Mariette du Toit-Helmbold, CEO of Cape Town Tourism, will be leaving the organisation in July, she announced on Thursday, after nine years at its helm. While she wrote in the media statement that she had not renewed her contract with Cape Town Tourism, we believe that it is her organisation’s funder, the City of Cape Town, that may have decided to not renew her contract, Councillor Grant Pascoe finding her to be ‘inedible’, as per its original media release!

Mrs Helmbold took over the reins at Cape Town Tourism when the previous Section 21 Cape Town Tourism company was closed down by the City of Cape Town by bleeding it dry financially.  At that time Sheryl Ozinsky was the CEO of the organisation, and I served on the Board as its Deputy Chairman. I remember the sad day for Mrs Helmbold at that time, when the V&A Waterfront’s Tourist Information Centre, headed up by her, was closed down, and we tried to help mop up her tears.  Much has changed since then, Mrs Helmbold having grown in confidence when she was lucky to have been appointed as CEO of Cape Town Tourism, to step into Ms Ozinsky’s shoes.  Mrs Helmbold is a friendly person, and a good networker, but she never had the energy of Ms Ozinsky, who was able to generate reams of free publicity for Cape Town with a close to zero marketing budget at the time.  In the nine year period Mrs Helmbold became very powerful, and received support and protection from the DA powerfrau team of Premier Helen Zille and Mayor Patricia de Lille. She must have felt very safe with the support, allowing herself to slip in her performance levels over time, especially in the past two years:

*   She took long maternity leave for the birth of her daughters, over two busy summer seasons, and little marketing happened in her absences.  Her priorities had clearly changed, and she increasingly ‘mommy Tweeted’ photographs of her children, on a Twitter account that is widely read by the tourism industry as she uses it when she comments about Tourism.  Her personal Twitter account has a link to the Cape Town Tourism website.  These days she hashtags her #MommyTweets, almost in proud defiance!

*   She has had inappropriate relationships with some of her staff, treating Skye Grove and Vel Corcoran as friends rather than as colleagues.  Ms Grove took photographs of Mrs Helmbold’s children at birthday parties, and was thanked via Twitter.

*   She appears to not have been able to reprimand her staff, particularly Ms Grove, who does not hide her personal agendas relative to others in the tourism industry, in retweeting disparaging Tweets, blocking tourism players, not retweeting all positive Tweets relating to Cape Town but only those of a select few, completely unacceptable in her role as the PR and Communications Manager of Cape Town Tourism.   She allowed Ms Grove to work for outside events, such as ’100 Women 100 Wines’ two years running, in handling the media coverage for the organisers,  and even paying a R20000 sponsorship towards the event in the first year.

*   She appointed Ms Grove to handle Public Relations, without testing her capabilities. The media releases, written by Ms Grove, have been poor, with grammatical errors, inane comments attributed to Mrs Helmbold, and poor proof reading!  The media release announcing Mrs Helmbold’s departure contained a major error, which led to a correction having to be issued, Councillor Grant Pascoe not having found Mrs Helmbold to be ‘inedible’, as per the original media statement sent out.  The media statement should have been checked by Ms Grove, Mrs Helmbold, Councillor Grant Pascoe, and Cape Town Tourism’s PR company Rabbit in a Hat Communications, yet it still was issued with the error!

*   She threatened legal action against ourselves for the criticism we and tourism commenters posted on our blog about her organisation’s poor marketing performance, using Cape Town Tourism’s limited financial resources to brief the organisation’s lawyers to issue a legal threat, which came to nothing. She tried to have our membership of Cape Town Tourism cancelled, at a time when it had expired and we had decided to not renew it, due to the poor marketing performance by Mrs Helmbold’s marketing team, despite the appointment of Mrs Corcoran as its Marketing executive.  Similarly, Mrs Helmbold allowed Ms Grove to brief the same legal firm to threaten us with legal action recently about our blog and comments posted by others.

The real thorn in Mrs Helmbold’s side has been the establishment of the City of Cape Town’s own Tourism, Events and Marketing department, in opposition to Cape Town Tourism, one could say.  This meant that Destination Marketing was removed from Cape Town Tourism’s mandate, and with it a few million Rand from the budget too, seen by many in the industry as a vote of no-confidence by the City in Mrs Helmbold’s leadership. The City is using the reduced Cape Town Tourism monies to fund its own marketing of the City (none of its work is visible yet)!  At the time that Mrs Helmbold went on the Turkey trip last September we had already heard that the City was considering not renewing Mrs Helmbold’s contract.

While one can speculate that Mrs Helmbold’s departure will be good for tourism as there can only be more marketing done than by Mrs Helmbold, and less Tweeting and politicking, as Mrs Helmbold had increasingly taken to. What is a concern though is that Mrs Helmbold leaves in five months, and the City will be advertising her position.  We know from Wesgro, the provincial tourism marketing body, that it is extremely difficult to find a suitable tourism leader, Wesgro still not having found a Tourism CEO in the past ten months since the previous Cape Town Routes Unlimited was amalgamated into Wesgro!  This is bad news for Cape Town and the Western Cape, if both bodies are leaderless – even with leaders no marketing has been visible for our region, so this will just get worse, one can predict!

The Cape Town Tourism media release highlighted Mrs Helmbold’s achievements, including the amalgamation of the various tourist information bureaus across the City and Somerset West, and many marketing campaigns she is praised for, which we have seen generating little benefit for our tourism industry!  Sabine Lehmann, Chairman of the Cape Town Tourism board, described Mrs Helmbold as ‘fearless’ (the context is not explained and we can not think of examples), and passionate about Cape Town (yet she did an intensive PR job for Istanbul when she was part of the Turkey delegation, and Tweets about Pringle Bay all the time).  Councillor Pascoe thanked Mrs Helmbold for her ‘leadership, commitment, and dedication to (sic) promoting Cape Town, both locally and internationally.  She has left an indelible mark on Cape Town and the tourism industry’, as if Mrs Helmbold has left the organisation already!

Mrs Helmbold leaves Cape Town Tourism at the end of July, the media statement says, but her contract expires at the end of June.  She will still present the organisation’s Annual Report at its AGM in October, where she will ‘hand over the reins to the new CEO‘!  She is said to start her own tourism consultancy business.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage