Note: At the time this story was written, Nigel Pace was the general manager at Cape Grace. He has since stepped down from the position.
For Nigel Pace, entry into the hotel industry was more about being in the right place at the right time than anything else. What has kept him in the business is nothing short of pure passion and talent. His success in the industry has earned him the title General Manager of the Year from Luxury Travel Advisor’s Awards of Excellence.
“Whilst I would love to say that it was my childhood dream to be a hotelier, sadly it was not,” Pace, general manager of Cape Grace in Cape Town, South Africa, tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “After finishing school I took on a couple of junior IT jobs, but soon realized that sitting in an office was not my thing.”
Pace was 19 when he decided that a desk job was not for him. “A good friend and I were sitting on the beach discussing our future, and he announced that he had signed up for classes at the Institute of Tourism Studies, which was just a few steps up from the beach,” he says. “We literally flung our towels over our shoulders and walked up the hill. I picked up an application, had an interview and was admitted. And the rest is history.”
Pace was born on the Mediterranean island of Malta, which is where he attended school at the Institute of Tourism Studies. The coursework came naturally to him and he set himself apart from others in his class. “I was never a big academic and always knew that I would be better suited to an industry that relied on common sense, a good attitude and a good memory,” he says.
Before finding his home at Cape Grace, Pace took on a six-month internship at The Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland. “It was hard work but I loved every minute of it and it set a great benchmark for me going forward,” Pace recalls.
After completing hotel school, Pace was eager to dive headfirst into the business. Many of his classmates continued with their studies an extra year, but Pace was itching for real-life experience. “If you want to make it as a hotelier, get into it right now. It’s about gaining experience,” he says.
He was offered the opportunity to go to South Africa to work at The Plettenberg as a trainee manager. Once again, intuition and a gut feeling guided Pace in the right direction. This was back in 1995 when South Africa was still a young democracy. Nelson Mandela had been released from prison a few years before, and the country had just completed its first elections. “Everyone’s perception was that it was dangerous and unstable, but I didn’t really listen. To me, it sounded wonderful,” Pace says.
Shortly after joining The Plettenberg, he moved to its sister hotel, The Cellars-Hohenort in Constantia, a Relais & Châteaux property, where he became the deputy general manager. The position at this property led Pace to one of his most influential mentors and dearest friends, Liz McGrath, proprietor of The Collection by Liz McGrath.
“Apart from creating three magnificent Relais & Châteaux properties, she played a big part in getting me to where I am today,” Pace tells us. “Mrs. M, as she’s affectionately known, believed in me from the start and taught me one very important thing—that a hotel is only as good as its weakest staff member. Don’t ignore the finer details and always try to rectify the slightest of glitches in the system.”
McGrath recognized Pace’s talent and drive early on. One afternoon she sat him down and announced, without asking, that he was to be the new general manager at The Plettenberg. “It wasn’t a choice I needed to make. It was the best thing ever,” he says. Pace was just 27 years old. “I think I rose through the ranks by being honest and true to myself. I never did [and still don’t] pretend to know everything,” Pace says.
For Pace, it was also dedication to a company that caused him to rise in ranks. He spent 11 years working with Liz McGrath hotels and through those connections managed to land his current position at Cape Grace, where he has been for the last six years. “Most hoteliers are too quick to hop from one job to the other, probably following the cash more than anything else,” he says. “I do believe that my length of service gives me more credibility amongst colleagues, guests and people in the travel trade.”
“On the job,” to Pace, means just that. There is no “armchair” mentality in how he manages his property. It is hands-on, all the time. This includes greeting guests during breakfast (and even clearing a dirty dish or two), writing welcome cards daily, and making sure he is a visible figure on the property. “I do enjoy the hotel lobby at around 9 a.m., which tends to be the busiest time of the day. I just love standing there feeling like a conductor in an orchestra, meeting arriving guests, bidding farewell to guests leaving the hotel, greeting local customers who use Cape Grace frequently, and helping out wherever I can.”
To be seen as the face of any hotel among both guests and staff means taking the role on 24/7. Pace is typically on-site before 7 a.m., well before the scheduled daily morning meetings. At each meeting, representatives from each department share information on arriving guests for the day, in as much detail as possible. The ubiquity of iPads and iPhones have helped Pace keep up with the demands of the 24/7 role, allowing him to filter through e-mails and requests well past 6 p.m. when he heads home.
“Throughout the day I do tend to walk around the entire hotel, which is a great way to notice things and the best way to connect with staff across the board,” he says. Pace manages a staff of approximately 400.
Cape Grace turned 15 years old in December, and in celebration honored 10 staff members who have been there since Day 1. Recognizing how important loyal employees are to any operation is part of what makes Pace the manager that he is. “They are just the most amazing crowd of people from various departments that really epitomize Cape Grace’s culture and values,” he says.
One of Pace’s most important tasks is to make sure that luxury travel advisors and their clients feel as special as possible when visiting the property. “This is always a great way to round off the relationship process with advisors, which would have started at shows like Virtuoso Travel Mart, the annual Signature Travel Network and International Luxury Travel Market [ILTM],” he says. “When meeting guests I always make an effort to throw their travel advisor’s name into the conversation. This tends to make the guests feel comfortable about their choice of travel advisor, and makes the latter person look like a complete rock star.”
The services of a luxury travel advisor are essential when booking a stay at Cape Grace, according to Pace. About 80 percent of the hotel’s guests who are on vacation in South Africa combine Cape Town with a trip to the wine lands of the Garden Route, and a safari. “There’s no doubt about the need for a luxury travel advisor, particularly in a country like South Africa,” he says. “You need long-haul flights, safari arrangements, airport pickups, etc. You don’t want to do that on your own.”
Pace’s relationship with travel advisors is something he values greatly. Over the years, he has developed relationships with about 20 or 30 advisors who send their Cape Town business predominantly to Cape Grace. “People want to interact with a general manager. They feel it is a safe bet when they contact the GM to look after their clients.”