‘For Nigeria to lead tourism recovery, some elements should be in place’
Adetope Kayode is the Chief Executive Officer, ICON Hotels & Resorts Nigeria, the management company for Ibom ICON Hotel & Golf Resort, Uyo, Akwa Ibom State. A subsidiary of ICON Hotels & Resorts Africa, the firm is a pan-African hospitality chain based in Nairobi, Kenya, with properties and interests across Africa. Over the years, ICON has worked in countries like Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda. In West Africa, the brand is currently expanding to Nigeria, Gambia, Senegal, Cameroon, Benin Republic and Ghana. In this interview, he spoke on the vision of ICON brand for Africa, ongoing transformation at Ibom ICON Resort and how Nigeria could lead tourism recovery post COVID-19. He spoke with Chinonso Ihekire
Could you share with us the vision behind ICON Hotel & Resort as a hospitality brand?
The whole idea of the brand Icon is more or less a movement that is targeted at the emergence of hospitality professionalism in the African industry. Kenya has a very long history of expertise in the hospitality industry that dates back several decades. From that training in professionalism, the business has arrived. You would find a lot of training institutions and Kenyan experts exporting talent across the continent and generally pushing the standard to the next level. That’s exactly what is happening in Nigeria today.
The Nigerian hospitality industry has come of age. It is about time that the experience we have cultivated over the years gets channeled into actively managing our prized assets by ourselves. This particular asset we are managing used to be a Western asset, but it is now called the Ibom ICON Hotel & Golf Resort, Uyo; we are rebranding the facility. We are taking creativity in terms of product offerings, and service delivery to another level. By doing that, we are showcasing African hospitality unashamedly and in an authentic manner.
You took over the management of Ibom Resort in the middle of the pandemic. How were you able to manage the situation, especially when most hotels were shutdown as a result of the nationwide lockdown?
So, we had been here – specifically talking about Uyo – since February 2020, just before the pandemic hit hard. We were here throughout the lockdown from February to October when we took over the asset. Then, we spent time going through every fabric of the property; there was nothing to do anyway; we studied, understood the property and its challenges. Then we started to create rapid response initiatives so that post-pandemic when we deploy them, we would have very sharp growth trajectory.
We spent a lot of time brainstorming and creating new ways of hospitality for the post-pandemic. One of those things was to have a very carefully thought-out COVID-19 protocol in place for guest safety and awareness; we went about that specifically. We started, for each guest checkout, disinfecting the rooms; we started implementing more contactless hospitality solutions, given the available technology.
There are a lot of initiatives we put in place, which have now given our guests comfort. We are now attracting events from a lot of groups, including government officials, because they know we pay attention to detail when it comes to health and safety.
Before now, there was this popular opinion that, if Nigeria would get it right with tourism, Calabar would be the perfect place to start. However, it looks like Uyo is taking the lead in terms of infrastructure needed to develop tourism. How is ICON looking at Akwa Ibom’s tourism potentials, what’s the big picture for you?
There were a number of masterstrokes that have brought Uyo to where it is today. Again, the location of the city is very good, in terms of road links to other cities in the Southeast and South-South regions. Beyond the facts of its location, aviation was the biggest masterstrokes.
Tourism thrives with ease of access and volume; everything needs to work seamlessly. With the advent of Ibom Air, the vision that they took is a stroke of genius; the vision and capacity of that airline is expanding. The whole idea is to make Uyo become a regional hub for aviation; it has a huge impact on tourism and it has been felt dramatically. At the resort now, we get large groups from all over the country. The reason they are able to easily come here is that Uyo is serene, peaceful and safe. Most importantly, it is easy to get into. Within 30 from the airport, you are at the resort; it is working excellently.
There is also the aspect of infrastructure; the infrastructure here is topnotch. From any angle of this state to the next, you can get anywhere within two hours. The roads are pretty good quality; there are streetlights everywhere. When you come to a place like Uyo, you also have places to go; you can get there within an hour or an hour and fifteen minutes. So, it makes people spread the word. There are lots of sights and sounds in this state. The government, over the years, have done a few things right; this present administration has done a lot.
One of the major contributions of this administration is that it has improved security. Uyo is one of the safest cities to live in, and that makes people want to come here.
As ICON, do you plan to come up with tourism packages that would encourage guests and tourist to visit?
This hotel is a platform for the growth of tourism in Akwa Ibom; it is not just about filling our rooms. What we have been able to do since we have been here is to put together very attractive packages. Except via a travelogue option, Nigerians don’t get to benefit from all-inclusive packages. What we have done is to create all-inclusive packages for our guests.
Apart from the all-inclusive, we have tour packages to places within Akwa Ibom such as Ikot Abasi and even other places like Itu where you have Mary Slessor’s life and missionary work. We are also leveraging on the blessed geography that Akwa IBom has; this state is blessed with beautiful waterways. This resort has a jetty and Marina that was designed to be a hub for leisure activities on the waterways; we are revamping that.
Over the years, it has been neglected, but we recognise the potential of the Marina to be an absolute catalyst for tourism here. We are creating a boat club, a bush bar, and we are completely transforming it to a tourism attraction. From the Marina, you can go to the islands; it has a lot of Fauna and sea creatures. By creating opportunities for people to go from here to places of interests, we are creating a robust experience for people to completely get a feel of Akwa Ibom like never before. You can do things like fishing, experience local riverine culture, taste palm wine and the rest.
Lack of maintenance culture is a big issue in the hospitality sector in Nigeria. What are the measures being put in place to maintain Ibom ICON Hotel & Golf Resort?
As of when we took over, the Marina area was overgrown with weeds; the jetty itself was dilapidated and the slip way was not in use. Basically, the entire facility was in a state of neglect. We utilised local know-how to clear the entire Marina of weeds. For the first time in years, you could see the entire water mass. Those alone made people want to visit the Marina; spend time at the clubhouse and even to take pictures.
Stage two is refurbishing the jetty, refloating the sunken walkways, clearing the slippery and we are equally refurbishing the Marina Clubhouse. We are also creating a zipline across the water, with a canopy walk. We are transforming that area to create a hotspot for tourists. We are creating partnerships with specialists in marine engineering to operate the boats and to do proactive maintenance there.
While we are partnering with experts to keep the Marina top notch, we are also revamping the hotel itself. We have started with new designs for the rooms; we are also redesigning the banquet area for the hotel. In terms of the backbone facilities of the hotel, we are specifying and refurbishing the entire system. At the end of this exercise, we would have a brand new facility.
ICON started from Uyo, but are there plans for expansion in Nigeria, where’s your next target?
We have an aggressive growth trajectory; we are able to achieve significant growth management. Outside of Nigeria, we also have aggressive growth targets as well. We would grow aggressively in Nigeria over the next couple of years.
What do you think the industry needs to do post-COVID-19 in terms of recovery?
For Nigeria to lead the COVID-19 recovery plan, some elements should be in place. Nigeria’s biggest challenge is insecurity in certain parts of the country. So, the first thing we should address is security. There was a time when people confidently drove to different parts of the country. Personally, while growing up, I did road journey to Sokoto and beyond many times. Now, I can’t try that.
As a country, we have to address our security situation; there are no quick-fix solutions to that issue. It took a mix of issues to get us to where we are as a country. But there are still places in this country that has been safe enough to encourage tourism, places like Uyo. Now, in those safe places, we have to preserve the reputation.
Also, we have to layer attraction. I don’t believe in the adage that you should ‘build it and they would come.’ You need to understand what to build to make them come. There is that aspect of conceptualisation of experiences; tourism is all about selling experiences. In Ibom ICON, there is a programme that we have launched: One experiences, a lifetime of memories. As a country, we need to create such experiences. We have them already, but they are not optimised to leave lasting impressions on visitors.
We need to strategically think about upgrading the tourist hotspots we have in Nigeria. Places like Osogbo, Ikogosi, Idanre Hills and so much more. Almost every state has something of value to a tourist. But when you go to these places and you don’t even have good roads, comfortable hotels, nice means of transportations, tour guides and tailored experiences; you cannot leave an impression that way. The kind of multiplier effect it would have on the economy is huge. Everyone would benefit, from the palm wine tapper, to the transporters, to the hoteliers. We as a country have to learn to teach ourselves to catch fish and not feed fish to the needy. It is at that point that we would get the full benefit of the exclusive growth in tourism.
For ICON Hotels & Resorts in Nigeria, local content is very key. The Marina that was covered with weed, we used the locals to drive that project. We are impacting the economy and the environment; locals are fully engaged. We are also impacting lives; from the lowest to the average man in the city. Everyone is feeling the impact of the management.
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