Chief Sam Alabi is seen today as the doyen of the hospitality industry in Nigeria. Apart from working as legal luminary in the sector, he has also been working as one of the few hospitality lawyers in the country. In this interview with Lucky Onoriode George, African Travel Times Editor, he talks about his journey so far into travel and tourism.
You have been in the hospitality now for decades; can you take us down memory lane?
Yes I have been in the industry close to three decades. It was an accidental thing. I was posted to Eko Hotels Limited by National Youth Service Corps [NYSC] for my one year national service. At the end of the one year service, the company was magnanimous enough to absorb me as a full staff. The journey has been very fruitful and I thank God for everything.
What was it like the first time?
I never thought I will be this long in the hospitality industry. The in-thing then was finance institutions, mortgage houses and I had thought at a time, I will cross to that sector. But as you can see, that wish did not come to pay. It is unlikely that I will cross from this industry to non-related ones again.
Where was your first point in the industry politics?
From day one, I worked in the administrative section of the hotel. Most industrial associations my company belonged to are coordinated from our end. At a point, I began to represent my employer in those associations and before long, I was given committee roles in these associations.
How much information do you have about the sector before you came in as an NYSC member?
To be honest, I had no information. My thought before then was that only waiters,bar men and bedroom stewards are required in the hotel. As a matter of fact, when my deployment letter was given to me at the NYSC Camp, my friends and I concluded that there was a mistake somewhere. We reasoned what will a lawyer be doing or looking for in hotel? Alas! When I came to report for duty in Eko Hotels Limited, I discovered that it was not an error as the then company secretary/legal adviser specifically requested for lawyer from NYSC.
What was your first assignment when you were retained?
Interestingly, when I was posted to my primary place of service, I never saw myself as a Youth Corper. I devoted all my energy to the assignment given. I could remember, some staff making jokes of my taking things too serious as if I was part of them.
After my retention, my schedule of works continues the same way. Maybe I need to say that we were two lawyers in service at the same department then. The management knew why they retained me instead of the other person.
Have you always being in the legal unit?
Yes, I have always been in the company secretary/legal adviser’s office. I started as legal officer, later as senior legal officer and at a point, assistant company secretary/legal adviser before my promotion to company secretary/legal adviser in January, 1998.
At what point did your unionism or activism start?
Being a representative of the employer, I cannot say I was engaged in unionism; although in school, I had played roles in student unionism. Nevertheless, I must say my position in hotels & personal services employers association made me interact with the workers representatives.
Skilled workers are a major issue in the hospitality industry, how bad was it when you arrived?
In those days, you have very few staff that read related courses. Even graduates employees are numbered in the industry. You must not forget that the employment situation in Nigeria then was not that bad like now. Hence, Hotel is never a first choice option for graduates. Most graduates then prefers financial institutions.
Has the situation improved now?
Now with the labour market situation in Nigeria, the least staff here must have a diploma certificate.
No doubt, Nigeria is a business destination of which your organisation profits from, how can Nigeria tap into the leisure industry to increase volume?
Anytime I hear the usual catch phrase that “tourism is a low hanging fruit in Nigeria economy”, I have been asking myself, where are the fruits hanging low? We are fond of rhetoric’s without facing the reality. What better prospect has this government brought to tourism that will escalate tourism development?
There is the need for the government to induce the development of attractions. What readily comes to mind is the appalling state of our national parks. Efforts should be made by governments to revive the comatose state of these parks. If done, same would even boost domestic tourism.
How would you rate general tourism activities in the country?
Nothing has changed. Same story same situation. The law has even dismembered administrative coordination.
Nigeria and Ghana have witnessed more international brands in the hospitality sector, how much of a help is this to the sector at large?
One of the peculiar features of hospitality industry is the presence of management companies with their different brand names. In view of their specialisation, they have developed over time, product manuals that enable seamless management and maintenance of hotel services and standard. Of course, most management company had given a good account of themselves in Nigeria.
More and more local properties are going alone instead of the usual franchise, how advantageous is this?
This must have been as a result of availability of local manpower that must have understudied the expatriates under the branding regime, as well as the need to regulate operational cost.
You have been in politics of the sector for years now, would you say you achieved your purpose or some purposes that motivated you joining initially?
I can confidently say that I have started well, and I believe the gains I achieved politically justify the efforts deployed. Politics is not like supermarket where you pay and pick your items. Politics is about creation of legacy against present and future usage. For me, so far so good, I am grateful to God.
NIHOTOUR and NTDC bills were recently passed by the senate and left with the House of Representative, what is your opinion of the quality of the bills?
If the bills that I read as purportedly passed are the true version to be signed into law, then the sector would be plunged into a prolonged judicial fireworks. At the end of it all, the wound planned to be cured by these legislative intervention will metamorphosed into gangrene.
How would you rate Federation of Tourism Associations of Nigeria [FTAN]?
FTAN has come to stay. No doubt, it is one body that all the private sector in tourism now see as representing them. With adequate resources, more achievement will be recorded by the federation in due course.
The way forward for Nigerian Tourism is for government to make deliberative efforts to boost tourism development by inducing tourist attractions that could attract tourists and allied business.