1. Can you please tell us more about your business?
A. My main business over the past 15 years has been Heads on Beds, which is a central reservation booking system. Heads on Beds benefits both the accommodation provider and the clients by providing a one-stop central reservation facility for accommodation, conferences, meeting venues, events, tours, and travel arrangements.
Over the years, as the industry has developed locally and the dynamics in the town changed, partly due to the fact that as a central reservations, our goal was to match guests with suitable accommodation establishments that they did not know about, therefore, the more successful we were in matching our clients, the less they needed our services locally, and as a result, we have continually needed to adjust, change and develop other services which led to us expanding our field to provide our corporate and government clients national reservation services, adding conferencing and event services and also developing tours.
Today I also own and run a successful guesthouse and am a partner in a tourism marketing company. Due to the lockdown and the loss of income in the travel and tourism industry, due to the travel restrictions, I have also ventured into the online business space, using a network marketing system to create an additional stream of income to ensure we continue having a secure income.
2. When, how, and why did you start your business?
A. Heads on Beds was started in 2005 after originally operating as a free voluntary service for over a year to the accommodation establishments in the area as a growth strategy to keep more business in the greater Ermelo area. As a founding member and volunteer secretary of the local tourism organization, I worked closely with the chairperson (my husband) to market and develop the tourism industry in the region and as a result of this marketing, the town was getting more visitors who then would ‘leave’ as they could not find accommodation as the visible ones were full.
This was when I put in a voluntary system whereby every establishment that got a call or a ‘walk-in’ and they could not accommodate them, would pass on the central reservations number to that guest and as all the establishments reported their availability to me daily, I was then able to direct them to the available establishments.
Originally, I would only get these calls in the late afternoon, however, as our marketing had more impact and we attracted more visitors, I found myself spending more and more time redirecting guests. It was then that I realized that my husband and I could no longer fund the industry as our other businesses were suffering as a result of it and the costs were skyrocketing with telephone costs exceeding R7000 per month in 2005.
This was when I decided to formalize the system I had developed into a business, registering it as a CC in August 2005 and then also opened and started funding the Information Centre from 1 March 2006.
3. What is your role in the business?
A. My role in the business has changed over the years as the business grew dramatically and I started training and employing more people. The one role that I have always had and still have, is that of CEO and even when it got big enough to warrant a full time accountant, I always kept responsibility for the financial side of the business.
As I love the events side of the business, I happily function as the events coordinator when I can, living out my creative side by designing and planning the décor and taking responsibility for the overall smooth flow and success of the event as well.
4. Where did you study and what did you study?
A. I started my studies at the University of the Freestate, studying Theology and majoring in English and Psychology, however after 2 years, chose to finish my studies at the international Word of Faith Bible School where I qualified as a Pastor.
5. How did you finance your business?
A. I started my business from home and therefore started with very low overheads and due to the fact that my business was a service-related business, all I needed was my cellphone and my laptop. When I opened my office in town, I used office furniture that I already had and was using at home, however with regards to décor and other furniture to make it look good, I approached local artists and furniture manufacturers and asked them if they would like to put their creations at my business on consignment and for marketing purpose and they agreed, therefore it was a win-win arrangement all round. As my business grew, I funded it from the profit.
6. Describe your average workday, if such a thing exists.
A. It is hard to describe an average workday as in the tourism industry one always has to be flexible, however, one of the main things that I do is to always start my day on a positive note with some form of motivational video or book, then get ready for the day, make contact with my adult children via our family group chat, have breakfast with my husband where we chat about the day to come and talk business strategies relating to one or more of our businesses.
One thing that I have learned over the years, is to do income-generating activities first and only once this is done, get to the other duties like responding to emails and calls that are administrative in nature. In my industry, it is not uncommon to be working odd hours and taking on additional tasks as this is one industry one needs to stay flexible in.
7. How do you balance your home life and your work life?
A. There have been times when balancing my home and work life has been very difficult, and it has been in these times that I have been so thankful that I have a husband that is so supportive and who has jumped in and been involved. One advantage I have had is being married to an executive chef and therefore it has been a dream not having to think about what’s for supper! It’s been a long-time joke as my husband always tells people I was clever enough to ask for his CV before saying yes!
One of the reasons why I originally chose to become an entrepreneur, was due to the fact that I wanted to be in control of my own time and income. I have therefore been blessed to be a ‘stay-at-home mom’ as I have chosen to do businesses that I could run from home and this has afforded me the opportunity to be there for my four children as they grew up. Obviously, as they grew up and were old enough to go to nursery school and school, I would plan my days to do all the ‘out of office’ activities while they were at school (like seeing clients, banking, etc) and then be available for them in the afternoon, being involved in their lives and their extra mural activities and then, once they were either playing or asleep, I would do all my administrative work undisturbed.
As they grew up it became easier and when I became more involved in the leadership of the SACBW (South African Council for Business Women) in my role firstly as Vice-President for two years and then President for four years, I would often sit in the lounge with my laptop on my lap, therefore being with them yet being able to do any administrative tasks still due – I often joke and say, “I have HEARD a lot of movies”.
Another way I spent time with my family, was to involve them in the business: our children would attend trade shows, etc. with us, my daughter for example became the mascot for our tourism region at the age of 4 and the confidence she developed from that was priceless; we took them with to success seminars when they were old enough (high school); involved them in marketing by taking photos at our events; they traveled with me/us when it was possible with the benefit of us all taking off a few days after that for a mini holiday.
I believe you need to become creative and not be afraid to involve your children as that is how they learn, and I have seen the difference it made in their lives as today they are all confident and successful adults with great entrepreneurial and leadership skills. When traveling for the SACBW across the country, I often took my daughter with, and the exposure she had to all my mentoring and connecting with other successful businesswomen, helped her develop her business and leadership skills, resulting in her purchasing her first business on her 21st birthday after arranging her own finances, selling it 2 years later at 100% profit and opening another bigger business in another town. Work/home life balance is all about priorities and because my family has always been a priority for me, I make a plan no matter how busy I am.
8. What drives you and inspires you?
A. Something that I am passionate about and what drives me, is helping others develop their true potential and succeed. I have this philosophy in life that if you help enough others succeed, you too will be successful! When I started Heads on Beds, one of the things that drove me, was that I was able to assist others (mainly women) to open and establish accommodation businesses.
I have seen firsthand how tourism has been able to assist especially women, to create a business that has changed their and their family’s lives. I have had women sit across from me in tears and then seen those same women who I helped source a house, advise them on the changes needed to comply and also to be in line with what guests are expecting and looking for, helped them iron the sheets and make the beds to get them ready for their first guests that I had booked by them, beam with pride and joy when they earn their first cheques and get good feedback from their guests!
I have seen women start with one 3-bedroom house and three years later have 2 or 3 properties with 30+ rooms, seen some of them branch out to other towns, and felt the joy inside of knowing that I was the one that helped them get there!
When I joined the SACBW, it was their slogan “Unlocking Potential” that got me hooked and why I have dedicated my time and energy to the organization since 2007 as it is totally in line with my passion. Another important driving factor is my family as I will do anything for them to see them successful and flourishing, as well as over the years, create experiences that have helped them grow and love life.
9. Where and when do you have your best ideas?
A. I have always been an idea’s person and have never shied away from sharing ideas as the more I share, the more ideas come to me. I always have a little notebook with me wherein I write ideas as and when they come to me and have advised others to do the same. I am always on the lookout for and listening to the needs of others and that’s how many of my ideas come to me and being in the travel and tourism industry, this happens on a consistent basis when I am traveling abroad, which I have done extensively.
10. Where and how do you market/advertise your business for sales leads?
A. I believe in and have had the most success from word-of-mouth advertising and building relationships. I find that giving great service, under promising and over delivering, is the key to repeat business which also opens the door for and facilitates word-of-mouth marketing.
I also work with my husband to create various printed marketing tools for the area which is very much target market-focused with very specific drop-off points that target those already traveling. When going on international trade missions, we develop specific marketing material for each market we visit.
11. What is next for your business?
A. Due to Covid 19 and the lockdown, I have relooked at my businesses and am presently in the process of revamping how we do business and with whom we do business and to further my reach in the industry, I have also become a ‘Thought Leader’ for the tourism sector in the SACBW and this will entail writing relevant industry related articles.
With regards to my new online marketing business that is based on the network marketing model, it is fast becoming my main source of income, and once established well enough to run with minimal input from my side, I plan to author a book and start a podcast which is something that has intrigued me of late and I feel that in that way I can reach more women and impact more lives while bringing attention to all my businesses by broadening my personal brand.
12. What advice would you give to female entrepreneurs hoping to start their own business?
A. Women in general do not value themselves as they should and in doing that, they second guess their abilities and don’t believe they can make a success. I would encourage every woman out there to firstly “believe in yourself, because if you do not believe in yourself, why should others”? Each and every one has a seed of greatness within, however, it is what we do with that seed that will determine if it dies or grows into the greatness it was meant to be; get rid of negative thoughts; if it means taking small steps, then do that; surround yourself with people that value you and see your value, that uplift you and believe in you; if need be, change your circle of friends if they pull you down.
When starting out, don’t be afraid to reach out to others that have been where you are; learn from others’ mistakes and successes; listen, yes listen to your customer as after all, it is their needs that you want to fulfill, not your own; under promise and over deliver and make your customer/client feel valuable and special! And finally, never stop learning and growing.
Melinda Stark is an award-winning business owner and leader who has a passion for seeing and helping people succeed in life. Her focus has been the empowerment of women into the tourism industry by assisting and mentoring them into creating tourism-related businesses.
Melinda is comfortable to speak to any number of delegates be it 4 or 400 and uses her own experience in business and life to motivate and inspire people to reach their full potential as she believes that everyone is born with a seed of greatness within them. Melinda encourages both men and women to allow this seed to grow and develop so that they can take up their rightful place in society and be all they were meant to be.
In her role as first Vice President for 2 years, then National President for almost 4 years, and later CEO of a large women’s organization, the South African Council for Business Women (SACBW), she has traveled across the country to address and motivate women on all levels of business. She has been recognized as a leader and her inspirational talks and positive attitude to life, in general, has inspired people from all walks of life. Melinda presently fulfills the role as an Advisor to the current National President of the SACBW, mentor to the Provincial Leader of Mpumalanga, serves both on the Management and National Executive Committee, while also holding an honorary life membership of this organization.
Melinda served on the AHI’s National Board, the Women in Tourism Board, and is presently a Rotary Ann member.
Melinda is married and has 4 children who have all become leaders in their own right. She has been in business for herself for the past 30+ years and brings her expertise into all that she does. Presently she owns and runs 3 different businesses and through some of these businesses she not only empowers others but assists them in creating their own businesses, leading, inspiring, and mentoring them.
Melinda was one of the 3 national finalists in the SACBW ‘Business Woman of the Year’ in 2008 and was the national finalist and a runner up in the Africa’s Most Influential Women in Business 2014’ awards in the Tourism & Leisure sector.
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