Riding on a successful career that spans logistics, banking and insurance industries, Yusuf Sesay has weathered the storm in the hospitality industry to become one of Africa’s leading lights in the Radisson Hotel Group.
In this interview, Sesay, who is the sales and marketing director, Radisson Blu Anchorage Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos, speaks to Obinna Emelike on his new role, passion, targets, and the Nigerian market, among other related issues.
Who really is Yusuf Sesay?
I am Yusuf Sesay, a Sierra Leonean national. I started my career in the logistics industry and then moved to banking for a while and later I moved to the insurance industry. From insurance, I moved to the hospitality industry, specifically, Radisson Blu Mammy Yoko Hotel, Freetown, as a sales manager. I grew to become a senior sales manager and was the first indigene to be promoted to the position of director of sales of the hotel. Then, the hotel was not making a profit and after a year, we were able to turn it around and it has been doing well since then.
One good thing about the feat is that it was initiated and achieved by bright stars in the hotel and that is why I love the Radisson brand, it supports staff to be their best.
How was the feeling hearing that you are coming to Nigeria?
It was a mixed feeling. First, I knew I was coming to a new market, a challenging market and a very complex business environment. However, I know that it is a place that allows people to grow and you can fulfil your potential here. Also, my grandparents are from Abeokuta, Nigeria. So, it is also like a homecoming for me.
Well, I have been to Lagos before in 2018/2019. Then I was coming here to be the director of sales and I worked with the late Kevin Kamau, who was the general manager then. He was one of the people that earmarked me for the job and I have worked with the sales team here, when Wellington Mpofu was here, he was one of my mentors.
So, I accepted the Lagos offer because it is a familiar ground for me and I know I will be comfortable. I have been here before, worked with staff members and I know the owners. One thing about hotels is that you don’t make a change if you are not sure of the ownership. The owners here take care of the staff and the property because if you don’t have a good property to sell, it is a challenge. Since I came here, it has been a good experience and the staff members are welcoming.
What does your role entail?
First, I am a people manager. My main task is to take care of my team because the team does most of the work and mine is to oversee them. Generally, I do revenue management, ensuring optimal productivity, GDS, and our distribution network, I do a lot of sales, account management, going out to seek for accounts, managing our accounts, talking to clients, online marketing and PR as well.
How do you feel occupying a position often meant for expatriates?
Whatever is worth doing is worth doing well. So, we have Africans who are very good at what they do and we need to encourage them by offering them opportunities like in my case. To be honest, an African knows the African market better. Africans are rising and they are increasingly taking up key roles in the hospitality industry here.
How do you see the Nigerian market?
The Nigerian market is robust. It is a little bit dynamic in the sense that it reacts sharper to shocks than most markets; like when there was an election everything dropped and when it is ready to pick up, everything picks as if nothing happened.
You have to understand the dynamics of the market, the culture, respect for elders, and be able to network in certain societies because of the demand that is here; big companies and big organisations will always come and you will always have demand. It is just for you to make sure that you provide what the people are asking for.
How were you able to stay afloat during the low period occasioned by election uncertainties?
One of the things we did was to adjust our strategies because when there is such a change, you have to be able to provide what people are looking for and not set your bar high. You have to realise that there is a challenge out there and people are trying to cut excesses and you have to give them value for money. With that, you have to adjust your rates; ensure a flexible rate strategy and flexible payment for guests as well. In doing this, you carry along your loyal guests and reward them for their loyalty. In the low-demand period, our guests remained because of these strategies and the services we render to them. When there is a problem you adjust accordingly and that was what we did over the election period.
The Radisson brand seems to be doing better than its competitors here. Why is that so?
It is because of the standards we have set for ourselves. One thing that Radisson does is to pick people that know a particular market to work there and they only sign owners that are willing to invest in their properties and build the hotel and the Radisson brand. That is what has helped the hotel group’s growth here. The owners also know how to take care of their staff to encourage them to offer the guests the best experience. When you make your staff happy, they, in turn, keep the guests smiling. There is also regular training, both local and foreign to upskill and update staff across the Radisson Hotel Group.
Can you explain the different brand segments of Radisson?
We have different brands under Radisson Hotel Group but the highest is Radisson Collection. But the Radisson Collection and Radisson Blu are luxury brands. After that, you have Radisson, which is just Radisson and after that, you have Park Inn, which is an economy brand. There are other brands like Red, which are not in the Nigerian and the West African market yet.
Which of your brands is the most successful here?
It is Radisson Blu because it captures the luxury, it is a business hotel and also affordable. Here at Radisson Blu, we are competitively priced and we give you value for money. If we charge you $200 per room, you will get commensurate value for that money.
How do you achieve the same quality service across your brands?
That is when brand ethos comes in. There are certain things that are left for individual hotels and some are standard across all the brands. There is a Radisson minimum standard for all the items you should have. So, if you leave here and go to Radisson Freetown you will see the same thing, maybe a few things might change but 80 percent of it should be Radisson standard. But in the remaining 20 percent, you may change to your country’s preferences but the 80 percent is standardized. There are also brand books.
How has your occupancy rate been?
What is projected under the normal circumstances for Q1 and Q2 would have been about 80 percent occupancy. But it has been waived below for Q1 because February and March were affected due to elections. We expect things to pick up again after the inauguration. By June, occupancy will pick up to 80 percent and by Q3, which is our highest; we project occupancy to reach 90 percent.
What legacy do you wish to leave here?
I want to train my staff to be the best and to be able to work in other Radisson brand hotels across the world. I also want to sustain the business profitability both for the owners and for us as a hotel so that we can build up and maintain the standards we set for ourselves. If I can do that in the two years that I am here, I will be very happy.