Founder and Former Chairman of Protea Hotels, Mr. Otto Stehlik, is Africa’s icon of Hospitality, Tourism and an International Expert Hotel Management. According to him, the African Continent has not yet fully tapped into the unlimited economic growth and development opportunities domiciled in the hospitality and tourism sectors.
In this exclusive interview with MESHACK IDEHEN, Abuja Bureau Chief, Bizwatchnigeria.ng, Stehlik, now the Executive Chairman of BON Hotels International West Africa following the acquisition of Protea Hotels by Marriott International was in Nigeria recently for the official launch of the BON Hotels Group in the country.
Sir, your profile, your pedigree as an industry icon is extremely intimidating, it is very rich. What informed your choice of the hospitality industry?
Well, I think that the essence of the question lies in two areas which are the Protea Hotels story and that of the BON Hotels story; and they are two different stories, yet they are very much intertwined.
The difference is that BON Hotels is my son’s Group, and my son,Guy, started BONHotels when I was still the Chairman of Protea Hotels. I am the Founder of Protea Hotels which we started with a handful of hotels, and which later become the largest hotel group in Africa. So my story goes back to Protea, and in fact, Guy was also trained at Protea and is a product of that training just like most of the BON Hotels people here. They are products of those trainings and also are ex Protea people.
Two years ago we sold Protea Hotels to Marriott, and Mr. Marriott knowing what my objectives are which is to make everyone ,including the buyer, the seller and remaining people concerned happy, came to an agreement with me that I stay on for one year in the Marriott office to ensure that the people that Marriott have brought are okay. Of course, my son already started BON Hotels well before that.
The idea was that I will stay for one year at Marriott, then join my son and assist him in building up his hotel management company. Guy started his own hotel company while I was still at Protea. The idea was that I will stay for a year and then join and assist him in BON Hotel.
With the Marriott transaction, they (Marriott) restrategized their presence in Africa and we came to an arrangement whereby Marriott was after opening big hotels, mega hotels, which I believe they are doing, but that really didn’t fit into the strategy to help build original Protea Hotels in their group.
So that’s why BON Hotels is managing the original Protea Hotels, but also opening their own hotels, because Marriott wanted to ensure that the contracts that were entered into in Nigeria between Protea and their owners in Nigeria wouldn’t be jeopardized, or that the owners wouldn’t be negatively prejudiced to their transactions. What BON is doing is to ensure continuity of management and that has been largely achieved. Some of the hotels BON took over have already been rebranded, and yesterday’s announcement, was basically to announce the launch of nine BON Hotels in Nigeria.
Coming from that background which shows deep knowledge and lots of experiences in the management of hotels and the hospitality industry, could we say that is what is rubbing off on the management of BON Hotels Group ?
The main thing is like I tried to get through yesterday in my message is that from when I started Protea in 1984, there were challenges. But we quickly realized that as African operators we had a distinct trading advantage against international operators despite that fact that we were operating then in an era of international sanctions.
What distinct advantages?
You could hardly express it. The distinct advantages is the fact that we as an African operator understand the African trading environment far better than any German, British, French or American hotel group, and we picked up lot of pieces left behind by these international groups who disliked the inconveniences; many of whom out of these inconvenience have pulled out of Africa. We cannot pull out of Africa.
To quote the great Nelson Mandela, South Africans are African people, and that is quite significant. South Africa has the special responsibility to ensure peace democracy and development in Africa and that’s why we are here today, because we feel that without any second thought that the people from South Africans are African people.
We feel also strongly about the fact, especially the cooperation between South Africa and Nigeria, if it is used properly it can be of huge development to Africa and contribute towards materializing the old cliché about the rainbow nation and the African dream, and this whole African dream can materialize, if South Africa and Nigeria can use their combined strength for cooperation and for the development of Africa.
How can Nigeria and South Africa leverage on the existing situation to develop the continent?
Ultimately, I have been around for a little while, and that is usually a subject that people say well, you know, it makes a lot of sense, and they are sure the government is doing something and that is exactly where the whole thing falls flat, because we know governments well enough.
It’s only going to work if people get the message that everyone of them can contribute towards making that African dream and don’t have to wait for the government. Even the South African Ambassador was not here yesterday. That’s exactly the point. It is the people like entrepreneurs who can pull it off. It is not going happen between the South African and Nigerian presidents. It’s going happen between people like Gregory Ozegbe our partner here, and the other entrepreneurs. When Gregory came to South Africa, it took us less than half an hour to put the essence of the deal together.
Gregory, as a property developer, like the other people; the other entrepreneurs has got the local knowledge to make things work, because It will be incredibly arrogant on my part just to come to Nigeria and assume that we can come and teach the people how to do, when to do and where to do. I don’t have that knowledge. It is our Nigerian partners that are going to make it work. However government has its role to play; the rules, the laws, the enabling environment amongst others.
From your own perspective, how would you describe the Nigerian hospitality and tourism sectors. Does it have enough prospects, enough potential to drive the economy and investments?
Let’s not even start by comparing with France because the tourism figure there is staggering, let’s compare with Africa. In Nigeria, tourism and hospitality represents about 1.7 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In South Africa, it is about 10 percent of the GDP. Kenya and Tanzania has about 26 percent and 14 percent respectively of the GDPs of those nations. That shows that Nigeria is nowhere. Absolutely nowhere. The reasons for this may not be farfetched, as Nigeria is mainly in the oil and gas sector. In the past, it was agriculture. So in the past tourism wasn’t really there.
So the point behind this, one of the things we did at Protea was to create a tourism access in Africa, and the thought behind this, if you think of the best trip ever, where would you want to go? I would give you a tour. If you start from to Egypt to see the pyramids, you go down to Kenya to see the Masa Mara, Kilimanjaro, to Lake Malawi, Victoria Falls, Kruger Park others, now that is a serious trip, that is what many people would do. The only problem is that Nigeria is not included, and that is not the fault of the tourists, because Nigeria has got Yankari, has got lakes, mountains, others.
Also, there is a great and growing population, there is the disposable income that is rising, and there is the human resource. So it is now left for the people to develop these tourist sites so that they become viable and profitable. At BON, We see ourselves as an integral part of the structures and success that can be achieved if these things are done.
With the challenges of infrastructure, security and economic recession, how do you think these problems can be addressed?
A French philosopher once gave a famous quote about opportunities being brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems. We know there are problems, we understand there are challenges, but we also accept that these problems are things that can be solved, and they will be solved. At some point in South Africa during those years, we could not even print our flyers from South Africa and take them to America or Europe to promote our business. These were problems and challenges, but they were resolved.
The important thing is for the government to create and sustain the enabling environment that can allow private developers and entrepreneurship to thrive. However, like I said before, it is the people that will eventually make things work.
Considering all these, where do we expect to see BON Hotels in the coming months and years, and in what ways do you think the governments intervention is required?
The beauty of this discussion we are having and the question you asked is that we want the government to leave entrepreneurs like us alone. We are not asking for tax reduction, for any special favours of any sort. Yes we will have to deal with and relate to the local government at various times. We could ask for the permission to build a hotel school for the training of Nigerians, but it is in our own interests to do so.
Regarding where we expect to see ourselves in the coming years, we are presently already having about 40 serious discussions with financiers, developers and other entrepreneurs in order to assist in the building of hotels. As you can see, all my team are out meeting with developers, financiers.
Then with nine hotels already across five cities in Nigeria, and the potential of 36 states with their own cities and towns having their own hotels, Nigeria and BON Hotels has endless opportunities. As a group, BON Hotels is also committed to the training and empowerment of local Nigerians and making significant social investments that will be sustainable. The government can do well to support the private sector, but can also do well to leave them alone.
Already, there is the BON Hotels Grand Towers, Abuja; there is BON Hotel Stratton, Asokoro, BON Hotels Delta, Protea Hotel Ikeja and Victoria Island, amongst others. And including BON Hotel Apo, BON Hotel Ekiti, and BON Hotel Owerri which are under construction, so there is the potential for growth and development in the years to come.
We intend to be in key places like Abuja, Lagos, Port Harcourt. In Lagos, there is an oversupply of hotels, in Abuja, there are lots of demands. We want to be where our customers want us to be. Even if we need to be in Maiduguri, we are also looking at the state capitals, that’s where the next hotels will be, wherever there is demand.
We are also looking up north. So with our partner Gregory and other people, there will be BON Hotels in state capitals in collaboration with local partners because they know best where these developments should be located. That is why Hotel operators have to come in from the beginning, in order to make adequate inputs.