I joined Emirates Palace in 2006, and as far as I know I'm the only female head concierge in Abu Dhabi. I was born in Cape Town and before Abu Dhabi I had been working at Sun City, north of Johannesburg. It's the resort that Sol Kerzner - who just completed Atlantis in Dubai - opened in 1979. I began working there in 1992 and worked in different positions before leaving in 2005: my last job there was as guest relations manager of the Palace of the Lost City.
My most rewarding experience with a guest was getting to know Michael Jackson. While he was staying at Sun City he invited me to his concert in Munich. I was in his suite and we were looking out the window at droves of people holding up these placards saying 'we love you'. He said, 'Sandra I want that one, and that one ... ' I went downstairs and the crowd thought I was Michael's sister, Janet. That was strange.
After leaving the Lost City, I didn't know what I was going to do next. I wanted to experience the rest of the world, so I travelled in Europe, studied French in Paris and lived in Zug, Switzerland. As a child I had always wanted to go to Switzerland because when we first got television - and getting a television in South Africa back then was a big deal - Heidi was the first thing I saw. Now I've been visiting for the last 15 years.
Learning languages has been a great help to me. I speak English, Afrikaans, German, Swiss-German, French and now I'm studying Russian and Arabic. Most people don't expect me to speak German. They might wait to find a German-looking person - who may not even be German - to ask something. It's taught me that people just judge by what they see. When they've misjudged me they've always been surprised in the end. They say, 'Oh, you're the chief concierge?'
I think the most challenging part of my job is that being in the UAE we have a huge combination of intercultural differences. I manage 49 male colleagues from 14 different countries - the hotel's bellmen, doormen and guest information team. To combine them into one pot and get them to think in one way requires a lot of effort. When I first started the job and realised that some of these guys were twice my size, I wondered how I was going to manage. Being a woman has made me more determined but I think if you come armored with the knowledge you need to do the job, it helps. My favourite part of the job is managing my team well. One of the gentlemen who works here doesn't speak any English but he calls me Condoleezza Rice. I don't know if there is a resemblance. But people see this woman talking to 20 guys and they have a lot of respect for me. I speak to my staff as normal people, as colleagues on the same level and they can see that.
Guests who come to this hotel have sky-high expectations. It's a palace and so they are expecting palace service. You have to have that in hand. You can run the most beautiful hotel in the world but without the experience and mentality that goes with it you can just shut your doors. I want to show the guests not only service, but also care. I basically grew up in a hospitable home where we were always serving each other and family and friends. Even as a young child I remember my family hosting all of these traditional birthday celebrations, grandfather's celebrations and Christmas parties. I guess that when it was time to decide on a career I just stuck to what I knew.
My grandfather was an absolute inspiration. He taught us how to live happily with little and to survive with nothing. Being this colour in South Africa when I grew up was being a nobody, the worst. So I am driven because my grandfather told us that if you want something, don't rely on anybody. Make it happen. It doesn't matter if you don't have money. People say, 'if you had a wish, what would you ask for?' I wish I could have him back for another ten years.
When I had the job offer and first saw Emirates Palace, it was intimidating. I said, 'I'm not going to get this job, are you crazy? I'm female.' But they believed in me and my expertise, and they were convinced that I could do the job. This was the greatest thing. It encouraged me then and has nurtured me through everything since.