Wide skies: sparking magic at Mont Rochelle, South Africa's dreamy winelands retreat
Finding happiness is a goal that most of us aspire to in life – but for Annette de Villiers, operations manager at Mont Rochelle, it’s also a vocation. For the past five years, Annette has taken charge of guest experiences at the Virgin Limited Edition hotel, nestled in the heart of South Africa’s Western Cape winelands.
It’s a role that has given her direct insight into the art of surprise and delight, whether that’s curating something spectacular like a surprise proposal overlooking the vineyards, or crafting smaller moments of joy on a daily basis.
“We really take time to get to know our guests at Mont Rochelle, which means we can add in little dashes of colour throughout their stay, to make everything more special,” Annette tells Virgin Red. “We only have 22 rooms in total, so when guests check in, we take time to talk to them and get an understanding of their lives, or what they’re looking for in a great holiday. If they mention they’re celebrating a birthday, for example, we might surprise them with a personalised card and bottle of bubbly in their room. Or we could even organise an upgrade where space allows.”
“We’re in the food and wine hub of South Africa here in Franschhoek, so booking is key – we can help to arrange reservations at some of the great restaurants nearby,” Annette continues. “Equally we have our own stunning flagship restaurant, MIKO, and we can organise anything from a private dinner in our beautiful herb garden, to a winery tour or something a bit different, like horse riding or a gin tasting session for two. Franschhoek is a small town and we have lots of great local contacts to help make the magic happen.”
With Virgin Red members able to book a three-night stay for two at Mont Rochelle using Virgin Points, we caught up with Annette to find out more about the experience that awaits guests at this wondrous winelands escape.
The personal touch
With a career in hospitality spanning hotels from London and beyond, Annette has developed a fine eye for detail – and a lot of what her and her team do at Mont Rochelle revolves around the little touches.
“When we’re talking about a well-prepared room, there are a number of details that we look for,” says Annette. “For example, is the air con at the correct temperature and the underfloor heating working? Are the flowers fresh? What about toiletries? We use Africology, a fantastic local and luxury chemical-free label, for our bathroom products, so everything is made from natural plants and is suitable for sensitive skin.”
Key to this process is understanding – and exceeding – customer expectations. “Someone might mention that they’re gluten intolerant for the purpose of breakfasts and dinners at the hotel,” says Annette. “They’re not expecting anything else, but then we’ll ask our wonderful chefs to bake some fresh gluten-free cookies to be left as a surprise treat in their room. When it comes to cakes and similar treats, we have an incredibly talented pastry chef, Michaela, who’s baking is just out-of-this-world. She recently created some handmade macaroons for our guests, to deliver as part of room drops, and it’s these kind of extras that make staying at Mont Rochelle such a magical experience.”
When guests check in at Mont Rochelle, they are offered drinks and taken on a walk around the property, for a first-hand view of facilities such as the restaurants, spa and tennis court overlooking the vineyards. “The check-in process is very personal because it provides the opportunity for guests to get to know our team and for us to get to know them, too,” Annette explains.
“You might find out it's a particularly special trip for them – for example, they’re on honeymoon, or celebrating a belated anniversary that’s been delayed due to Covid. It’s these little things that we pick up on in the conversation. Then we might offer to help make their celebration even more special; for example, with a picnic in the hotel’s rose garden, or hidden away by the dam – which is a beautiful spot. The grounds of Mont Rochelle stretch over 100 acres so offer plenty of scope for something special and we love nothing more than really getting to know our guests.”
Moments of surprise and delight
Of course, Annette and her team are brilliant at coordinating more formal occasions for guests, too. “We love celebrating anything here,” she says. “If it's a Tuesday we'll celebrate just because it's a Tuesday.”
Unsurprisingly, given the romantic feel of Mont Rochelle, staff are often called upon to help arrange marriage proposals. They’ll work alongside guests to fine-tune details such as cake flavours, types of flowers, lighting or liaising with a local musician for light guitar music.
“The other day we had a proposal and the gentleman had booked several rooms for his family and friends to come and stay,” Annette says. “They had to check in prior to the couple and hide in their rooms when they arrived. The couple came along, had a little romantic drink on our beautiful terrace and the gentleman proposed. When she turned around, all their loved ones were there waiting to celebrate the special occasion too, before joining them for a private dinner and wine tasting in The Manor House – Mont Rochelle’s Private Villa – afterwards.”
This kind of occasion involves a lot of stage management and theatrical flair from the Mont Rochelle team; but other occasions may see them doubling up as family figures. “We had a lovely Brazilian family stay with us in the private villa once, and their teenage sons wanted to go to an exclusive party in Cape Town for New Year’s,” recalls Annette. “We were able to arrange access to the party, but once they got there, one of them realised they had left their wallet back at the hotel – so we had a bit of fun sorting that out.”
At times, the Mont Rochelle team may also find themselves playing the role of luxury concierge. “One of the biggest challenges I’ve been tasked with, was arranging a last-minute private charter plane for a family we had staying in The Manor House,” Annette says. “They wanted to go and visit a rhino they were sponsoring in a reserve near Kruger, before going straight onto Johannesburg for the Global Citizen Festival. A task like that involves a lot of planning and logistical detail.”
All about the people
Above all, says Annette, creating happiness at Mont Rochelle is a feat that comes down to having a really strong crew of people working behind the scenes.
“We are a really great team,” she says. “I’ve been here five years, and most of the staff I work with have been here longer than me. As operations manager, I might be the point-person that guests speak to, but we have so many diverse and knowledgeable staff who work to accommodate guest requests and make their stay memorable. It's most definitely a team effort and there is nothing than makes us happier than ensuring our guests' experience is an incredible one.”
This involves the Mont Rochelle team not only working closely with one another, but also with the wider community of Franschhoek. “We’re based in a fairly small town and people are always quick to help each other out,” says Annette. “We tend to build relationships, for example, with local musicians or florists – so you always have someone whose number you can dial.
“Emma, our welfare manager, has a great relationship with our local community, whom we are passionate about supporting and she's involved with lots of excellent projects when it comes to recycling our waste and other similar initiatives to help the environment and support the beautiful location we are privileged to work in. Then our executive chef Garth ensures that our produce is sourced from no longer than an hour out of town where possible, so we are constantly reducing our food miles and showcasing the very best locally sourced food. We have the same approach with hotel’s rooms: even the minibar chocolate at Mont Rochelle is made just 20 minutes away, so we really do try and make use of local produce wherever possible, and ensure sustainability and impact is always front of mind.”
So, Mont Rochelle’s design is tip-top, and its facilities are world-class; but it is the people that make the property. “They’re the ones who fix things and communicate well, and deliver the Virgin magic,” says Annette. “Ultimately it’s the team who make sure that all the fine details are looked after, with standout experiences and guests who very much leave us as family.”
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