensive training.
It enables staff to learn on-site which means the skills and knowledge are relevant to the business. The team also gets the benefit of working with an assessor, who, as a member of staff, really understands the business, and can schedule the training sessions so that it all works smoothly.
“It’s something we’re really proud of, it’s appreciated, and we will continue doing it to maintain our standards.” says Gert.
Polynesian Spa deserves a standing ovation.