Nigeria’s hospitality industry still dependant on government support—Sheraton Abuja Hotel GM

Posted: November 11, 2010 in travel & tourism

 

 

As Nigeria attains the 50 year mark, Sheraton Abuja Hotel’s Danish-born General Manager, Mr. Morten Ebbesen in this interview with VICTOR NZE gives his assessment of the tourism industry in general, state of and challenges confronting Nigerian hotels, tips for efficient management of hotels as well as his thrills in running a hotel in the country.

 

Your background

 

I came first to Nigeria in 1993 as a deputy General Manager in this hotel. I spent 2 years here in Nigeria in that capacity and I enjoyed tremendously the opportunity to make an impact on the hospitality industry which has a lot to learn. And there is a huge opportunity here as well especially as far as the Sheraton Abuja is concerned with quality assurances and making sure that our standards are kept up to standards.  And when I had the opportunity to return to the country last year I didn’t hesitate to come here. It’s a great opportunity for us here to help the hotel and to build the brand so as to return to its former glory.

 

As a businessman, how would you describe the Nigerian business environment?

 

I’ll say a bit of up and down. Here in Abuja we rely very much on government patronage and on what happens in the government scene. So as of now we have a very busy period coming ahead of us like the independence celebration, the elections in April and handover in May all next year. So we expect that the next six months will be good for business. Normally and traditionally every year between September and October up to November is always very busy with government functions and events in Abuja. So we are very positive and we think we’ll have a great end to the year and a very good start next year – business wise that is.

 

Starwood is currently making in roads into the Nigerian market what with the Four Points  by Sheraton officially opening soon, how would you rate existing Starwood properties and brands in Nigeria?

 

We are the market leaders in the country at the moment with two Le Meridien hotels, one Port Harcourt and another in Akwa Ibom. We have Four Points now opening up in Lagos and we have the Lagos Sheraton and the Abuja Sheraton. So in terms of coverage in the 5-star hotel market we are probably the best representative in the country. We also see a great opportunity to expand and the possibilities to open more Four Points hotels around Nigeria. We hope to in the next 10 years time to have presence in all the major gateways in Nigeria with at least a Four Point facility.

 

How soon is your projection for this expansion?

 

Well it depends on the investors basically. And we don’t invest in hotels, we manage hotels. If you have investors that are willing to put the right money up for the right quality and the right size of hotels then we are happy to discuss with them. At the moment we have one more project on the line which is the Le Meridien in Ikoyi, Lagos. We hope that it would be nearing completion in the next year or year and half and then we have lots of other smaller projects in the country but which are not yet off the ground but could be a reality in the next five years.

 

What is the extent of work carried out so far in your renovation and expansion plans at the Sheraton Abuja?

 

This year we committed to doing 150 rooms. The modern rooms should be ready by December this year. We will kick off again by the June, July next year with the first batch of another 150 rooms rolling in. All in all, we hope to do just over 300 rooms between next year and 2012.

 

What generally would you say are the challenges facing the hospitality industry in Nigeria?

One of the big issues in Nigeria is investment, and continued investment and upkeep of the product. Maintenance is also very important especially in preventative maintenance. What happens usually in the industry is that you buy something and then you don’t look after it. But we here in this hotel, we had a major overhaul of what I call the backbone of the business. This year we’ve installed new generators, air conditioning and water treatment and supply system and the entire backbone of the building. Now we are turning our attention to the aesthetics of the hotels. But my advice would be to make sure you spend on maintenance and upkeep of facilities   and not just building new hotels and then not spending enough on maintenance.

 

Do you believe Nigeria or Abuja in particular has enough room capacity to handle current demand?

 

Abuja can certainly do with one or two branded properties. At the moment it’s only the Hilton and Sheraton and we have for years been hearing stories about either Marriot or Intercontinental coming on board, but so far there is nothing on ground to suggest that. Abuja needs one more big hotel to cope with the demand; now because of the celebration it’ll be very hard to find a room in Abuja.

 

In terms of presence, what is the difference between the Nigerian and South African industry for Starwoods?

 

There’s not much difference between Nigeria and South Africa. We actually have a greater presence of Starwood in Nigeria than in South Africa though South Africa has one other major boost and that is tourism. Tourism in Nigeria is still slow coming in, compared to South Africa. The infrastructure in the country, that is, the safety aspect of the industry is still a concern and we try in our own way to promote tourism in Nigeria but sadly it is still very slow in developing.

 

Other than tourism, what else would you say can drive the hospitality industry in Nigeria?

 

We need to encourage investment into Nigeria in areas like the power sector, educational sector and others. We need to show the world outside that Nigeria is a good place to invest. There’s no doubt that Nigeria is one of the prime locations in Africa to invest. The opportunities here are good. We need to make it simple, seamless for investors to come in and drive corporate business as more investment creates more jobs.

 

What is the government not getting right in terms of policy formulation?

 

I think they are beginning to get it right. We are coming on the right track. We need continuity. We need somebody that can understand the opportunities with international investors. However, the policies that had been coming from government in the past, some of them make it a little bit difficult for us in the industry. For example, the ban on importation of certain items does not maker our life any easier. But then on the other hand we had to encourage people to set up furniture manufacturing in Nigeria. We had to make sure we can get the right quality in the country rather than going out. We have in the past been forced to go out to import but now I think the quality is getting much better. If I look at the quality of the locally-made furniture, fabrics and others. What I first saw in 1993 is a huge difference with what I see now. It has vastly improved.

 

How much impact does hosting international events in the country have for your industry?

 

Yes, of course, anything that we can do to put the country on the map whether sports events, political events, we are Sheraton will always supports. Nigeria is the most populous country in West Africa It did well for Abuja, Lagos, Port Harcourt and so where the matchers were played. More price that are welcome. And we need to show our strength in the international market. I think we are doing well on that right now. I mean we hosted the U-17 World Cup just recently, and it was a great event. It did well for Abuja, Port Harcourt, Lagos which hosted matches. More of that is welcome.

 

In terms of human capacity, how would you rate Nigeria?

 

Staff? We have good staff here, excellent friendly and welcoming. What we do here at Sheraton Abuja is that we hire based on attitude and then we can train the skill. It’s very difficult to hire skill and then train attitude. We have at the moment almost 800 good staff in this hotel and I think we can pride ourselves on having excellent, friendly employees who care for our customers. Our hotel is a friendly, welcoming  home away from home.

 

Even in the face of its many challenges, what would you say is the thrill of managing a hotel in Nigeria?

 

For me it is the opportunity to show, touch and feel progress and there’s no doubt that this is a greater challenge than running a hotel in Europe, because there are more things to fix. It is very enjoyable to see everyday (and our customers comment on it everyday also), that they are really happy to see the changes happening at our hotel. And you can count the feedback from satisfied customers. What I keep saying to them is that we are making changes. We are making steady progress. We can’t have a completely new hotel at the snap of the fingers, it is not going to happen tomorrow. It is going to happen by 2012, 2013 then we can surely say we have a new hotel.

 

Where do you see the Nigerian hotel industry in industry in the next 10 years?

 

I have no doubt that as more brands come in they bring in more investment; also as we need more hotels throughout the country. So in my opinion this is still a growing industry with a lot of employment opportunities in Nigeria. More and more people are employed in the tourism sector. So it’s a good positive story for everyone.

 

What would you give as advice to your counterparts in the industry?

 

Look at the quality. Make sure you look after the customer and maintain your property well.

 

When is the next scheduled refurbishment at Sheraton Abuja starting after the present one?

 

Well, if we do 300 rooms over the next two years then 90 per cent of our products will then be within five to six years old. We have rooms that have been refurbished over 2004-2006. There will be need for another refurbishment in 2015 and perhaps we’ll give a little breather and we start again thereafter. But for now we see the 300 room as the most pressing issue. We have 600 rooms in total capacity. So if we do 300 now we have 260 already in good quality then you can say we pretty much have our products done.

 

Why the preference for Lagos instead of Abuja in terms of citing of future Starwood projects?

 

We don’t make the choice, we look at the investors. What is it that he wants to build? And then we can present the brands to him. We have many other brands that are also coming to Nigeria. We have a brand called Westin, which will have slightly higher requirement in terms of F&B (Food and Beverage). We now have to say that if you want a Westin brand you’ll have to have three restaurants whereas with the Sheraton branding, you only need two restaurants and the Four Points branding, you have just one. It depends on what investor wants, which markets best fits because in some areas it makes no business sense having three restaurants. In the same way, you may want to build a hotel with a huge conference centre and some places just a small one will do.  The demographics, investors issues are taken into consideration which citing a brand of Starwoods. So we are happy to have any brand as long as it fits the demographics.

 

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