May 2021

For Nigeria to lead tourism recovery, some elements should be in place

Posted By : superbeo/ 714

Adetope Kayode is the Chief Executive Officer, ICON Hotels & Resorts Nigeria, the management company for Ibom ICON Hotel & Golf Resort, Uyo, Akwa Ibom State. A subsidiary of ICON Hotels & Resorts Africa, the firm is a pan-African hospitality chain based in Nairobi, Kenya, with properties and interests across Africa. Over the years, ICON has worked in countries like Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda. In West Africa, the brand is currently expanding to Nigeria, Gambia, Senegal, Cameroon, Benin Republic and Ghana. In this interview, he spoke on the vision of ICON brand for Africa, ongoing transformation at Ibom ICON Resort and how Nigeria could lead tourism recovery post COVID-19. He spoke with Chinonso Ihekire

Adetope Kayode

Could you share with us the vision behind ICON Hotel & Resort as a hospitality brand?
The whole idea of the brand Icon is more or less a movement that is targeted at the emergence of hospitality professionalism in the African industry. Kenya has a very long history of expertise in the hospitality industry that dates back several decades. From that training in professionalism, the business has arrived. You would find a lot of training institutions and Kenyan experts exporting talent across the continent and generally pushing the standard to the next level. That’s exactly what is happening in Nigeria today.

The Nigerian hospitality industry has come of age. It is about time that the experience we have cultivated over the years gets channeled into actively managing our prized assets by ourselves. This particular asset we are managing used to be a Western asset, but it is now called the Ibom ICON Hotel & Golf Resort, Uyo; we are rebranding the facility. We are taking creativity in terms of product offerings, and service delivery to another level. By doing that, we are showcasing African hospitality unashamedly and in an authentic manner.

You took over the management of Ibom Resort in the middle of the pandemic. How were you able to manage the situation, especially when most hotels were shutdown as a result of the nationwide lockdown?
So, we had been here – specifically talking about Uyo – since February 2020, just before the pandemic hit hard. We were here throughout the lockdown from February to October when we took over the asset. Then, we spent time going through every fabric of the property; there was nothing to do anyway; we studied, understood the property and its challenges. Then we started to create rapid response initiatives so that post-pandemic when we deploy them, we would have very sharp growth trajectory.

Adetope Kayode is the Chief Executive Officer, ICON Hotels & Resorts Nigeria, the management company for Ibom ICON Hotel & Golf Resort, Uyo, Akwa Ibom State. A subsidiary of ICON Hotels & Resorts Africa, the firm is a pan-African hospitality chain based in Nairobi, Kenya, with properties and interests across Africa. Over the years, ICON has worked in countries like Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda. In West Africa, the brand is currently expanding to Nigeria, Gambia, Senegal, Cameroon, Benin Republic and Ghana. In this interview, he spoke on the vision of ICON brand for Africa, ongoing transformation at Ibom ICON Resort and how Nigeria could lead tourism recovery post COVID-19. He spoke with Chinonso Ihekire

Could you share with us the vision behind ICON Hotel & Resort as a hospitality brand?
The whole idea of the brand Icon is more or less a movement that is targeted at the emergence of hospitality professionalism in the African industry. Kenya has a very long history of expertise in the hospitality industry that dates back several decades. From that training in professionalism, the business has arrived. You would find a lot of training institutions and Kenyan experts exporting talent across the continent and generally pushing the standard to the next level. That’s exactly what is happening in Nigeria today.

The Nigerian hospitality industry has come of age. It is about time that the experience we have cultivated over the years gets channeled into actively managing our prized assets by ourselves. This particular asset we are managing used to be a Western asset, but it is now called the Ibom ICON Hotel & Golf Resort, Uyo; we are rebranding the facility. We are taking creativity in terms of product offerings, and service delivery to another level. By doing that, we are showcasing African hospitality unashamedly and in an authentic manner.

You took over the management of Ibom Resort in the middle of the pandemic. How were you able to manage the situation, especially when most hotels were shutdown as a result of the nationwide lockdown?
So, we had been here – specifically talking about Uyo – since February 2020, just before the pandemic hit hard. We were here throughout the lockdown from February to October when we took over the asset. Then, we spent time going through every fabric of the property; there was nothing to do anyway; we studied, understood the property and its challenges. Then we started to create rapid response initiatives so that post-pandemic when we deploy them, we would have very sharp growth trajectory.

We spent a lot of time brainstorming and creating new ways of hospitality for the post-pandemic. One of those things was to have a very carefully thought-out COVID-19 protocol in place for guest safety and awareness; we went about that specifically. We started, for each guest checkout, disinfecting the rooms; we started implementing more contactless hospitality solutions, given the available technology.

There are a lot of initiatives we put in place, which have now given our guests comfort. We are now attracting events from a lot of groups, including government officials, because they know we pay attention to detail when it comes to health and safety.

Before now, there was this popular opinion that, if Nigeria would get it right with tourism, Calabar would be the perfect place to start. However, it looks like Uyo is taking the lead in terms of infrastructure needed to develop tourism. How is ICON looking at Akwa Ibom’s tourism potentials, what’s the big picture for you?
There were a number of masterstrokes that have brought Uyo to where it is today. Again, the location of the city is very good, in terms of road links to other cities in the Southeast and South-South regions. Beyond the facts of its location, aviation was the biggest masterstrokes.

Tourism thrives with ease of access and volume; everything needs to work seamlessly. With the advent of Ibom Air, the vision that they took is a stroke of genius; the vision and capacity of that airline is expanding. The whole idea is to make Uyo become a regional hub for aviation; it has a huge impact on tourism and it has been felt dramatically. At the resort now, we get large groups from all over the country. The reason they are able to easily come here is that Uyo is serene, peaceful and safe. Most importantly, it is easy to get into. Within 30 from the airport, you are at the resort; it is working excellently.

There is also the aspect of infrastructure; the infrastructure here is topnotch. From any angle of this state to the next, you can get anywhere within two hours. The roads are pretty good quality; there are streetlights everywhere. When you come to a place like Uyo, you also have places to go; you can get there within an hour or an hour and fifteen minutes. So, it makes people spread the word. There are lots of sights and sounds in this state. The government, over the years, have done a few things right; this present administration has done a lot.

One of the major contributions of this administration is that it has improved security. Uyo is one of the safest cities to live in, and that makes people want to come here.

As ICON, do you plan to come up with tourism packages that would encourage guests and tourist to visit?
This hotel is a platform for the growth of tourism in Akwa Ibom; it is not just about filling our rooms. What we have been able to do since we have been here is to put together very attractive packages. Except via a travelogue option, Nigerians don’t get to benefit from all-inclusive packages. What we have done is to create all-inclusive packages for our guests.

Apart from the all-inclusive, we have tour packages to places within Akwa Ibom such as Ikot Abasi and even other places like Itu where you have Mary Slessor’s life and missionary work. We are also leveraging on the blessed geography that Akwa IBom has; this state is blessed with beautiful waterways. This resort has a jetty and Marina that was designed to be a hub for leisure activities on the waterways; we are revamping that.

Over the years, it has been neglected, but we recognise the potential of the Marina to be an absolute catalyst for tourism here. We are creating a boat club, a bush bar, and we are completely transforming it to a tourism attraction. From the Marina, you can go to the islands; it has a lot of Fauna and sea creatures. By creating opportunities for people to go from here to places of interests, we are creating a robust experience for people to completely get a feel of Akwa Ibom like never before. You can do things like fishing, experience local riverine culture, taste palm wine and the rest.

Lack of maintenance culture is a big issue in the hospitality sector in Nigeria. What are the measures being put in place to maintain Ibom ICON Hotel & Golf Resort?
As of when we took over, the Marina area was overgrown with weeds; the jetty itself was dilapidated and the slip way was not in use. Basically, the entire facility was in a state of neglect. We utilised local know-how to clear the entire Marina of weeds. For the first time in years, you could see the entire water mass. Those alone made people want to visit the Marina; spend time at the clubhouse and even to take pictures.

Stage two is refurbishing the jetty, refloating the sunken walkways, clearing the slippery and we are equally refurbishing the Marina Clubhouse. We are also creating a zipline across the water, with a canopy walk. We are transforming that area to create a hotspot for tourists. We are creating partnerships with specialists in marine engineering to operate the boats and to do proactive maintenance there.

While we are partnering with experts to keep the Marina top notch, we are also revamping the hotel itself. We have started with new designs for the rooms; we are also redesigning the banquet area for the hotel. In terms of the backbone facilities of the hotel, we are specifying and refurbishing the entire system. At the end of this exercise, we would have a brand new facility.

ICON started from Uyo, but are there plans for expansion in Nigeria, where’s your next target?
We have an aggressive growth trajectory; we are able to achieve significant growth management. Outside of Nigeria, we also have aggressive growth targets as well. We would grow aggressively in Nigeria over the next couple of years.

What do you think the industry needs to do post-COVID-19 in terms of recovery?
For Nigeria to lead the COVID-19 recovery plan, some elements should be in place. Nigeria’s biggest challenge is insecurity in certain parts of the country. So, the first thing we should address is security. There was a time when people confidently drove to different parts of the country. Personally, while growing up, I did road journey to Sokoto and beyond many times. Now, I can’t try that.

As a country, we have to address our security situation; there are no quick-fix solutions to that issue. It took a mix of issues to get us to where we are as a country. But there are still places in this country that has been safe enough to encourage tourism, places like Uyo. Now, in those safe places, we have to preserve the reputation.

Also, we have to layer attraction. I don’t believe in the adage that you should ‘build it and they would come.’ You need to understand what to build to make them come. There is that aspect of conceptualisation of experiences; tourism is all about selling experiences. In Ibom ICON, there is a programme that we have launched: One experiences, a lifetime of memories. As a country, we need to create such experiences. We have them already, but they are not optimised to leave lasting impressions on visitors.

We need to strategically think about upgrading the tourist hotspots we have in Nigeria. Places like Osogbo, Ikogosi, Idanre Hills and so much more. Almost every state has something of value to a tourist. But when you go to these places and you don’t even have good roads, comfortable hotels, nice means of transportations, tour guides and tailored experiences; you cannot leave an impression that way. The kind of multiplier effect it would have on the economy is huge. Everyone would benefit, from the palm wine tapper, to the transporters, to the hoteliers. We as a country have to learn to teach ourselves to catch fish and not feed fish to the needy. It is at that point that we would get the full benefit of the exclusive growth in tourism.

For ICON Hotels & Resorts in Nigeria, local content is very key. The Marina that was covered with weed, we used the locals to drive that project. We are impacting the economy and the environment; locals are fully engaged. We are also impacting lives; from the lowest to the average man in the city. Everyone is feeling the impact of the management.

AKWA IBOM – Making Profound Statements

Posted By : superbeo/ 1294

It must be one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world… the snaking rivers of the delta as the plane descends into the Victor Attah International Airport. I sat at the very last seat on the Air Ibom flight so I could ask the nearby cabin crew member what the name of the river was.

She said ‘it’s not a river. Shocked at her statement, I then looked again. Truly it was more like a series of connected rivers, with dense forests separating them as they snaked into each other, all bound for the nearby Atlantic Ocean. Some were much wider than others, and on this very day, they are were swollen from the torrents of rain that gave this region its sleepy, rustic feeling.

I could see the rusty roofs of village houses, some located precariously close to the lush, light brown river.  Something had to be spectacular about this landscape. Unfortunately for us in Nigeria, we aren’t very good at telling our story. This should be a haven for all sorts of people who understand the beauty of the environment, but the story of that delta is told more in the light of violence, poverty, and strife. Something has to change.

Ibom Air, by the way, is one of the best local airlines in Nigeria as at today. Their aircraft are neat, and you get the idea that they are in very good condition. When Akwa Ibom State decided to launch its own airline, some felt it had no business doing something of the sort. Some others felt, well, perhaps the Uyo airport there will just get busier. But in a short while the whole idea started to make sense.

The state is prepared for tourism business. So why not? In time, Nigerians have seen that Akwa Ibomites take themselves very seriously. The airline itself is known to be a stickler for time. I have flown them a few times and not had cause to complain. You could almost set your watch with the Ibom Air schedule. The cabin crew, disciplined… ok, sometimes almost stern to a fault as they ask passengers to comply with the new covid rules. I could sense a proper corporate organizational culture.  Even on the ground, Akwa Ibom airport rules are a bit more advanced than elsewhere in Nigeria. The disinfection kit is modern, spewing proper fumes, unlike the ‘Gammalin 20’ cans used everywhere else. The aircraft themselves have good legroom even in economy. I type this very comfortably, seated in one, unlike some of the other guys who squeeze everyone out just to get more seats in and max out profits (British Airways especially; shame on you guys. I shall never forget my last flight).

The best part of flying Ibom Air came for me upon landing. I never stop to trip and smile with a wide grin when the announcement is first made in the Ibibio language. Lovers of diversity and languages will get a high from it. Check how it goes:
Ukang-nyin, Mme ette ye eka-nyin, Etok-etok ye ekamba..
Emedi..o…..
Mbak ududa unan Sine mkpaha isin mfo

Meaning: Our people, our fathers and mothers, our young and old, we welcome you.  Fasten your seat belt.

I hear some Nigerians have criticized Ibom Air for making announcements in Ibibio. They said they are ‘personalizing’ the… flight? Aircraft? Venture? I don’t know what exactly they are said to be personalizing. We fly Ethiopia and they must always do their announcements in Amharic. That one starts something like “Kuburatu kubra…” Fly EgyptAir or Qatar and they must offer a Muslim prayer before takeoff and perhaps upon landing. If you don’t like it, float your own airline yes? I look forward to the day we will use this way to celebrate our diversity – even though I know those who will complain if Max Air or Azman did their announcements first in Hausa. Still, Akwa Ibom has fired the first salvo. Let others take note.

Perhaps a bit of envy comes up because this state has done what others have been unable to do. The first time I flew Ibom Air, I met a friend on board who later asked me wistfully when we landed ‘why has Lagos not done something such as this?’  I was taken aback. Lagos is the commercial capital of Nigeria, with all the bragging rights to being connected with whatever is modern and progressive. The smartest guys are there and every Nigerian heads to Lagos. If Akwa Ibom can make a success out of Ibom Air, why not Lagos? Then the question comes up about sustainability.

I wish Akwa Ibom the best because the aviation business is crazy, risky, finance-intensive. But I commend the state for making a point with this Chinese-type state capitalism by which states run efficient businesses by doing so at arm’s length. Emmanuel Udom must be commended because many state governors and politicians will not allow their egos to give way to unbiased efficiency. I also wish Ibom Air godspeed and that they sustain what they have started. Other states should emulate. I see that Cally Air has also berthed – for Cross River State. I expect they will make their own announcements in Efik, and project the glory of Ediye Canaan (Canaan City) including other parts of the state, up to Ikom and beyond. Perhaps, we are onto a new model of governance and business here.

I also stayed at the serene Ibom Icon Hotel – used to be Le Meridien. My friend Akan Bassey insisted and I’m thankful that I didn’t go elsewhere. What a beauty! This is not my first time there though (could be my fourth or fifth), but in these two days, I saw the beauty of Ibom Resort in a different light. Now, the Le Meridien brand has left and many people will expect that the standards dovetail as a result. Not in Akwa Ibom State, where their covid protocols are stricter than ever. The smart thing Udom did with the hotel is to bring in a Kenyan team to run the place.

The simple thing that has killed many government-owned businesses in Nigeria is the idea that government can use facilities for free. With this team of professionals a couple of whom I met, this tendency should reduce – of course with the governor’s help. Kenyans are also a lot simpler than Nigerians. They have no airs about them unlike us here.  I met Mudi, the Lagos-based award-winning fashion designer and he couldn’t believe his eyes when he got to Ibom Icon Hotel and Resorts.

He swore he was coming back shortly with his entire crew. He also asked one rhetorical question. “what if the president spent a little of his annual vacation in a place like this?” Whereas Nigeria is led by people who for some reason believe someone is always after their lives, this is not the case in reality. That place could be cordoned off by intelligence services for a week while the president and his family convalesce. A lush 19-hole golf course is also attached.

The swimming pool is the cleanest I’ve seen in Nigeria. The serene atmosphere is fantastic for outdoor exercise and the gym – situated on two floors – is the fitness freak’s paradise. The rooms are great and they have the softest pillows I’ve ever used! Enjoyment is good o! I however advised the hotel management to see to always having healthy options on all their menus (Nigerians are getting more health-conscious), and of course to be quick with daily maintenance of little things before they become huge crises – our bane in Nigeria. The Willa Band that plays at the hotel lobby is also amazing and I sang a few songs with them. Lady Willa should get more visibility.

I will be going back! Yes, it’s almost like a resolve. Life is short and one just has to prioritize one’s happiness these days. Akwa Ibom in general is a beautiful state, presently being led apparently by serious-minded people, who are minimizing waste and salvaging government facilities. Yes, the state is lucky, given what it generates from its crude oil. Obasanjo did a big thing for this state with the law on littoral states, and Architect Victor Attah – the former governor – also put in place some solid infrastructure which is paying off today. Akpabio – the uncommon governor – went crazy with infrastructure building and in spite of criticisms, he got many things right. Udom is cruising but also making us ex-bankers and accountants pretty proud. Sometimes, all one needs is an opportunity to prove your style of management.

The icing on the cake on my visit was the play hosted by Duke of Shomolu productions, a Joseph Edgar company, at the Ibom Hall. Joe is one person who inspires me with his proficient, no-holds-barred, don’t-give-a-damn writing, mostly done on the keyboard of his phone. Through this inspiration, I have received a further boost to write more even when I was getting tired of Nigerian affairs and whatnot. I saw one of his plays in 2019 and got hooked. Ibiom – When Doves Fly, the new play, tells the story of Akwa Ibom, their interactions with the Arochukwu and Ogoja people in times past, woven around love, hate, war, and peace. Historical, epic, thoughtful, colorful. Lovers of culture, history, diversity, must see this one. What a blast!

Caution. Nothing is perfect. Akwa Ibom ranks high on the unemployment charts in Nigeria, so this needs to be looked into. Why exactly? Maybe there aren’t many roles for locals to play in the infrastructural development that is the focus of the state (Akwa Ibom has perhaps the best roads in Nigeria).  There have to be roles that the youths can play.

Of course, I saw side-streets off Oron Road, Uruan Road, and so on, that young students from Uniuyo should be the ones proudly building rather than waiting for big contractors. The youths must be involved. Maybe if they are, we will not see a situation where some misguided Akwa Ibomites are giving funny elements grounds to test-run their craving for anarchy. We have heard of policemen being killed by secessionists or whomever. That state is too beautiful, too delicate to be allowed to contort into anybody’s nightmarish vision of strife. Akwa Ibomites, Dakkada mbok!