Having deliberated on it for a while, the Editorial Board of Inside Watch Africa (IWA) has decided to start audio-visual series of the “Trade Watch Africa”, segment of the magazine.Please enjoy the front-row seat as we share the maiden edition with you where we interviewed two critical stakeholders in the Nigerian and African hospitality industry in persons of Mr Yinka Folami, Vice President Lagos of the National Association of Nigerian Travel Agency (NANTA), and Ms Rita Opiah, General Manager of Park-Inn by Radisson, Victoria -Island, Lagos Nigeria.
IWA to MR FOLAMI: What crosses your mind as the Vice President Lagos of the National Association of Travel Agencies in Nigeria when you think of a hotel? What are the things you look out for when you are recommending a hotel to your clients?
MR FOLAMI: I will start by saying what crosses my mind first as an individual because I am Yinka Folami before being the Vice-President. The first thing that crosses my mind when I am choosing a hotel either locally or internationally is to confirm whether it is clean. I am sure you have an idea of what I mean by a ‘clean’ hotel’. Once you hear Park Inn or Radisson, you expect a certain level of standard, quality and safety. What I am keen the most about is the quality of the hotel’s sanitary facility. When I go into a hotel, I make an excuse and go into the bathroom to check how neat it is, I check the quality of the sanitary ware, and I also check how well laid it is. I pick details from there and transfer the details onto the quality of service in the hotel. That is the first thing that matters to me and when I get into the room that’s what I check for as well. The second thing that I always check for is the layout of the hotel; if I have the opportunity to go into their rooms, I want to see how the furniture is laid out or set. Are the tables of the same type or are the beds of the same pattern? If I see that, it gives me good insight that the hotels are running on quality. If they are running on quality, I expect other things like food to be fine. At the frontline, the courtesy level that is extended and the welcoming warmth on the faces of the hotel staff; right from the point of security to the cashier is always very important. So, those details do matter a lot to me in picking a hotel.
IWA to Ms RITA: As a practitioner who has been into this for more than 20 years, what are the things that strike you first as a person and as the general manager of this lovely property?
Ms RITA: I would, first of all, like to underscore one of the things that Mr Folami mentioned, I would say that he is the kind of client the hotel and l love to have. The hospitality profession is very sensitive, and just as he mentioned that when he enters a hotel, he checks certain quality points which I am glad he mentioned. Now without sounding immodesty, I rate our hotel high, in that, we have a value map which marks out the basic needs of a business traveller. For example, we are aware that right from the gate, if you don’t have a pleasant and warm welcome that would already have put you off. The security personnel are our ambassadors because they are the first point of contact and image carriers for the hotel and they get you to the reception. Then when you get to the room, the first thing you check is the neatness, yes that fresh kind of neatness. A neat room gives comfort and also gives you the confidence to ask for the menu. So, once you come in and those details aren’t intact, that only can spark up your dissatisfaction. Attention to detail in hospitality is paramount and it is non-negotiable. I always tell my teamthat “We sell services, we don’t sell the beds space” because service is intangible; you have to feel it.
Generally, I know that there are branded and non-branded hotels, but to attract a business traveller, I would advise both types of hotels to be intentional and particular about the quality of their services as customers are bound to look at quality, be it a branded or a non-branded hotel.
IWA to MR FOLAMI: Globally, we are all going through a downtime economically. We are barely out of Covid and the effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are negatively impacting everyone, everywhere. My question is, how are your business and your association coping with a time like this?
MR FOLAMI: I don’t see problems, I see challenges and once there is an issue, I start to look for the opportunity in it. Since Covid started till now, it’s been tough for everyone, but I have continued to say to people that “don’t fix it, if it isn’t broken”, look tourism and travel are essentially very elastic. Whatever happens, they will bounce back; you just have to stay in there. How I survived Covid, I cannot tell and I am sure a lot of people can’t explain it either because at some point one didn’t know if one was going to be alive till the following day. However, we survived Covid by the grace of God. I can tell you from the statistics in my industry, Nigeria has arguably one of the best recovery rates in terms of travel when compared to the rest of Africa, the African average and the Middle East average. That is some promise on the line. Secondly, Covid taught us two important things — Collaboration – because we have all found out that we only have one another, and self-reliance – it taught us to look inwards. I can tell you now that the trumpet is high on building domestic tourism capabilities. I keep saying that because of the kind of people we are in Nigeria, our culture, and hospitality, are second nature to us and we are also very creative. I believe that tourism can fetch us more than oil; all we need are the right policies, good focus and the right attractions.
We should also bear in mind that the responsibility of developing our tourism is not just for the government alone, but for every Nigerian. A people’s tourism cannot grow if the people don’t love their country.
IWA to Ms RITA: So, Rita, how did you guys manage and what are you doing now to ensure that you can keep your heads permanently above the water?
MS RITA: The thing is, like other pandemics several centuries ago, that we read about in history, this pandemic that happened in our time had its advantages and disadvantages that brought about life-changing experiences even though some of us lost loved ones, Covid taught us to have a rethink, to appreciate one another and work together, and to change the way we think – forcing us to think outside the box thereby making some people rich. People lost hope, sat in their houses, had ideas and thought about some things, and started implementing them and now they can boast of huge profits from those ideas. For us in the hospitality industry, unfortunately, we were the most hit for the simple reason that most of our operations are physical and experience-based, I would say about 80% of it; unlike some other industries in which they can still deliver their services working remotely, a trend which continues for some industries as we speak. It was a challenging time for us; however, it helped us to look at what else we could do to improve our services and stay relevant.
IWA to MR FOLAMI: As an extension of my earlier question to Ms Rita, because of Covid, most businesses are now done online and we would be kidding ourselves if we said that in some way this has not affected the relationship between Nigerian travel agents and the Hotels. As partners in progress, I would like to ask, what your association is doing to bridge the gap.
MR FOLAMI: Firstly, I don’t think you need the association to tell you that you must embrace technology; that is a personal business decision, the truth is we are in the age where everyone must embrace technology. But because of the warmth that is required in our line of business, we still cannot take away the face or personal contact, as some people still want to talk to somebody in making their bookings and I can tell you as travel agents, we still sell 70% of inventory for airlines and hotels because some people just want to talk to somebody. In service provision, everything is going towards technology and the basic Principle of Economics says when something starts getting scarce, demand starts to build up and follow it. I foresee that at a point technology will eventually take over and the human touch will be nearly absent. Consequently, I have embraced technology and recommend the same to other people in this day and age, but I also stand strongly with the human touch so to speak; at end one must be versatile.
MS RITA ON SAME QUESTION: I agree with Mr Folami because for us booking online takes away some difficulties. However, people need to talk to us to make their specifications known to us. What we do on our side is that for each of our online bookings, we do a conversion to make sure we insert a personal human touch to make you feel safe and to give you that physical ambience even though you are online such that you get the best of both the technology and the personal human touch.
MR FOLAMI ADDING TO SAME QUESTION: I would like to just chip this in. There is this saying in some of our service circles parlance where we call online ‘deaf and dumb’ which literarily means that when you run into a small spot of trouble, you are on your own. We also say that “without an agent, you are on your own”.
IWA TO MR FOLAMI AND MS RITA: As the Vice President of NANTA which is the national body for travel agencies in Nigeria, and as a seasoned practitioner and General Manager of a hotel of this level in this industry, I’m sure that you are both aware that hackers are everywhere and as long as you do business online you are exposed to these hackers so what measures or structures have you put in place to deal with these unscrupulous individuals who whether we like it or not will always operate. So, what are you doing as individual outfits or as an association to ensure that you stay one or two steps ahead of these guys so that they don’t keep defrauding clients as there have been cases where bookings were made and it was discovered that the owners of the cards didn’t authorize the bookings. So, I just feel it is important to ask, what can be done to stem this?
MR FOLAMI: First and foremost, NANTA is the first-level regulation for travel practitioners in the country and every time we get the opportunity to, we always preach credibility to our members. It’s a shame that the industry is bastardized; most of the people that engage in all of this fraud are usually non-registered travel agents, whom we call touts or briefcase agents. You are not likely to find practices like that within the NANTA membership. However, it’s a fact that everything breeds its own, so, technology breeds a new industry, an industry of cybercrime, cyber security and the like. That’s what we have to deal with and you can see that Cyber security has taken the front stage today. I feel more comfortable to speaking on matters in my area of competency, I am not a security expert, but I can help facilitate a meeting between IWA and the CEO of Halogen security who will be in the best position to talk about it.
And maybe sometime in the nearest future invite him to educate members of the association more on this. I believe that everyone knows that we all have to become more cautious. I have had to disabled online banking on some of my accounts, and anytime I have to use my card online I take extreme care.
MS RITA: This is where I would say booking with a chain is very important because it keeps you secured; this is an added benefit. I will give it to the Radisson Hotel Group which has thought it wise through several trainings to teach us on how to detect these types of negative activities such that they now become a mediator of sorts between the travel agent and the customer. Every travel agent we deal with is certified, and we don’t have such a problem.
However, when such problems occur we detect them. Moreover, we don’t charge a card that we don’t see the owner whose signature has to correspond with the one on his/her identity card. We have been taught how to detect a forged signature. Our emails are also secured such that a card transaction has to go through certain processes before it is authorized.
IWA TO MS RITA: This brings us to a very important aspect of the hospitality industry which is food, and I want you to talk about the food of Park-Inn Victoria Island. Can you generally talk to us about the menu of Park-Inn by Radisson?
MISS RITA: The Food and Beverage department (F&B) is the heartbeat of any hotel. So if a hotel doesn’t get it right, the hotel has shot itself in the foot. Here at Park-Inn, we try to make sure that all of our food is organic. As regards our supply, we are very fortunate to have Avalon Farms, and the food items are delivered to us directly from the farm. It is an added advantage for us as we promote healthy living. Even when you order something as simple as Chicken and Chips, the ingredients are organic and promote healthy living. We aware that some people are going through health challenges these days, and as such we have specific menus for some of our clientele. For example, we have special menus for our vegetarian or diabetic guests.
IWA TO MISS RITA: This is your opportunity to tell our audience the world over about your services at Park-Inn Victoria Island. A lot of people have heard about this property. What exactly should people look out for or look forward to when coming to Park-inn?
MISS RITA: Park-Inn by Radisson is one of the unique brands from the Radisson hotel group because it is based on the three basic pillars which are: good people, good stay and good price, and which captures all aspects important to a business traveller. These form the basis of our unique selling points. We ensure that you have a touch of personalized service by making your stay comfortable and memorable to suit your budget. We also pay attention to detail when it comes to security and safety. The hotel has been in existence for over 20 years and was formerly known as Protea. We joined the Radisson group 4 years ago in 2018. I know that some of our guests who visited when we started 4 years ago upon their return can testify that there have been many improvements. The hotel has been renovated and it is in a new state from top to bottom.
We also tend to cater for the diverse and numerous needs of our clients. We have six categories of rooms ranging from the standard room type to the superior room type with a balcony, we also have the service apartments for clients who choose to stay for extended periods or who want the home environment feel, as well as the executive room type for our elite clients. As earlier mentioned regarding our continental and local dishes, as you can testify to our tasty Egusi-soup dish, they are all organic and delicious. The members of staff are very warm, well trained, and aligned, as well as kept abreast of all the developments and progress of the company.
We also have brunch on Sundays from 11 am to 4 pm for our church-going clients who come in directly from church and may be too tired to cook after the church service. Likewise, we have our specials such as the Jumbo Prawn special or Barbecue special which comes up every second Friday of the month just to ease off the stress from the very busy working week. I would say that at Park-Inn by Radisson VI Lagos, you experience nothing less than the best.
IWA TO OUR READERS
So, there you have it. It has been a pleasure rubbing minds with Mr Folami, the Vice President of Lagos of NANTA and Miss Rita, the General Manager of Park-Inn by Radisson Lagos Victoria Island, both of whom have shared valuable insights into the hospitality industry in Africa generally and Nigeria in particular. We have also been able to establish that Park-Inn by Radisson, Victoria Island, had several packages that set it apart as a “Home-away-from-Home” and a place of rest and escape from the hustle and bustle of Lagos City life.