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Royal Flush for Sandi as she bids farewell to Wild Coast Sun after 35 years

Decades of memories including elephants with pink toenails and a roulette photoshoot in the ocean

Three generations of guests have come through the doors of the Wild Coast Sun on the Eastern Cape border since Sandi Burger started working at the Resort in 1986, and it’s these faces that the PR and Promotions Manager will miss most when she retires at the end of April 2021.

“First the fathers came, they brought their sons, and now come with their grandsons. Our regular clients make Wild Coast Sun like a big family, and it’s like a reunion on an on-going basis,” Burger said.

Her journey with the Resort started in 1986 as promotions secretary. “I came from an advertising agency in Johannesburg but was already familiar with the area as my family had a holiday home on the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal,” Burger explains.

Her first General Manager was legendary Alberto ‘Chico’ Chiaranda, Italian, for whom the Chico’s Restaurant is named. Since then, she has worked under five General Managers, ending with Peter Tshidi who took over the reins last year.

“Coming from a five-star background, Peter has raised the standards and brought the Wild Coast Sun back to a four-star grading. During lockdown he never took his foot off the gas and kept the team together online, discussing what we would be doing when we re-opened and how business would have to adapt. He is all about people, be it the guests or the staff and his vision is taking the Resort from good to great,” Burger said.

“It has been gratifying to see many people who started out at Wild Coast Sun going on to hold high positions within the hotel industry. Alberto remains a major influence on my career – he taught us customer service and the love for the industry, based on family values.”

She credits Myan Moodley, who began his tenure General Manager in 2014, “for bringing back the passion” to the property.

“Wild Coast Sun, which was then located in what was known as the Transkei, was first opened as a Holiday Inn and only later changed to becoming a Sun International Resort. At the time, staff had to have a work permit to work in the Transkei.”

With such a long work history at the property, Burger has held various roles, including promotions coordinator, working for the convention centre and also inside the casino as MVG and Gaming Promotions Manager, before becoming the complex promotions manager, and later, the marketing manager.

“I remember the heydays when gambling was still illegal in South Africa and we had 36 scheduled busses arriving from Durban every Saturday night, and additional unscheduled busses parked outside. We had over 1 000 machines and 60 tables.”

Over the years, Burger has witnessed how technology has transformed gaming, offering new ways to reward customers. “With Covid-19 we moved away from draws and started an electronic bonus system, offering free plays. Promotions are much more targeted than they used to be.”

In her early days, Burger recalls the industry was very leisure orientated. “We had a limited Customer Relationship Management programme and the launch of Sun International’s Most Valued Guest (MVG) programme, whereby you could reward customers, was a pivotal moment for casinos. Through this loyalty programme people are rewarded for their play in a fairer manner, with things like room nights, meals or drinks.”

In 1986, the hotel was increased from 240 to 396 rooms, when the ‘new wing’ was added, along with a restaurant and swimming pool. “It’s still called the new wing, 35 years later,” laughed Burger. The Convention Centre was built in 1990, and in 2010, the property had a R460-million revamp, with the addition of the Wild Waves Water Park. “The entire hotel was gutted and stripped to bare concrete, it was basically a rebuild.” More recently, a soft refurbishment was completed and the resort was upgraded to a four-star grading.

Burger has many memories of fabulous entertainment events held at Wild Coast Sun. “We used to do the Durban July functions, erecting a marquee with 300 people. There was a tattersall and a tab and we had betting and bookmaking, without any licence restrictions at the time.”

When the pool reopened in the 1980s, Sol Kerzner’s irrepressible PR Melanie Millin-Moorebrought in live elephants with pink toenails, mermaids and pink balloons. Burger also recalled a photoshoot featuring models at a roulette table – in the ocean.

Former Miss South Africa, Wilma van der Bijl and American actor, Robert Wagner cut the ribbon at the opening of the convention centre. “And of course there was our Tropical Nites theatre, which hosted many international shows and extravaganzas.” Recalling the Chippendales, a male dance troupe which was first played in South Africa at the Wild Coast Sun, Burger said screams of excited women had “rung in my ears for days”.

And not forgetting the men, there was the Wild Orchid dance review bar with speciality acts.

“But everything changed in 1999 when gambling was legalised in South Africa and casinos opened throughout the country.  It was available, on your doorstep. We rightsized our casino with less machines and tables.”

As a keen golfer for the past 30 years, arranging golf tournaments like the Sunshine Tour and helping with the handicapping were a most enjoyable part of Burger’s job.  She regularly plays on the 18-hole course, designed by American golfer, Robert Trent Jones II and built in 1983. “I met Robert two years ago when he came back to look at the course, it was very exciting,” she said. “He said the bunkers were still exactly the way he had designed them, and was delighted at its pristine condition.”

“I plan to spend my retirement relaxing, playing golf and continuing with my creative hobbies which include painting, cooking, baking and gardening – all the things you don’t have time for usually.

“Wild Coast Sun has always been an amazing beach resort for MVG members and leisure clients, and it is going to remain that and continue to grow and find new generations of guests to thrill and excited.”

Tshidi said Burger’s departure would leave a very lively void in his team. “Sandi’s extensive knowledge of the property, her sense of humour and her can-do attitude will be missed. But we know we will still see her, since she might avoid the office, but she definitely won’t be able to stay off our greens.”

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