Paul Kavanagh has lived in one of the remotest parts of Nigeria, Obalinku, when he was the general manager of Obudu Cattle Ranch, now Obudu Mountain Resort under African Sun, a Zimbabwe hospitality management company.
While at Obudu, he regularly shuttle the seven hours difficult road to Calabar, the state capital for most basic materials he needed at the resort before he finally moved on to Lagos and now in Accra, Ghana. He shares his unbelievable experience.
You have been in West Africa now for close to a decade, can you take us down memory lane?
I think you should say, Memory Superhighway, and not Lane as there has been just so many amazing, unbelievable and beautiful memories for me. Moments that will be a part of my life and who I am for the rest of my life. That’s the thing with a life in this part of the world, it will always surprise, and always deliver moments. Some beautiful, some quite ugly, some surprising, and some totally mind blowing.
From my first experience of the domestic airport in Lagos, to dancing on the street at Calabar Carnival. My first experience of having Malaria, to the beauty of care I received to get me through it. My first taste of Afang soup, and “404”. Getting “snapped” like I was some sort of celebrity. Selling fish in the market for an afternoon in Calabar.
Or the first experience of someone trying to kidnap me, an hour outside Abuja, on my way home to Obudu. However, the best memory I will carry with me, when I finally retire, will undoubtedly be all the amazing people who I have met and worked with over the years. There is not a magazine big enough to mention them all. But such inspirational, and fascinating people who have taught me so much, and changed my life.
What was it like the first time?
Without doubt, I am the luckiest Oyinbo General Manager in West Africa, because my first posting here was at the peak of the people’s paradise, the world famous, Obudu Mountain Resort.
So, my true first impressions were formed on the mountain. Beautiful people, unbelievable scenery and an incredible hotel, plus the most perfect weather for a foreigner on his first position in Africa. OMR was also the most challenging hotel operation I have ever experienced, the logistics of the location created situations no one can learn in hotel school.
But within that first week you are like a new-born child, learning so much, and learning at a pace unlike any other time in your working life. Learning the culture, the people, the product, the challenges, and even the language in such a short time. Learning your role and responsibilities, not just for the business, but also the far wider community is so important, but also, so different from somewhere like Europe.
Where was your first point in West Africa?
As I’ve mentioned, it was Obudu Mountain in Cross River State, Nigeria. And from that, plus of course my second post at Tinapa, Calabar, I am now proudly Nigerian, Calabar and Efik.
How much information did you have about Nigeria and anxiety that follows then?
I am sure that everyone who comes to Nigeria for the first time does just as I did. You hit Google and YouTube and you search. However just before I travelled to my new home, I had two great introductions to what lay ahead.
The first was the Nigerian Embassy in London for my visa, and the second was findings I made through Africa Magic cable channel TV in my home in London. Outside the embassy all was calm, inside it was pure beautiful madness, totally un-organised, absolute chaos and everything I had read confirmed. And then, having watched 3 Nollywood movies on Africa Magic, one in Yoruba, I was totally prepared for what lay ahead. So for me personally, I travelled to my new home with zero anxiety, and total curiosity and excitement. And Nigeria did not let me down.
How long were you there before moving on to another job?
I had the honour of being the GM of OMR for two amazing years. In that time we experienced the best of times, and maybe also the hardest of times. The day we were told we had won the “Seven Wonders of Naija” award, despite being told right at the start we could not win it, was very special. They were the best two working years of my life.
At what point did you move from Nigeria to Ghana and how was the switch?
I have now been in Ghana, as General Manager of Golden Tulip Accra, since May 2016. Switching from Nigeria to Ghana is not too difficult. Yes, there are differences, just as there is switching from my country of birth, Ireland, to my home in England. Ghana and Nigeria are different in lots of ways, and equally, the same in lots of ways. Coming to a landmark hotel like Golden Tulip Accra carries a different set of pressures.
However, for me, I was originally only due to be here in Accra for seven months as an interim GM. That was one of the main reasons I took the position. I saw it as an opportunity to experience a country I had heard so much about while living in Nigeria. Subsequently, I was offered the position full time and I love my time here.
Skilled workers are a major issue in the hospitality industry, how bad was it when you arrived?
I am glad you have asked me this question as this is something I care passionately about. Remember you described it as a “major issue”. And yes there are real challenges in the hotel industry with regards to staff. Perhaps amongst my peers, this is the most challenging aspect of operating a hotel in this part of the world. But finding and solving the issue, is quite complex. The people of West Africa are naturally suited to hotel life. They are born with a disposition that suits our business and its requirements.
Yet still we have this challenge. For me we have to create a “collective” solution. So, I will utilise this forum to put forward my five point plan: Every hotel should contribute 10 per cent of their training budget each year to a specialised hotel school. Knowing that the return on this investment won’t be for five years, the value of the hotel contribution should be matched, in monetary terms, by the national authority, for example, Tourism Levy here in Ghana, and allocated to a specialised hotel school and the schools must raise their curriculum, and their pass marks, to level to match the needs of the commercial businesses.
Others are, that the local hotel businesses must support the schools with both direct and indirect involvement, spending training time in the schools, and providing opportunities for on-site exposure and the international hotel companies trading here should provide, at no cost to the schools, internationally qualified trainers and training within the accredited schools.
All the stakeholders playing a part for the greater good of our industry in the long term. Without a plan, and without direct action from a cross section of the industry, nothing will change. Nothing except “guest expectation”.
Has the situation improved now?
No, the situation is not improving. If anything, it is getting worse. Because the expectation of the guests is always evolving, changing and increasing, the gap is widening between what guests want and what we can offer. I am sure every hotel does training, and does what they can to address the challenges. At Golden Tulip Accra, we are proud to operate the biggest hotel intern programme in Ghana. We support schools directly as much as we can, and we get personally involved. But so much more must be done.
Between Nigeria and Ghana where is the lack of skilled workers more problematic?
You can’t really compare, its apples versus oranges. They have slightly different issues to face. But overall, neither has the right foundation of education needed for the industry. I would say however, the base skills of hotel life are stronger in Ghana, but the passion to learn is higher in Nigeria. Ghana is definitely ahead in the culinary skills, however, already Nigeria is far more diverse in the kitchens.
Both have the real challenge that the cooks within these kitchens just don’t like or understand foreign food. They don’t know what it should taste like, or even want to taste it as they cook, and this will always be a problem for the development of the food industry.
In Nigeria, power is a major issue, how much of a relief it is here in Ghana where power is fairly stable?
Yes, power is a real challenge in Nigeria. And yes, for the hotels in Accra it is far more stable. But that does not mean it is challenge free. Our staff when they go home face the issue of “dumsor”. Equally, because it is less of a daily issue here, we are less prepared for when something does go wrong. To be fair, until someone fully solves the issue, 100 per cent guaranteed, we can’t really ever claim five star status for any of our hotels, so as an industry we need to find solutions.
No doubt, Nigeria is a business destination and Ghana is gradually assuming the MICE capital of West Africa, how true is this?
The MICE business in Accra is growing, that is true. The international community and event organisers are becoming more aware of the potential of Ghana, and Accra in particular. The logistics and infrastructure is noticeable better in Accra than any city in Nigeria. And the future looks far brighter already in Accra, with a number of new additions being added, such as the new terminal at Kotoka Airport.
However, I am not sure I would agree fully that Nigeria is the business destination. There is far more to doing business than just the obvious numbers. The airport, the hotels, the security, the banking facilities, the stability of government and currencies for example, all play a part. Accra can take business from Nigeria, and I can clearly see it already is. Nigeria’s market size will always make it attractive, but it must always remember people do have choices in how they deal with the Nigerian market.
How would you rate general tourism activities in both countries?
To be fair, both have still a long way to go to match a number of other African countries. Both appear to have good internal markets, and maybe these deceives people in thinking of the financial potential for this business sector. Ghana is easily ahead of Nigeria in welcoming visitors to the country, it is far easier for someone to enter Ghana.
The process is easier and cheaper. Both countries need to learn more about how they sell and market themselves internationally, and they need to put in a lot more time, effort and money. Tourism will always be an investment that repays.
Nigeria is a country of massive cultural wonder, the festivals of the north, the energy of Lagos and Port Harcort, the natural beauty of Jos and Obudu, and of course, Calabar Carnival and Festival, to name only a small fraction.
The product is there, and there is a lot of it. Ghana may have less, it’s smaller after all. But what it does have is far more accessible, developed and tourist-friendly. Equally, the sales story for Ghana is better developed. So for me, Ghana is ahead, but both have so much more potential.
Nigeria and Ghana have witnessed more international brands in the hospitality sector, how much of a help is this to the sector at large?
For both, it is a positive thing, it gives confidence to the virgin traveller, it raises the benchmarks, increases competition and most importantly it meets the varied needs of today’s travellers. The market has changed, the market is also expanding.
However, today traveller is far more demanding, and ready to voice their displeasure. They are armed and dangerous thanks to the smartphone and social media. So, it does not matter what level the international brand is, as long as it is true to the global brand standard. “This is Africa” is not an excuse.
More and more local properties are going alone instead of the usual franchise, how advantageous is this?
I think it is superb we can see a rise in local product, and in a lot of ways this is far more interesting a development than the new international brands. Hotels that were once internationally branded, now becoming independent, and showing they can compete and find their place in the market.
And I think it is also the time for the rise of a “locally born” international brand. A West African brand, just as we have in the airline sector. For both countries, and the development of their respective tourism markets, they need a diverse collection of hotels.
All the star levels, all the different standards, and all the price points, to meet the global market in the many forms it takes. Just look at Lagos & Accra, Labadi Beach Hotel is the best five star, and Eko Hotels & Suites the best hotel in their respective cities. Independently branded hotels, who know how to utilise international knowledge and skills.
What makes your current organisation different from the previous one?
Golden Tulip Hotels is a single brand within the Louvre Hotels Group, and is part of one of the fastest growing companies around this industry. And it is very exciting to be a part of its evolution.
LHG now has nine hotel brands across the world, and can exceed the guest need in any hotel at any level. But the main difference is the creation of “Golden Tulip of Tomorrow”. I love the new brand concept, and the story behind it.
I love the feel, the emotion and the pure sense of really understanding our guests, and future guests, that it meets. The thought, planning, invention and creation of the new brand is exceptional. Yes change can be scary, and for some, quite difficult. But the way we are introducing the new ideation and culture is spot on.
For me, here in Accra, I love, and really appreciate the amazing support and buy-in of the hotels owners, into the new concept. It is so much easier when everyone is on board and working to the same goal.
How would you rate the two communities [Ghana and Nigeria] that you have worked?
Honestly it is not for me to be rating these two great nations. And certainly not in a way that may mean one out-rates the other. Both countries have challenges, just the same as every country on earth has. There is no country called Utopia on earth.
But what is far more important is that both countries have so many amazing positives. For me, the biggest positive of both Ghana and Nigeria is the extraordinary potential and possibilities of both. In the hotel industry, yes there are exceptions, we are only at the first steps of the evolution of the sector.
So many hotel businesses here are around 10 years old or less. That is nothing. Golden Tulip Accra is 26 years old, but that too, is really young when you compare to the international hotel community. So, there is still so much more to come, and it will.
What is the future of the sector in West Africa?
The future is bright, of that I am certain. Yes, there will be challenges, there will be bumps along the road. But that’s something we have all had to learn to live with through our lives. Of course mistakes will be made and some businesses may not succeed or survive. Investing in hotels is not really for short term gain, it is a long-haul game.
Here in Ghana we will see a number of new hotels opening each and every year, and in the short term that will impact the market. However, in five years’ time, those hotels will simply merge into the total market, and be absorbed.
I think in Ghana it is possible outside Accra that the next will appear. Maybe there will be less new hotels in Nigeria in the next few years, but within the next 10 you can see more and more opening. The expansion of the market will determine that.
Unless the obvious challenges are addressed, mainly the education of future staff, then we won’t move forward at the same pace as the guest expectation, and that will have a negative impact of the national impression. Hotels and hotel staff play such a vital role in representing their country. We are usually the first and last real contact an outsider has in a country.
And this can greatly impact on how investors, business people and visitors feel about a country. So our value is far higher than just the revenues, jobs and taxes we contribute. I believe in a phrase “the deeper the foundation, the stronger the fortress”, and for my industry that means we have to build the foundation, and that starts with education.
How can West Africa benefit from the leisure traffic instead of relying on Business and MICE alone?
We have the capacity within our hotels. We have the infrastructure to facilitate, and, we have the reasons to come. So, why should we not be looking at the Leisure market. When a country like Gambia can outperform us, and clearly show the economic value of leisure tourism, then we can, and should learn from them, and from so many others. Both countries would benefit from “hard currency” businesses.
Our hotels, restaurants, bars, retails outlets, and even government revenues would benefit by growing this element of the market. But this is not the work of individual hotels. This is the responsibility of government authorities and tourist boards.
Of course the hotels can support, and we at Golden Tulip Accra made it a policy to actively and proudly support our Tourist Board and the work they do. We can only do so much, but by playing our part we support them in delivering their part.