Meetings & Inspire celebrate Charles Drewe | The Planner

Charles Drewe’s 40+ year career in the hospitality industry established him as a legend thanks to his warm leadership style, determined work ethic, and knack for bringing success to every property he managed.

We were fortunate to have Charles reminisce about his life with us. We don’t have enough pages to share all his funny and fascinating tales, but we are honoured to able to share some of them with you. Charles has been forced into early retirement due to ill health. One of his wishes is that his life will have value to others. We believe these heartwarming stories are an inspiration to each of us to go out and live our lives to the full. And that is invaluable.

What made you decide to enter the hospitality industry?

All my life I was going to be a farmer. I worked on my father’s 8 000-acre farm in Zimbabwe and thought I would inherit it. But it was 200 m from the Mozambique border, so when the war came along the Rhodesian government (as it was then) moved us off it. I lost my home that I loved; it was destroyed, as was my dream.

I needed to find something to do and saw an advert in the newspaper for studying hotel management at a college in Bulawayo. My whole life I had lived two hours’ drive from the nearest town. I didn’t want to be reminded of the farm I’d lost, so my rebellious self thought I would apply as a joke. They only accepted nine people, and as it turned out I was one of the nine. I was horrified! I packed my life up and studied hotel management and the rest is history.

I might just add that I was a very shy, introverted 20-year-old and I had to train myself to be outgoing for the role. Now I am one of the most recognised outgoing people.

Please share some of your favourite memories and achievements from your time in the hospitality industry.

Where do I start, there are so many!

Johannesburg Sun: I was the last GM at the Johannesburg Sun & Towers / Holiday Inn Garden Court. At that stage it was the largest hotel in Africa, with 800 bedrooms. I turned its bottom line significantly after securing all the business for the ANC Youth League and the National Union of Mine Workers, as well as securing all the training of staff in preparation for the opening of Montecasino. I was the first guy who walked door-to-door to secure business.

At that time the area had the highest murder rate in the country. My ops director then was meant to visit each month for a financial review, but the first month he came he had a smash a grab and he never came back after that. I should be grateful to him, as I was paid danger money after that!

Another memory is of a national African soccer team that stayed at the hotel. In those days we had two keys for the safety deposit boxes. The soccer manager locked up all the team’s valuables and the next morning all the boxes were open and empty. He accused us of stealing everything. We reviewed the security footage, but they had covered the camera so we couldn’t see who it was – until the very end, when they took the cloth off the camera. It was the soccer manager and security manager!

Southern Sun: One of my favourite achievements was at the Riverside Sun Hotel, where I was asked to sell the hotel. I didn’t sell it, but in the two years I was there I brought it from a negative to a positive profit margin. It became one of the most successful hotels in the area, so the owners withdrew the sale.

When I was GM of sales and marketing at the Sandton Convention Centre, they valued my input in international conventions and conferences, so I travelled extensively. This allowed me the opportunity to close several deals, one being for the World Petroleum Congress.

The Rand Club: When I interviewed for the position of GM at The Rand Club, I was in Phalaborwa expecting to have a skype interview when the interviewer called me to ask where I was, as the whole committee was waiting for me. She said, okay, let’s do it now. So, picture this, me sweating in the 36°C heat, in my underpants with a glass of wine trying to cool me off. There was no way I was going on camera, so I said my camera wasn’t working. Needless to say, I got the job.

A memory I will cherish forever is a Rudyard Kipling dinner we re-enacted to celebrate the Rand Club’s 125th anniversary. Picture this: you are invited to a dinner that will take you back to the year 1898, when only men sat at the table and talked about gold, women, and money. Fast forward to 2012, where we re-created the 11-course dinner that Rudyard Kipling hosted at the club with Percy Fitzpatrick as his guest of honour. Everyone had the name of one of the original guests, who they had to dress up as and sit in the same seat as. The dinner took me six months to organise.
Since 1994 until the date of my interview, The Rand Club had been in a loss-making situation. My job description was to bring the club back into profit. I said I would need a year to do it. In the 11th month we broke even, in the 12th month we made a small profit, and in the 13th month we made a slightly bigger profit. I resigned after that.

What advice would you give to individuals aspiring to work in the hospitality industry in SA?

Don’t! (But if you still want to and have the passion, give me a call and I will mentor you.)

Are there any colleagues or mentors who played a significant role in your career?

Bill Frohlich, GM at Garden Court South Beach, mentored me into my first GM position at the Johannesburg Sun. He taught me to be a highly successful servant leader – someone who focuses on the needs of others before considering their own – and he would always walk around and greet and acknowledge all the staff in the hotel. He treated everyone the same and that was a life lesson I took and used in my career.

My top 10 life highlights:

  1. I oversaw the opening of a 5-star convention centre in Madagascar and represented the local government in negotiations for a 5-star hotel. My role changed when the Madagascan president was deposed in a coup, and I was asked to assist him in escaping the country.
  2. I have travelled to 39 countries.
  3. Meeting my beautiful wife, Hana, and getting engaged after 10 days. We are still together 36 years later!
  4. Honeymooning in Czechoslovakia.
  5. Watching my wife give birth to our son, Michael, and later watching him get married.
  6. Going to Amsterdam to stay with friends and realising that they didn’t live in Amsterdam.
  7. Winning the Southern Sun’s Hotel of the Year Award for innovation while at the Johannesburg Sun.
  8. Working in central Johannesburg without dying. (In my first six months on the job, seven people died in the hotel, and only one of them was from natural causes!)
  9. Reading the story of my mom in hardcopy.
  10. Hosting the Rudyard Kipling re-enactment dinner.

What would you tell your younger self?

  • Travel is priceless, so travel more.
  • Study and don’t give up.
  • Be passionate about your job.
  • Don’t quit.
  • Appreciate your family while they are still alive.
  • Get a dog and let them sleep on your bed.
  • Marry your best friend.

Any last words?

It doesn’t matter how bad things get, always keep your sense of humour – right till the end.

About Charles Drewe

Charles is a seasoned veteran in the hospitality industry, having worked extensively throughout Africa and Europe since 1978.
He joined Southern Sun Hotels in 1994 and has managed various properties all over South Africa that included the 800-bedroom Holiday Inn Garden Court Johannesburg.

In 2003, Charles launched and then headed up the group and convention division of the Southern Sun Group, before being transferred to the Sandton Convention Centre in 2004 as GM of sales and marketing.

Charles was actively involved in many aspects of the phenomenally successful FIFA World Cup 2010 which included hospitality for VISA, one of the major sponsor groups, as well as the accommodation and transport sectors.

Most recently Charles managed the 259-bedroom Indaba Hotel, Spa & Conference Centre between 2013 and 2019, after which he retired due to ill health.