A native of the U.S., Kevin Gerlach spent much of his life as a sales and marketing consultant before abandoning the corporate life in 2007 to open Villa Zest, a boutique hotel in Cape Town that was dubbed the ‘Trendiest Hotel in the World’ by TripAdvisor. We caught up with Kevin about what it’s like to run a hotel and why he loves South Africa so much.

Kevin, you’ve lived and worked in so many places from California to Europe. What is it about Cape Town that hooked you from the get-go?

After living land-locked in Germany and Austria with cold winters many rainy summers for 14 years I was really yearning to getting back to a laid back life-style and the mild climate I enjoyed growing up in San Diego. So for me, Cape Town was literally love at first sight.  Not only did Cape Town offer me the laid back beach driven life-style I missed so much from San Diego but it had the added bonus of a European eating and wine culture I had become accustomed to after my many years in Europe.

How is life in South Africa different from (or better than?) life in the U.S. or Europe?

Whether the U.S. or Europe I never experienced the quality of life I enjoy living in South Africa.  For me this occurs on many different levels.  On the human level, I find a friendliness and a willingness to help others that I have not even experienced in the States.  My guests mention the same to me all the time.  There is even a system of thanking fellow motorists for being courteous by briefly putting on one’s hazards on.

There is something fresh and pure about living in a country that is still a young democracy, where people are still willing to try new ways and experiment, in contrast to the States or Europe where most things are already set in stone and, accordingly, many things are taken for granted.

Another quality I really appreciate in South Africa is the incredible variety of fresh food and produce.  Here the tomatoes still taste like tomatoes and not some tasteless greenhouse creation. My guests equally rave about the quality of food and the fact that they can enjoy a bottle of wine or two for the price of a glass in Europe or the U.S.

What made you want to change gears and open a boutique hotel after working as a corporate consultant and sales director for so long?

Doing the corporate grind, my life had turned into one big blur and the only focus I had was work 25/8.  In 2001, a friend of mine finally managed to get me to take a proper vacation after working all out for 5 years straight.  He strategically chose a road trip through Cuba, which at the time not only meant no cell phone connection but literally almost no phone connection at all.  There was absolutely zero chance for me to run the multi-million dollar sales operation I was responsible for, though I would have done so given the chance. This was the rattling I needed. Not only was the two week trip in Cuba a very humbling experience, it literally ripped me back into the real world allowing me to appreciate the beauty of life again. From that day on my corporate trajectory would be no more.

Having spent many years traveling during my corporate days, I always enjoyed staying in smaller boutique hotels around the world versus staying at commercial hotels.  It was any easy choice for me to want to create a boutique hotel, as it gave me a vehicle to combine my appreciation of design and architecture while still having a strong social component by hosting guests from all over the world. The Villa Zest represents my dream to create a small boutique hotel that is a reflection of everything I wanted in a hotel while I was on the road.  I always say the Villa Zest was not designed from a boardroom with a developer’s perspective but from the standpoint of a traveller.

How did you come up with the totally unique design elements for Villa Zest – particularly the ‘70s themed décor and objects that, as we heard it, you sourced from eBay?

The outer shell of the Villa Zest Boutique Hotel represents a Bauhaus inspired architecture, which had its origins in Germany in the 1920s. Bauhaus architecture is minimalist and the challenge was warming up the space to make it inviting. I did this by doing a modern twist on a ’70s interior with shag rugs, ball chairs, brown and faun colors touched off with ’70s-inspired wallpaper. The ’70s for me represents a carefree, warm and playful era. Nothing embodies this more than the popular consumer electronics of the time. This was the inspiration for putting together a comprehensive collection of originals, which are displayed in our object art gallery.  It took around a year and 700 hours of scouring eBay in the U.S. to source the items. As the items were produced over 40 years ago, it was a real treasure hunt to try to find all the funky colours of a particular model in displayable condition. The guests love them as they get to see among others, the Apple iPod equivalents of the ’70s as reflected in the AM radios of the Panasonic Panapet and Toot-a-Loop.  The Toot-a-Loop is even on permanent display in the Museum of Modern Art in New York for its unique design.

How do you keep up with the times to maintain Villa Zest’s status as the ‘Trendiest Hotel in the World’?

For me trend is all about “Zeitgeist” or the spirit of the moment. Yes, trends come and go, but certain decades in history have a timeless quality about them and the ’70s is one of them. One great example is the timeless design of ’70s furniture, which continues to exist in the form of  newly produced replicas, as there will always be a demand for them.  The ’20s era Art Deco style and Bauhaus architecture equally transcend time. So, with a Bauhaus-inspired exterior and a ’70s-inspired interior, I can only hope that the Villa Zest’s design will also withstand the test of time.

Tell us a bit about life in Cape Town. What is the best thing about living there full-time?

You know you live in a truly special city when, in the middle of winter, you have the difficult lunchtime choice of either basking in the sun at a seaside restaurant or taking a short drive to lunch amongst the scenic rolling hills in the garden of a local wine estate. There is simply so much to do in and around Cape Town that I myself have not even been able to scratch the surface in the 5 years I have lived here. Where else can one cycle amongst rolling meadows between vineyards, abseil from a mountain face, paraglide from a mountain top, hike in a semi-tropical forest, picnic on the beach- all within a 20-minute drive. My personal choice of sport is surfing and, while surfing at Nordhoek Beach last week, out of nowhere, two large southern right whales appeared just frolicking in the sea. They were literally 100 metres from me. All of the surfers in the line-up just looked at each other and just smiled. This really hit home how fortunate I am to live in Cape Town.

If you’ve got friends visiting from out of town, where do you take them? Any particular restaurants, clubs or shops that rank as favourites?

Again, so much choice. For breakfast I would take them to Café Mozart for a hearty breakfast under the beautiful oak trees of their garden which is on the pedestrian zone of Church Street around the corner from Greenmarket Square. The area has a very European city feel and they can also enjoy outdoor antique market, which is also on Church Street. If they still have more appetite for antiques, they can go around the corner 50 metres up Long Street, which is the entrance to the “Antique Alley” full of vendors.

They can literally spend hours walking up Long Street and continuing on Kloof Street visiting the many bespoke boutique shops, art galleries and furniture stores with local designs. One of my favourites shops in Cape Town, where I send people to buy uniquely Capetonian arts and crafts, is the Fringe on Kloof, which showcases a wide variety of artists.

For lunch I would give them the option of a light lunch at The Grand on the Camps Bay beach promenade for some people watching or a short drive out to the historical Buitenverwachting Wine Estate for a more refined lunch amongst the picturesque rolling hills of their vineyard. From there it is an easy hop to Kalk Bay, with its vibrant boutiques and bustling fishing harbour.

Captonians love their sundowners and for this, I would take them to The Bungalow in Clifton, which has a kind of pillow oasis you can spread out on watching the beautiful sunset over the Atlantic Ocean as the final paragliders of the day land on the green patch of lawn bordering the sea in front of you.

For dinner I would suggest Bo-Kaap Kombuis for an authentic Cape Malay dish or Savoy Cabbage in the city for some gourmet food in a more relaxed atmosphere.

Night time would include a visit to Cape Town’s Orphanage in an historical building that was once an actual orphanage. Here you can sip great cocktails, enjoy hip DJs and the prettier faces of Cape Town. After that it is off to Club 31 to dance the night away from the 31st floor of the ABSA Bank building with spectacular views over the entire city.

Then finally, before heading home, we would take a short stroll over to Long Street to satisfy the early morning munchies at one of the 24-hour food kiosks.

What does the future hold for Villa Zest? Any plans for expansion or events in the coming months?

I always say running a business is always a very organic process and you constantly have to work on improving your product, as there is no such thing as the “end” product.  In the immediate future, we are preparing ourselves for the almost seven months of high season, which starts in October.

If we could somehow get the word out to the Northern Europeans that our winters are extremely mild and often much warmer with a lot less rain than their summers, then we could easily enjoy 12 months of season. I speak from experience, having endured many rained-out summers in Austria and Germany.

There are no expansion plans right now, but that could change if the right opportunity came along.

Don’t miss the full Hg2 Cape Town guide.