With a love for Port Alfred in her heart, Linda Bekker is one half of the ownership team of the luxurious Royal St Andrews Hotel (pictured below alongside husband and co-owner, Martin Bekker). We chatted with Linda this women’s month to discuss her inspiration for the Hotel décor as well as her advice for self-development.
Working alongside interior designer and fine artist Engela van der Hoven, Linda set out to communicate her vision for the Hotel…
Coming from a secretarial and then mobile crane hire background, interior design was not on my radar at all, apart from thumbing through the occasional design and décor magazine and trying to put together a reasonably decent home, more by the seat of my pants than any real expertise.
We employed the services of Engela van der Hoven, an interior designer and fine artist from Johannesburg and wife of our architect. She had a real eye for what I wanted and we set about choosing fabrics and designs for the old section of the hotel. We wanted to support the local businesses as much as possible in the renovation of this old lady, from the construction, plumbing and electrics to the refurbishment of the old furnishings. Fortunately assistance and enthusiastic support was available in this lovely little town, with special mention to Bennie and Johan at Dei Gratiu Home who did a splendid job of the old, well-known Highlander Pub along with many other pieces in The Paper Nautilus Deli, our Business Lounge and Reception area as well as all the woodwork on the exteriors. Belinda Prince at Easy Living, Kathryn and Alan Sheridan at Funky Junk did an amazing job of refurbishing and upholstering our old furniture. Pat Rathbone and Peggy at PatCraft moved their sewing machines into overdrive and made all the curtaining as well as upholstery in the old and new sections.
Hats off to them all, along with a multitude of local suppliers, too numerous to mention, for pulling out all the stops for us.
We only went further afield when we couldn’t source what we needed from the town. And so began a most interesting and steep learning curve that often caused sleepless nights and intense panic. What a ride…
In creating the eclectic décor style for the Hotel, Linda chose to use as many of the old furnishings from the original hotel as possible, salvaging pieces in an attempt to achieve a funky Victorian look, combining old and contemporary décor.
Engela came up with some really innovative ideas and, not fully understanding how this would all fit in, I decided to embark on a 10-week interior design short course at UCT to gain a bit more insight into décor and design techniques. Although this was really a ‘scratch the surface’ course it was quite intense and I did learn a lot. It helped to broaden my outlook and to not always play it safe. Using bright and unusual colours may not be to everyone’s taste but we certainly got people talking. We’ve had the occasional criticism, of course, which is absolutely fine as one can’t please everyone, but generally the response has been hugely positive and I’m tremendously proud of how the old hotel has panned out.
By the time the old building was nearing completion, we had to think about how we were going to fit out the new 50 room contemporary wing of the hotel. Adrian Gardner from the Mantis Hotel Group had expressed an interest in getting involved with our project and introduced us to his interior designer to spec a design for the new section, and so Maurette van Eyssen came on board. I gave her a brief of what I wanted and she came up with a design and fabrics that really fitted the bill. With her 20 years’ experience in hotel design and décor, she brought a clean, simple contemporary design to the table that reflected the fact that we were at the beach but also needed to suit conference delegates, golfers and tourists alike. I think she did a great job in achieving this and in comparison to other modern hotels, we have exceptionally spacious, uncluttered rooms – exactly what I wanted to achieve.
How and where did you source many of the pieces from?
Most of the pieces were sourced from the old hotel’s furnishings but we did have to look further afield and obtained extra pieces from junk and antique shops locally, in Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg, which was great fun. The new furnishings came from mainly from Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg and Cape Town if we were unable to source from Port Alfred.”
What role do you consider women to play in the world of today, in terms of influence on the economy and business growth, and in terms of raising families?
Women play a huge role in business and the economy – never to be underestimated and can certainly contribute as much as men in many fields but as always, the pay structures need to be equalised. There is always the most important issue of raising a family and I was lucky enough to be able to leave work when my second son was born to give my two boys all my attention. I will always be grateful for that but must admit I missed the excitement of my work life from time to time.
How have you managed to maintain balance in your own life, between work and family?
Family has always been important to me and I was extremely lucky to be able to experience being at home from my early 40s – I started late and I was 41 when my second son was born, only starting up again at the age of 60 in the completely new and unknown hospitality industry. What a wake up!!
Which job/position moulded you in your early career?
I started my career as a private secretary after graduating from Greenoaks College in Johannesburg but soon realised that this was not how I wanted to continue and needed something a bit more challenging. I managed to take myself overseas for two years to travel around Europe on a shoestring budget and found work in England and Germany, which was an amazing experience.
On returning to South Africa, I worked for the MD of Coles Cranes for a few years, when I was offered a position at a small mobile crane hire company which I grabbed with both hands as it offered an opportunity to learn a multitude of different skills, the most interesting being the hiring of mobile cranes and learning all aspects of how these machines worked. After 5 years, I was offered a position at the much larger Johnson Crane Hire, where I met Martin. He later had the opportunity to do a management buy-out of the company along with three other partners. Not being shy of taking risks and putting everything on the line, he jumped at the chance and the rest is history. Crane hire could not be further removed from interior design, so I can’t say that it had any particular influence on my present circumstances but any experience is part of the building blocks of life.
What are your hobbies and how did you come to enjoy them?
I dabbled in ceramic repairs for a time and also indulged in a bit of oil painting. I’ve always had an interest in art and enjoyed drawing so it was great fun to explore these hobbies. Travel is another huge interest for me and we’ve been extremely lucky to be able in indulge in travelling to many parts of the world.
What inspires you in your day-to-day life?
Martin has definitely been my biggest influence and inspiration with his positive, ‘never say die’ attitude. He has helped many people in his time, as have we been helped by our dearest friends; he gets the biggest kick from seeing others succeed. His greatest asset is his persevering nature and in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, he plods on regardless and never listens to the naysayers, trusting his own instincts. As Tania Adams, our local fountain of wisdom says, “It’s the crazies who change the world”. I’m also inspired by people in general, and their day-to-day struggles, successes and failures. Failing at something is just the greatest teacher and whilst one naturally never wants to fail, boy… do you learn quickly.
Attitude is everything! As is always the case, I wish I knew at the start of this project what I know now but everything is a process of course.
What does family-time mean to you?
Family time is being home with as many of our family members as we can muster and having a big indulgent meal together. I love food and it’s a great and very sociable way of being together and communicating. Our boys are now 25 and 21 and working towards obtaining degrees in their various fields. I’m very proud of them both as they’ve turned out to be special and principled young men.
When did you first fall in love with Port Alfred and how did you and Martin decide to invest in the community through Royal St Andrews Hotel?
We came to Port Alfred in 2008 to visit friends and fell in love with the place and the warm, friendly people. We made the impulsive decision to buy a property there and then. When we were able to take leave and come down for a visit, we always enjoyed the Highlander Pub and had some really good meals in The Thistle restaurant, which was tiny at the time.
I remember Martin standing on the old veranda outside The Thistle gazing out over the pool and garden area, returning to the table to tell me what a great property he thought it was and what potential it had.
Of course never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that we would end up fulfilling that thought, but as soon as he found out it was in fact on the market, he contacted the owner and the rest, as they say in the classics, is history. The old girl really was in dire need of a refurbishment and only when we got into the bones of the place, did we realise just how much work needed to be done. It really was in a bad state and much of the structure had been severely compromised by previous alterations.
Not being as courageous as Martin, I wanted to turn tail and run but he has never shied away from a challenge and he’s never done things in half measures, so what started as a minor fix up, ended in a major renovation which, of course with the building being over 60 years old, required the approval of the Historical Society – just another challenge. Martin felt the area desperately needed a conference centre to attract more people to the town and once that became a reality, we had to add more rooms to accommodate conference delegates, golfers and tourists to the town.
In accordance with the brief from the Historical Society, we were forbidden to try and copy the old Tudor style building as that would just make the old look terrible, so our architect designed a completely different, more contemporary styled building to accommodate 50 extra rooms. We had a relatively small piece of ground but once we secured the sale of two properties next door to the hotel, we were on our way to being the proud owners of a 60-room hotel.
What is your favourite part of Port Alfred (besides the Hotel, of course!)?
Our wonderful endless beaches have to be our next favourite thing where one can walk for miles, often without encountering another soul, depending on the time of day. Not to mention a variety of wonderful malaria-free, big five game reserves within 120km of Port Alfred, a bird sanctuary, boat rides up the Kowie, deep sea fishing, surfing and scuba diving to mention just a few of the attractions around this historic little town.
I don’t have a favourite colour but since being involved in the hotel, I have learnt to love and “see” so many new colours that were not on my horizon before and to take a chance and be bold with colour.
Favourite type of music?
No favourites here either. Music is so diverse and different. I love all good music genres. From the old school, I love and will always remain a loyal fan of Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac – I guess they are my all-time favourites. At the moment Adele is just the most amazing singer/songwriter but that could change, though she’ll take some beating.
If you could share some advice with the women of South Africa, what would it be?
Be bold but remain humble! You will be amazed at what you can achieve if you apply yourself. And don’t let your age stop you or be an excuse not to take a chance or start a new career.
You never stop learning. Don’t be afraid of making a mistake and take criticism on the chin – one can’t please everyone but we’ve had some very constructive advice from all sectors and made changes where possible. All clichés I know but very relevant.