• Thursday, June 13, 2024
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‘I am definitely going to miss the energy that Casinos bring to the hospitality industry’

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As UCHE OGBU, marketing manager, Federal Palace Hotel and Casino, bids farewell to the hospitality and Casino industry this June, he tells OBINNA EMELIKE his high and low points in the industry amid other issues. Excerpt.

What are your high and low points in the industry for five years you have been around?

must say, it has been a very long five years for me. At the point of entry into Federal Palace Hotel & Casino from the banking sector, two banks to be precise; my plan was to stay for only three years and move on to greater things.

Getting here, I struggled for the first two years, especially coming from prestige banking where I was like a superstar. I came here feeling like a celebrity, but discovered that there was a huge knowledge gap from what I practiced in banking and what was needed in the hospitality sector. My banking experience was more of sales and a bitof PR, but coming here I saw that it was entirely marketing, branding and PR, even though  I still had to oversee the sales team.

As an ex-banker and if you ask fellow bankers, we believe that we have dealt with all kinds of pressure and can cope under any condition; but the kind of pressure I faced here was completely different from the ones I faced while in the bank. Bank pressure was more of Big Brother querying you for unrealisticfinancial target, while the pressure in the hospitality industry was more realistic, where one had to monitor seasonal trends of the market both local and international, while worrying about the socio-economic factors that may affect your business or your immediate environment, one has to then create suitable campaigns in line with prevailing trends. Hotel and Casino was completely new to me as I had no clue where to start from, so I used the first two years to learn, I went to South Africa for several trainings and studied the notes that were left behind by my predecessor. After the first year, I started to feel the balance, I started to understand the industry and I started to get more comfortable. 

In my first month, I hosted a Celebrity Casino learners’ evening and engaged in several other high profile partnerships afterwards, I was more or less living the high life, from one red carpet to another. It was so much fun, even though there was a lot of pressure that people couldn’t see in front of the camera. Throughout the period, I had to keep learning in other to get the much needed foundation to become a force to reckon with in the hospitality industry.  After the first two years, I became a bit stable and continued working to improve myself daily. The third year, which was 2014, we hosted what was arguably the biggest campaign ever, THE DECIDER Casino campaign.  We gave out a Range Rover Evoque, courtesy Coscharis Mortors (although two cars were up for grabs including a Jaguar XF). The campaign ran for 100 days, I was on radio every weekend and I literally saw the true essence of entertainment marketing. I felt the excitement, I felt the energy, I saw the attraction and I saw the follower-ship.

It made me come to a conclusion that in the hospitality industry, especially casinos, there is really no limit to the amount of entertainment or opportunity, but one just needs to be open to accept these opportunities as they come along. You also need to be innovative and flexible to accept people’s opinion to enable come up with unique strategies to move your brand forward.

The brand Federal Palace feels like an easy sell, but on the flip side, it is actually a hard sell because it is an old brand that can easily be perceived as tired brand, especially with the entry of new international brands. We have been able to keep the brand fresh and green. Again, we leveraged on its rich heritage. The Independence ball was held at the hotel after Nigeria’sindependence treaty was signed in 1960. We took advantage of the fun memories of Federal Palace Hotel and we use that to sell the hotel, thereby appealing to the sentiments of Lagosians.

All these kept us going despite new brands coming with new energies and more international brands putting pressure on the market. We have stayed within the Top 3 hotels in Lagos and have maintained high standards. For me, the first two years was mainly to understand the brand, the third year was consolidation period, thentwo years afterwards was more expressive. I will categorise my work here into three stages: first year was survival; second year is stability, and the last three yearsfor expansion. I had a great time; I appreciate my colleagues and obviously the leadership of Federal Palace Hotel & Casino for keeping their promise. At the point of entry I asked this question to the General Manager of the hotel, “Will I be trained? because I had no clue about hotels and casinos,he said yes and all that is history now. The trainings got me to where I am today, and made me more prepared to face challenges in and outside the hospitality industry.

What are you going to miss most in the industry?

First and foremost, I’mdefinitely going to miss the energy that Casinos bring to the hospitality industry. While in banking, we thought the energy was lit, but coming here, I have witnessed a different kind of energy. I have been to Las Vegas, Hollywood, Atlantic City etc. and it’s all been an electrifying experience for me to see how casinos operate in big cities. I will miss the casino lifestyle, extreme analysis andnight life, even though the priceless learning’s will remain with me forever. I will obviously miss the people, great colleagues and of course our loyal guests. Besides the great people, I am going to miss all that times I have to be here at 2:00am trying to analyze as follows….how can we?, when can we?, who should we?, where should we?. I hope I find this kind of energy and excitement in my new place. At this point, I must say a big thank you to my wife, Habiba Ogbu for her understanding through all the late nights I had to keep at her expense, in order to stay productive at work.

I will also miss the feeling of being a brand ambassador for federal palace, especially when people call me “Uche – Federal Palace” like that was my last name.

What is the Kiddies Play Book offered to kids on Sunday Lunch all about?

First and foremost, our Sunday Lunch is very affordable. It goes for N7,500 for adults and N5,000 for children.  We have a bouncing castle for the kids where they can jump around before or after having their meal. The special addition to the Sunday Lunch is the Kiddies Play Book. We have created a colour book for kids, to keep them engaged while they are seated waiting for their meals or even after having their meals.This will definitely keep them busy instead of running around. The game is very exciting, they can count gold coins and write the answer, they can paint a peacock with their preferred colours, connect the dots to outline an elephant, play tic-tac tournament with their siblings, fill out the word finder puzzle with Federal Palace related words search, among others. On the first page, you have the building of Federal Palace where the kids can paint in their own colours, put their names and contact details, detach and submit for a chance to win exciting prizes. We collate all the entries and pick the entry with best picture/answer as the prize winner. We have got weekly prizes which is either; dinner for four on a Friday evening buffet or Day Pass for four at Federal Palace Hotel membership Pool Club. 

We get a winner on a weekly basis and it’s posted on social media with the hashtag #ChampionOfTheWeek. The weekly winners are then collated at the end of every month to determine the #ChampionOfTheMonth. The champion of the month gets the grand prize of a weekend stay for the family (two adults and two kids) at Federal Palace Hotel and Casino. Imagine you coming to eat on a regular Sunday afternoon and having a chance to win exciting prizes.

What was your biggest marketing campaign at the hotel?

In my opinion, The Decider casino promotion was the biggest campaign of the hotel in the last five years.

I came here May 2011 and in June 2011 we had a celebrity casino learners evening where we had over 100 celebrities who have never been here before. They came here and we taught them how to play our casino games. We partnered with Nigerian Entertainment Awards to host their nominees’ party. Guests got here and were extremely surprised at the huge casino offerings. After that, we did a couple of other campaigns specific to the casino, but THE DECIDER promotion was the biggest because it ran for 100 days from March 14 to June 21, 2014. Within that period, we were always on radio talking about the Federal Palace brand and its offerings.

The campaign ended with the winner of a Range Rover Evoque, courtesy Coscharis Motors Ltd, having a choice of winning the additional car, a Jaguar XF or losing both. There was so much energy amidst pre and post media publicity. People also had the chance to see that we run a free and fair operations here, and wining was entirely based on luck. It further reinforced guest confidence in our brand.

Did your efforts woo more patronage to the hotel?

Absolutely yes. We had good times and we also had bad times like every great brand. We leveraged on so many initiatives, offering unique packages during festive periods like Valentine, Easter, Christmas, Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, Independence Day, Sallah among others.

We try to find unique ways to meet every clients need. We are also out there to ensure we understand how our clients want to do business and to put a face to the Federal Palace Hotel & Casino brand, in order to maintain a productive relationship.

We extended our reach by partnering with reputable travel agents and tour operators because these guys have the network. We find ways to offer them what they need to enable us have access to their clientele database.

With the current economy, business has been extremely slow. Our accommodation offering is broken down in two categories: business and leisure and we tend to create suitable packages. Our primary focus is to take care of the clients, so we are always willing to adjust our offerings to suit their needs.

What were the challenges you faced?

When Sun International first came to Nigeria, we maintained a unique selling proposition of unaltered power supply. We had to power our generators for 24 hours daily in order to achieve this feat; however it was not sustainable for us after doing this for three years consecutively. So, what we did was to put in UPS and inverters where necessary and then connected back to the national power grid. We currently switch on the generator only when there’s power outage. It reduced our monthly expenses, but diesel and generator maintenance still takes a big chunk of our revenue. That is why when people talk about hotels being cheap all over the world compared to Nigeria; they forget to factor in the huge cost of steady power supply.

Apart from epileptic power supply in Nigeria, there is a huge infrastructure deficit and some unfavourable policies that seem to frustrate the hospitality business.  In 2011, we sold rooms at $500 per room and now we are struggling to even sell at $250 per room.  So, it has been very troubling for businesses here.

I recall paying $25 per room in a four-star hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, but we can’t do that here in Nigeria because the cost of operation is extremely high. So, it is a very fair question to ask us how we are able to cope. We have no choice, but to sustain the business until the economy picks up again. If our leaders can make things a bit more stable, businesses will flourish in Nigeria.

How has room occupancy levels been, previously and now?

I came here in 2011. Then, we were like the only hotel operating at this level. Also, we were enjoying the likes of 70 – 90% room occupancy and sometimes 100%. Fast forward to 2013 and large international hotel brands starting coming into Lagos and the business environment became more competitive. Occupancy levels started to dwindle, it dropped to an average of 65% and now we are at our lowest periods, running at an average room occupancy of less than 50%. These new entrants come into the market and try to take from an already stretched pool by offering ridiculous room rates to drive their occupancy.

We have only 146 rooms here and we are currently focused on getting our fair market share from the total available rooms in the market.   Again, in the last two years, there has been several setbacks in the country, from the Ebola scare, Nigeria general elections, drop in oil prices and Naira devaluation, This has negatively affected the hospitality industry as a whole.

Do you think fluctuating Forex affects rates?

Of course, it does. What we have done from a strategic point of view is to avoid pushing these variations to our clients; we kept our conversion rate at N200 to $1 even when dollar increased to going about N350 to $1. For instance, If a room is sold at $250 per night, it was equivalent to N50,000. It was kept fixed in order to maintain some form of stability as we do not want to pass the burden to our loyal clients. We may however eventually publish our room rates only in Naira.

Do hotels still meet targets in the face of the economic downturn?

I really doubt, my colleagues in other hotels are also complaining. Targets are not being met due to the shrink in Nigeria’s economy. Here’s the chain of activities that drive the hospitality industry which is almost fully dependent on other sectors; the success of oil and gas, telecoms, FMCGs, financial institutions, government etc. directly or indirectly determines the success of hospitality industry. When these sectors are flourishing, they will come to do one event or the other here, but if they are bleeding, we don’t get patronage. So, there is a limit to what we can adjust because we still have to depend on them. Nigeria is not a sustainable leisure market. So, when the economy picks up again, the hospitality industry will have a rebound.

Since you are moving to Education sector, are you going to come back to hospitality in the future?

I really can’t speak about the future now, because when I came here, I planned to stay for three years, but I got excited and stayed for five years. Even for the education industry, I am not going to put a cap on the number of years I’ll spend because I love seeing young kids explore their potentials to the fullest and I am very willing to stay in the Education sector for as long as possible.  So, this move might be a retirement plan for me, but at this stage I can’t say. It all depends on what I meet on ground. If the environment is great and they can keep me long enough, why not?  However, if there is an opportunity to invest in hospitality, I will go for it because hospitality is one sector that will you can have both fun and return on investment.  It is like footballers; they enjoy playing the game and also make money.

Do you think your marketing projects will be sustained in the hotel in your absence?

We have a strong team on ground and we have structures in place for business continuity. It is more like having a self-explanatory template that anyone can pick up from where you stopped.

Finally, the brand Federal Palace Hotel & Casino is bigger than any individual employee, things will always be in place for sustainability, but most importantly, there’s a professional team and a focused leadership that are very determined to deliver on the brand promise.

OBINNA EMELIKE