Africa Travel Week
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ATW Podcast

Behind the Mic with Gillian Saunders

Gillian works as an adviser to private and public clients across the spectrum in tourism, including the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA) and she, worked on the TBCSA’s Public-Private Growth Initiative (PPGI) Tourism Growth Strategy which projected the potential of 21 million tourist arrivals which President Cyril Ramaphosa mentioned in both 2019 SONAs.        

Prior to that Gillian was Special Advisor to the then Tourism Minister; Minister Derek Hanekom.   

Until mid-2018 Gillian was Deputy CEO of Audit Tax and Advisory Firm, Grant Thornton in Johannesburg, and head of their Advisory Services in South Africa. Gillian’s client-facing expertise while at Grant Thornton was consulting to the hospitality, tourism and leisure industries and she has a long track record, of more than 30 years in her area of speciality.    

In 2012 Gillian was appointed Global Sector Leader, Hotels and Tourism for Grant Thornton and she led a team of experts in various fields related to the industry from over 25 countries. Gillian has consulted extensively in all aspects of these industries for the public and private sectors throughout Africa.  Her work includes tourism destination and tourism marketing strategies and plans and working on many aspects of feasibility, market development, economic and social impacts across the industry including for hotel and tourism accommodation, conference and exhibition industry, air-routes, airports, attractions, and more.    

Gillian is a member (and previous chairperson) of the board of the University of Johannesburg’s School of Tourism and Hospitality and is passionate about education and education in the Hospitality and Tourism sector. 

Q&A with Gillian 

What are you hoping could ignite enthusiasm on what you’re going to speak about? (Without giving away too much) 

Really extracting some key takeaways for African destinations from the evolving post COVOD travel trends   

What have you missed with regards to face-to-face contact in the events speaking space? 

Nothing beats the body language and facial cues that enable more nuanced and enriched interactions when talking face to face, one on one or in groups of any size. Then when meeting people one knows in person again (or any time), this really cements the connection – a hug, a handshake or a peck/kiss – can’t remotely equate to a Zoom/Teams/etc greeting.    

How did you come to do what you do, tell us a bit about your career advancement? 

Wow – 50 years ago I started to enjoy hospitality and catering related management roles (at church, girl guide camps, school camps) and then looked into and applied for a degree in Hotel and Catering Management (very unusual at the time) – while on a gap year (1976-1977) working in Cannes. I dreamt of coming back to manage the Carlton Hotel on La Croisette in Cannes – which I never did (NB there were virtually no female GMs in those days!).  But after stints working in Paris during my degree, then Germany and Switzerland after my degree, I ended up in SA working for Southern Suns – first at the then 5-star Maharani, then at the Cape Sun Opening, then at the head office in, and then running, the DP (which we now call IT) department. I also did the Sandton Sun, Johannesburg Sun and Drakensberg Sun openings, managed systems installations at a number of hotels, and managed the development of the first Southern Sun CRS and Loyalty Card systems.  

Then after an MBA I joined Kessel Feinstein – which became Grant Thornton in 1991- as a hospitality and tourism consultant and stayed doing that for 30 years (while also taking on expanded leadership roles and finally being Deputy CEO & Head of Advisory as well).  Then semi-retirement was beckoning and at the same time Minister Derek Hanekom asked if I would be his special advisor – so I left GT and took on that role for his last 19 months as Minister of Tourism. Since then, I’ve done independent advisory work for a range of clients including the TBCSA. 

I never went back to being GM of the Carlton – in fact, I never made it to GM, but I think the teenage girl from [a village in] Yorkshire with dreams, did OK to get to be a Minister’s advisor.  

What makes Africa Unique? 

It is vast and varied – it has many experiences which are totally unique – even if there’s Niagara and Vic Falls – Vic falls is far more majestic and in a largely untouched setting in the bush.  Same of the uniqueness of our desserts, mountains and volcanoes, rift valleys and palaeontology, Fish River Canyon and immense great lakes. Then the peoples and their many cultures, and not to mention our totally unique and majestic animals in the vast wilderness and un-spoilt areas. Then beaches and dramatic coastlines.  Oh – and the weather    

What is the first thing you will do once you set foot in Cape Town? 

Go see my daughter in Paarl – then enjoy some (maybe lots of) wine tasting 

Looking back as past events that you have been to, what business connection/relationship stands out that made it truly worthwhile? 

Often it’s fellow panellists like Daniel Silke, Tom Buncle, Harold Goodwin, Victor Kgomoeswana who I’ve met at events and who’ve become good contacts.   

Tell us a story about a past event where something truly memorable happened (funny or serious)? 

 WTM in London in 2019 – which opened two days after the Springboks beat England in the Rugby World Cup Final and we all wore our Springbok jerseys every day and people from all countries, including the UK, would stop us – in the exhibition or on the street – and say well done, well-deserved, what a great win – made us feel 10 feet taller – which I am sure only sold South Africa better   

Africa Travel Week

Africa Travel Week (ATW) focuses on inbound and outbound markets for general leisure tourism, luxury travel, LGBTQ+ travel and the MICE/business travel sector as well as travel technology. Shows include: ILTM Africa, WTM Africa, EQUAL Africa, ibtm AFRICA, Travel Forward, Sports & Events Tourism Exchange and African Tourism Investment Summit.