‘Women can do any job in any field and excel at it’
Kechi Ibe is a luxury expert and IATA/ASTA member, with over a decade of experience in luxury travel and tourism. Founder of Kahera Travels, she doubles as an advisor to airline start-ups, global tourism boards and governments on the benefits of investing in tourism, and has worked with high and ultra-high net worth individuals, local and international celebrities, as well as Fortune 500 companies.
With degrees from Loughborough University, United Kingdom and the University of the West Indies, Barbados, she is a regular analyst and contributor across several media platforms, where she offers insightful ideas on how to rebuild and reposition the industry for better economic outcomes.
In this interview with FLORENCE UTOR, Kechi who is passionate about showcasing unique and little known destinations around the world, shares her experience in the industry, the business world, and why the government must partner with industry stakeholders to grow the travel and tourism sector of the economy.
With a background in Information Technology, what informed your decision to go into hospitality?
Yes, I studied Information Technology and was great at it and had at least four years working experience before I started my business. I worked at IBM as an information technology consultant and worked in professional recruitment in the UK; I also had a stint in a government agency in Barbados. During my NYSC in Nigeria, I worked with Galaxy Backbone. But above all these, I have always loved the hospitality business and come from a family that is also into hospitality. So, perhaps some of that rubbed off on me, but I personally enjoy travelling.
I enjoy embracing new cultures and I enjoy structure. When going on vacations, I don’t like to travel to just any country without knowing much about where to visit or the experience I would have. I want to know what I’m doing; I want to know what to experience, because most times, you don’t have enough time in a country to really get the best out of it; the more prior information that I can get before going, the better.
Again, I will say my uncle gave me the push I needed, as he said to me one day, ‘Hey, you’re doing this with the family too much. Why don’t you get certified, get IATA training and actually start this business?’ I followed that advice and that’s how it all came about; I turned my passion into a business. In the beginning, it was just me that did the website design and all of that. So, my background in IT also aided my career in hospitality.
Some people see hospitality business as feminine, do you agree with that?
I don’t agree with this narrative at all and I didn’t even know people saw the hospitality business as feminine. Funny, men own most of the top hospitality companies; I think Kahera is the only female-owned Luxury Company in Nigeria. So, I don’t think this business is feminine; I don’t think it is easier than what I was doing before. It’s a great business for anybody, man or woman.
I think it’s a tough business, it’s not very easy, but it all depends on what level of hospitality you would like to get into. All aspects of the hospitality business, including hotel management, logistics, travel and so on, are tough; I don’t believe it is a soft landing for women. Women can do any job in any field and excel at it.
You started Kahera Travels at a time when luxury travel wasn’t very popular. What really encouraged you to venture?
As I said before, it unofficially started in 2010 with me organising travel experiences for close family and friends, as travelling has always been a passion of mine. But when I moved to the Caribbean, Barbados specifically to study for my masters, I noticed that people coming into the island didn’t really know how to curate a truly luxurious experience.
The Caribbean is a beautiful island with a lot to see and discover. So, while doing my masters, I started creating packages for people as they came in, just so that they get a full experience of the island.
Towards the end of 2014, I moved to Nigeria for my NYSC and I realised that there was no locally-owned truly luxury travel company available that would cater to the needs of high net worth and ultra-high net worth individuals. The companies around were international companies with a branch in Nigeria. So, in 2015, we officially started off from my mum’s dining table and from there, we grew to a small office with one staff and now we have global offices and an extension of over 30 staff around the world. It’s been a long, hard journey as any entrepreneur would tell you, but with steady dedication and consistency, we continue to grow every second. The more that people use our services, the more they attest to having such a seamless and stress-free experience.
When we started, people told us that Nigerians don’t care about luxury travel; they just want to get their tickets and go. But luxury is not about spending money; it’s about relieving stress related to traveling. It is about waking up to go on your flight and there’s a Kahera car waiting for you outside to take you to the airport; our protocol assists you at the airport, your favourite seat is booked, miles are being taken care of, your favourite hotel is reserved. Again, somebody is at the final destination to carry you through the whole experience with a 24-hour customer line available to assist with any requests you may have throughout your holiday; that’s what we do.
Having been in this bus9iness for years now, what do you think the government can do to improve the travel and tourism sector of the economy?
I think a truly collaborative relationship is definitely required. Tourism is something that yields economic growth. There are countries in the Caribbean, in the Far East that solely rely on tourism and their GDPs are strong. There are states in Nigeria that are hospitality havens, but unfortunately, the insecurity and the fluctuation of the markets makes it very difficult. There are a lot of investors that would love to come into Nigeria to tap into this sector, but we need to make our environment conducive for that. I think we need to revive a lot of festivals that we were doing in Calabar and other states and possibly create a nationwide carnival that takes place in different states so people can come around.
In the Caribbean, you have the Trinidad Carnival and one in Barbados where people from around the world come to take part in the street parties and festivities. We should have these kinds of festivals in Nigeria on such a large scale that people plan to come in from all over the world. We see what’s going on in Accra; that could definitely be emulated here in Nigeria, but it will take both the federal government and the states working collaboratively with us (stakeholders) for the greater good of the country; placing Nigeria on the map as a number one hospitality destination in Africa.
What challenges would you say you face daily as you run this business?
Our daily challenges include economic challenges, non-existent electricity and lack of basic infrastructure, which can be very frustrating. There are other economic challenges, but the 2015 Dollar crisis affected us very badly. In fact, a few companies duped us; one in particular duped us of over 30,000 dollars. Just like other businesses, we didn’t foresee the dollar crisis. So, the process of money transfers became more difficult and when we managed to make payments, getting confirmation from our partners took a longer time than usual.
There are other basic issues that still affect us till today; poor power supply is a major problem. We constantly need the Internet, but electricity is almost non-existent and that’s been a real challenge. The recent increase in the prices of fuel and diesel has been very difficult to manage. Another challenge is that because we are global, it is usually difficult to speak with clients in different time zones who insist on speaking directly with me. While I am extremely accessible, I do like my sleep, but I value my clients and love what I do. I make sure to attend to customers regardless of time zones, especially when we are processing things like citizenship by investment and other kinds of visas that could make clients nervous.
The COVID-19 lockdown was a major setback for businesses, how did you manage to stay in business?
Believe it or not, that period was extremely busy for us. Yes, we didn’t go anywhere, but the world was still moving and the luxury market actually grew, because people were now trying to fly private so that they could be in a more controlled environment with their people. So, we rented a lot of private jets in that period and helped with evacuation flights for various companies to get their staff home. We helped get about 100 nurses from Accra to Barbados in the thick of it to assist with the global pandemic.
We also saw our membership grow, because people were saying, ‘hey, look, I don’t know what’s going on in the world, but I’ve realised that I don’t travel enough and now I want to do that.’ We consulted a lot of companies in the US, asking about what we feel tourism would look like in Africa, what we feel like post COVID-19 travel would look like. I wrote a lot of articles at that time, about what we thought would happen. So, COVID-19 was a huge turnaround for us.
What kept us going was work; we were busy. We had launched our business in America, January 2020, just a month before COVID-19 hit and we were asking ourselves what we had done. But it turned out to be a really good idea, because our network in the US grew exponentially; we focused on that market in that period. A lot of people in the US from New York and California were moving down south to Texas and Florida. So, we started acquiring property management businesses and we opened up our own property management business in the USA for people who wanted to do a long stay. We also launched our digital nomad experience where entrepreneurs can work in another state.
How are you able to navigate these challenges and stay afloat?
I will say consistency pays. Setting goals early on in the business has helped us maintain our reputation and continue to evolve without losing our core values. In this industry, you must have thick skin. You have to be able to evolve to stay ahead of travel trends and not be intimidated by any other brand.
Staying focused on your goals is how we have been able to navigate some of these hurdles, but in all, I will say doing business in Nigeria can be quite challenging, but extremely rewarding.
Do you think you’ve met the goals you set out for yourself when you started?
Yes. My inspiration was to make sure that luxury travel is not just Safari related in Africa, but actually creating the same experiences that you would get with other international travel companies. We set out goals and strategies to actualise them and when I look back, we’ve pretty much ticked off the things that we wanted to do.
So, now we’ve set new goals, we’ve set new challenges for the company. Because we’re ever evolving and people are continuously going to travel, the luxury market is growing and we have repositioned the company to continue to cater to the needs of our clients.