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THE DIPLOMAT EXPERIENCE (article first published : 2005-04-23; last edited : 2008-02-9)

Along with a group of arts journalists, I have had the good fortune to be flown up to Pretoria to attend the First Unisa Southern Africa Voice Competition – see below for last night’s results – and accommodated in The Diplomat. This sophisticated but homely guesthouse is a gracious Victorian manor situated in a prestigious leafy Pretoria suburb surrounded by many Embassies, one of these is the Royal Netherlands Embassy which is right opposite.

The building may be Victorian but there is nothing archaic about The Diplomat. Owned by friendly and engaging Marga Hofmeyr, who owns and speaks fluent German, it has been running since February last year.

With no previous experience in the hospitality industry, Marga’s passion for her new project was recognised by her “silent partner”, her son who is CEO of First National Bank. “Normally he would never fund a guesthouse because he doesn’t consider it a good investment but he did it for his mother – to keep her happy, so the investment was sound,” says Marga, with her charming smile.

Marga was involved with public relations for many years, working mainly with Unisa, before she decided she wanted to start a small private business. “I wanted to do it while I still have the energy and lust for life which I probably won’t have in another five years!” she says. “I had all the contacts and experience from working at UNISA to draw from, especially when I was in charge of the adjudicators guest programmes for the music competitions. Most of them were international adjudicators so I got a lot of experience in getting along with unique and artistic people.”

A former residence, The Diplomat has four star grading from the Tourism Grading Council. There are five guest rooms – all en-suite with baths and showers and very little construction work was needed to turn it into a guesthouse, with Marga only having to add one bathroom. My room has a huge oval bath, which was a new and very luxurious experience for me!

In her early years, Marga’s family moved around South Africa a lot as her father was a high-ranking member of government and in all, she attended 13 different schools. This moving between homes no doubt instilled in her a knowledge of what worked well or didn’t in terms of décor, home planning, etc. “My mother was quite a remarkable person. She had to entertain a lot of important people and I got my feel for entertaining from her. She also gave me my importance of small detail.

“The most important thing for an owner of a guest house is to make your guests feel at home without transcending into their private zone. It mustn’t feel like visiting your nosy aunt, you need to keep a professional distance.“But at the same time, guests must know that you are always there. The difference between a guesthouse and a hotel is that the guesthouse is supposed to be homely and not superficial - a boutique experience rather than a clothing store, if you like. The invitation is for guests to make themselves at home – up to a point!”

It’s also important for guests to remember that, unlike a hotel, guesthouses or B&B’s concentrate on the breakfast experience. This means that the cleaning and kitchen staff start work around six o’clock and go off duty mid afternoon, leaving only the manager.

Running a guesthouse requires a specifically focused frame of mind to cope with anything that comes your way. “Personality is very important and physically it’s very exhausting.,” says Marga. “My worst experience was about a month after I’d opened. It was the middle of winter; I had a house full of VIP’s and my electricity tripped. I couldn’t get it on again - all I could do was give the guests candles, borrow a gas cooker from a friend and carry on for two days!

Choosing décor for a guesthouse needs to be carefully thought out as it can’t be too specific or overdone and should never resort to being clinical. The Diplomat’s artwork is eclectic and ranges from ethnic to antique European with names like Father Claerhout, Van Essche, W H Coetser, Lucas Bambo and Wendy Malan. Marga has some beautiful silver as well as gold plated crockery and some splendid pieces of antique furniture, most of it inherited from her family. The crockery came from her mother who bought it for “next to nothing” from the wife of a wealthy American exporter of gold from South Africa, He was the character on which Ian Fleming based his movie Goldfinger which was part of the James Bond series.

“My best experience was having Archbishop Desmond Tutu here as a guest. The way he treated my house personnel was marvellous. It was my most fantastic experience. And I honestly feel that he’s left behind something of his spiritualism and sense of peace. I think I hear it in the heavenly way the birds have been singing ever since he was a guest here and wandered around the garden!”

The Diplomat is situated in Arcadia Street, Arcadia in Pretoria. Rates for 2004/2005 are R350 pp sharing/night or R550 single (Luxury Room R400 pp sharing/night or R600 single). Rates include a full English or Continental breakfast. It is approximately 40km from the Johannesburg International Airport, easily accessible from the R21 freeway in 35 minutes. Phone 012 344 3131, fax 012 344 5699 or 082 883 1293 e-mail: marga@thediplomat.co.za or visit www.thediplomat.co.za - Caroline Smart

Winners of the First Unisa Southern Africa Voice Competition were Young Singers of Namibia (Namibia) ; 4Bourbon Vocal Ensemble (RSA); The G-String Ensemble (RSA); MC Art Academy Vocal Ensemble (RSA) and Palisa Vocal Ensemble (Zambia). A full press release will follow – see Music section)




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