YEMI DADA, a soft-spoken gentleman, is the General Manager of Festival Hotel (FH) in Festac Town, Lagos. Dada, who believes that there’s no best person for any business, also believes that his coming to the hotel is not a mistake as he knows the intricacies of the business and also understands the nitty-gritty of what happens in the world of hotel. In this interview with CHUKA UROKO, BusinessDay’s Property Editor, he speaks on the hospitality industry in its post-Covid struggle for survival; he also explains why FH is the preferred destination for hotel products and services, among other salient issues relating to the industry and the economy in general. Excerpts
Let us start by looking at Festival Hotel in the light of the present economic realities. What is your story?
I will start by saying that the economic reality of the country is not helping anybody. But let me introduce Festival Hotel first and foremost. The hotel is a historic one. It has hosted some big events in this country. It hosted the African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC)—the biggest event in 1977. With that, a lot of transitions occurred. At the moment, it’s owned by Custodian Group which is the parent company of UAC Property Development Company (UPDC) and we are an off shoot of UPDC.
Right now, the hotel is being managed by an international group called Premium Swiss Hospitality. They are domiciled in Switzerland. They have put in the standard. The group also has other hotels they are managing across Africa and they have presence in United Arab Emirates currently.
We operate the system of the Premium Swiss Hospitality’s brand. For you to be able to meet up that standard, there must be a lot that goes into it and that’s where the economy of this country is getting at us. But we are doing everything possible to survive it. Some of the items we use in our kitchen are grown by us. It’s rare to have a hotel that grows few things to take care of its kitchen. It tells you how fresh and healthy the food that comes out of our kitchen is.
Some of the seeds we grow are brought in by Premium Swiss. The brand helps in keeping us afloat in the business. Apart from that, we are also looking at the option of gas for power. We have not started but hopefully all things will go well. Our CEO, Odunayo Ojo, is helping to look in that direction. This is part of the things we are using to see how we can take care of the economy that’s hitting really hard.
Can we say you are more or less an independent brand?
Well, somehow, we are. To an extent, we are given the liberty to operate as a hotel and a brand. UPDC is doing everything possible to allow us to run the hotel through the managers.
Has this brand helped you to retain some of your high profile clients like Airlines?
The hotel was shut down for some time because of COVID. But we are back. A number of airlines were using the hotel and we are approaching them already and they are responding. Right now, we are hosting Miss Universe. Premium Swiss is part of what is instrumental to this development.
We have affiliation with Marriott Hotel. So, the brand is really helping us to bring in foreign and local investors and operators. We have all that’s needed for international conference. The brand has structured us to be able to accommodate small and big meetings.
How many of the high-profile companies are in your clientele base?
They are in 100s and very notable like the Turkish Airlines, South African Airlines among others. They were all using here before we shut down. We have approached them again and they are coming back, Egypt Air inclusive. Premium Swiss is present in Egypt. So, they know what the brand stands for. Some international companies like UNICEF are coming back to us. Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) just checked out; World Health Organisation (WHO) is also our client.
For hotels like yours to attract premium clients, there must be something unique that you offer. What are you doing differently?
The hotel is strategically located close to water and so we have a jetty. People that come for conferences that hold here use our jetty. The Lagos Blue Rail Line is just a stone throw from here. These are things that attract people to us.
Some people come and go by boat cruise and this is a memorable thing for most of them. Within our premises, there is a cinema and a big shopping mall. Most of our rooms are being repackaged with cinemas. We have a big garden and a pool deck that overlooks the garden. There are two standard tennis courts, two standard squash, standard basketball court. All of these are flanked by green garden.
You mentioned the Festival Mall as one of your selling points. How does this and other facilities you listed complement the services you offer? How are they helping your patronage?
Festival Mall within our premises has a pharmacy. In our hotel, we have a standard clinic and there is a hospital that’s not far from us. We have registered nurses as well. The Festival Mall has a shopping space for both shoes and clothing materials. It also houses a cinema. So, one cannot be bored here. The cinema experience is packaged with our room rate for those that won’t want to go to the cinema.
Families and their children are attracted to this place because there is a giant shopping mall to attend to their needs, Cinema to take care of the kids, depending on the kind of movie. We also have kiddies’ area in the mall.
Besides the facilities you offer, how attractive is your room rate in comparison with what they pay at The Residence beside the hotel?
Our room rate is quite competitive relative to our facilities. At least, in naira, with 80,000 you can access our room for a night. With N75,000, you can access a room packaged for you for a night. These are introductory rates the people can enjoy. With N100,000 you can have two cinema experiences for a week-stay and it goes with breakfast.
You are owned by First Custodian Investment and UPDC, how satisfactory have you been in delivering values to these owners?
We are the pride of our group; we project the name of our group because hospitality is a show business. We showcase our group; we bring businesses for our group even though they are not using the hotel. Our group is into pension, facility, asset, finance instrument, estate management and building. When people come in here, we showcase what our group has. There’s no how anyone will hear about that, seeing the quality we have, and not want to patronize all the amenities we have in our group. We are the eyes of our group to the world.
Amuwo Odofin as a business environment is fast evolving. New hotels are springing up. They may not be big time, but they are really coming up. How do you cope with the competition that comes with that kind of development?
The competition is keen, I must confess, but our facilities edge them out. We have conferences and meeting rooms that can take very large number of people. They do not have such rooms in those hotels that are springing up. Large conventions come to us because they don’t have the facility that can accommodate the number of people that are going to use the meeting rooms.
Looking at the hospitality industry in Nigeria since after COVID, you will see that the sector is no longer what it used to be. Would you say about the industry in terms of occupancy rate?
To look at the occupancy on the average could be dicey but I can tell you that, immediately after COVID, it was a very serious struggle. We struggled till last year. The performance graph was flat last year, but it’s climbing now. The rate at which it is claiming might be a little bit slow but it’s climbing. We haven’t reached where we are supposed to be, but surely we will get to the recovery point.
Occupancy has not been very stable and so, it will be difficult to state an average rate for all the hotels in general even though we have competitive edge.
How would you rank the recovery rate in the industry generally?
The recovery rate is low. We have seen about 40 percent recovery since after COVID, but some hotels are really doing very well. We are on the average recovery rate, we are hitting about 70 percent and we are trying to keep that afloat.
It is curious that with Nigeria’s large population and high level of economic activities, the rate of recovery is still low. Why is it so?
We have the subsidy removed and that has dampened a lot of things. The recovery was going up gradually but had to come down a little because of that. Again, power has not been what it should be. All these are factors slowing the sector’s recovery rate.
We are still not the best economy in Africa, according to our GDP. We are still not ranked properly even though the hospitality sector is contributing to the GDP, not as expected though. The security situation in the country is not attracting foreign business owners to come in. If that improves, I’m sure our recovery rate will be quicker than what it is now.
If you were to advise government on what should be done to push the economy to a point where this industry will go back to pre-COVID days, what will you tell them?
The government should fix security, power, and work on the oil sector. They should increase other sectors apart from oil like solid minerals and agriculture which insecurity is affecting directly. They should look into putting money into tourism because there is a lot of money in tourism. That is what some countries depend on.
If you find yourself in the midst of your board members right now and they ask for an assurance that their investment in the next five years won’t be something to regret, what will you tell them?
As difficult as it is, I will let them know that the market is vast. There is no company that doesn’t do retreat, end of the year get-together, training and development. They also host entertainment people for product launch. We have all that it takes for these companies to do it with us, and these are the companies we are running after for bulk business.
Even the boards approach hotels for training; they come here to do their product launch, shareholders meetings, annual general meetings, and exhibitions. My directors must know that there are businesses out there, and we are all out to get them because we have what it takes to serve them.
Why do you think you, Yemi Dada, is the best person to lead this hotel in its post-COVID recovery journey?
Let me start by saying that there’s no best person for any business. We put in our best to make things happen. My being here is not a mistake. I have worked in this industry for about 20 years. I know the intricacies of the business. I understand the nitty-gritty of what happens in the world of hotel. I know the strings to pull to get business.
I understand the quality that is supposed to be put in place for this business to thrive. I am a trainer in the business; I am an operations person. I have an understanding of customer’s expectations. So, for this moment, I can still say, yes, I am the best person for this job.