Chairman, Dover Hotel
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Barrister Jackson Agbai Abbah is the Chairman of Dover Hotel with branches both in Ikeja and Lekki, Lagos. With over 16 years of experience in hotel business, Agbai who is a Lawyer and ex-Banker has shown expertise in the business. In this interview with Pearl Ngwama, he spoke on the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the Hospitality Industry, exploits of foreign hotel brands among other issues. He elaborated on the unique selling points of the Hotel saying that the staff treats customers as human beings unlike what obtains in foreign brands where people are treated as objects. Abbah added that Dover is the only hotel in the world that offers customers free breakfast and dinner, among other exceptional services.

 

Excerpts

 

Many industries were badly hit by the outbreak of COVID -19 pandemic. How did it affect your Organisation and the Hospitality Industry in general?

Yes it did but the good news is that, what affected us as an entity is not just only us because we are a hospitality business in Lagos or in Nigeria but it was a problem that is worldwide. Every part of the globe was affected. When you lock up a community, nation and the entire world for four to five months, then people are not allowed to move around. The trauma that the Industry faced was what we faced. People need to move around before they can see places, lodge, eat or drink. The moment, you restrict people around or ban both local and international flights; people can’t move and cannot make use of the products that we offer in the industry.

Did it get to the extent of right sizing or downsizing?

Yes, we did, initially, we tried to be brave, that was the first two months and we were paying the full salaries. But we started paying in fraction the following month and then to a point that we couldn’t sustain it. We were lucky enough that it didn’t last longer because we were about to do more. The unfortunate thing was that, you were paying people who were sitting at home. Even though, they were willing to come to work, they had no means in terms of transportation. Even if they came, there was nobody to attend to. So we had to pay them while they were sitting at home until a time we couldn’t any more.

How much in figures did you lose throughout the period?

Well, I will not say about others. You know we have three properties which include Lekki phase 1, the other one and this one also in Ikeja. In total, we are talking about N700 million to N800 million over a five-month period.

What was the level of occupancy before COVID-19 pandemic and now?

Before the pandemic we were doing about 70 per cent, which is huge in the Industry but now we are doing about 30 per cent to 35 per cent with hope to get it to about 50 per cent in January.

Now that the occupancy has dropped due to COVID-19, what are the additional efforts you are making to attract more customers and boost your patronage?

The additional measures are that we have contacted the customers, telling them that we are obeying all the COVID-19 protocols, in terms of the restaurant, hygiene and the level of disinfection of the entire premises. In fact, we are assuring them, that the place is safe. We are quite optimistic that by January, we will go back to 45 per cent or 50 per cent because it takes a while to build that confidence. That is the reality. They still have fears despite the confidence of the system. People are not travelling as they need to.

As a hotel competing with others, what are your Unique Selling Points (USPs)?

For us, our greatest unique selling point is our human capital. We try to impress it on our people that despite the infrastructure as essential as it is, the most beautiful thing that we need is efficiency. We make sure that every customer that enters Dover Hotel is not treated as an object. This is what most international brands do; they treat you as an object because they book you online, you pay and lodge. We at Dover Hotel treat you as a person and as a human being that you are. We want to be personal, get your name and at all times go out of our way to provide exceptional services. We also have things that other hotels don’t have. We are the only hotel in Nigeria that offers free meals, breakfast and dinner. No hotel offers that in the world. We do that, once you pay us the normal rate. We are also the only hotel that uses memory foam. Memory foam is a specialised foam that when you sleep on it, at night as your body moves, it adjusts with the movement of your body. So when you wake up in the morning, you feel like a little baby. You will have no pains; you will not have effects of pain. So we have a lot of customers once they get hooked with our bedding and the foam, they will tell you that there is no other hotel like ours and they keep coming.

In other industries, like Aviation, government has come up with a kind of palliative. Is there anything like that for the Hospitality Industry?

We understand that a few banks have such plans as they are offering people a credit, that is those affected by COVID-19. The Lagos State government has something for the Hospitality Industry. For those of us who are a little bit geared, we have obligations to Bank of Industry (BoI). The bank has however, been given some kinds of incentives. BoI says we could defer our payment for another one year. They also brought down the loan by almost half. To that extent it is a good incentive but the problem is whether it is sufficient when you had five months of not doing anything. And then, by the time you start, you have another six months to start paying back whether you like it or not. No matter where you are and it could be around that time you might start getting back. In fact, it will take more than a year before you start getting back to the level that you were before the pandemic. This is because until the vaccines are fully out, people are not going to have the same kind of confidence that they had before the pandemic. It means we will have diminished patronage. If we have that, how are we going to be able to meet up those financial obligations? I would have thought that they extend it a little more or even reduce the interest rates. However, the good news we are getting from BoI is that they have plans to look at every organisation, according to their respective impacts.

Outside Covid-19, what other challenges do you encounter running this big Hotel?

It is a very challenging business. I usually tell people that most businesses either challenge you mentally or physically. This is one of the industries that challenges you both physically and mentally. Part of what we do is that people are continuously trained. We must keep on emphasising those issues that make organisations successful. We do the training through the external and internal persons who have the capacity. It is critical in our own undertaking that training is key. We try to ensure that members of staff are adequately rewarded and we teach them to see the business as theirs and not just an employee. If we make them see the business as their own, it equally means that we should reward them like the owners. We run a transparent system and every staffer knows what is coming in and the expenditure. Everything is open and nothing is hidden. Due to this, there is a buy-in and they see themselves as owners. Why we do that is because, we know that when the staff are satisfied, they unconsciously pass on the satisfaction to our customers and by this the Company benefits. When they are not satisfied, the reverse is the case. We have two kinds of customers: internal customers, which are our staffers and external customers, which are our guests. We believe the best way to satisfy our customers, is to first satisfy our internal customers which is the staff.

You have talked about what BoI has done in terms of cushioning the effects of COVID-19 pandemic. Apart from that, what do you think the government can do further to intervene?

Whatever the government is doing, I think should be through BoI or Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) AND for me, we should look beyond the COVID-19. I also think that the nature of Nigeria is such that, culturally, we are very hospitable people. I think that, that is an area that Nigeria can leverage on and make the Country a destination where people should be fighting to come to enjoy. Almost everywhere in the West, they don’t say good morning to their daddies and mummies when they wake up. When they work in hotels, they transfer it to the place and they see guests as a number. But the nature of Nigeria is such that they welcome strangers, let alone the one that is coming with his money. If we truly harness this culture, we stand to make a lot of money. Nigeria has one of the best foods you can think of, in the world. In terms of taste and quality, why can’t we harness it? For me, the way government can help is that you create an enabling environment so that people can move freely from Lagos to Ibadan and from Lagos to Ondo where you have natural springs. What are the access roads like? One of the best beaches in Nigeria is La Campagne Tropicana Beach Resort in Ibeju-Lekki but it is not highlighted because going there is a nightmare. Can you imagine the amount of money Nigeria would have made from Tourism? The bigger picture is for government to invest in infrastructure, roads and light up certain areas, the same way they do it abroad.

How is the security situation in the Country affecting your business?

It is affecting us adversely and it is part of the infrastructure that I am talking about. It affects tourism. A of lot of revenue is spent on security by hoteliers because it is fundamental that anybody staying in the hotel must feel extremely safe. In Nigeria you have your own security. At a time, we had to light up the streets at our own cost to allay the fears of insecurity.

What are the expectations from the Hospitality Industry if well harnessed?

It will be in billions because it is a function of how many people come into your Country to visit. You could promote food tourism. By so doing, when people come, they buy our foods, FLIGHT tickets, lodge in hotels, night clubs and enjoy themselves. Think of each of them coming with 5,000 dollars and multiply it, it gives you an idea. For me, the potentials are limitless if government harnesses it properly.

Do you think we have standard professionals in the industry?

Yes, because I have been in this Industry, whenever I go to any part of the world, I stay in the best hotels and try to see what they have but I don’t see what they have. I don’t see anything more than what we have here, except may be a few equipment that we don’t have, like machines that dispense drink and a few things. We need to make this point that it is a sham, making you believe that they are better. International hotel brands will not offer anything that Dover cannot offer. The only thing they offer is that their prices are three times higher than what we are offering, that is all. Go to hotels run by international brands, they bring the General Manager and Finance Manager from their home countries. The rest are Nigerians who are doing the job. What is professionalism about it? The General Manager, most times has never been to the university; yet they earn fat salaries. Unfortunately, we kill ourselves to patronise international hotel brands and pay exorbitant rates. It is for the press to spread the word and spread the logic. People should start interrogating what these brands are offering, whether they are bringing in any value or that they are re-colonising you through those franchises. When we started Dover Hotel, I was brainwashed into believing that foreign franchise was better. I brought one for 18 months. After those 18 months, all it gave me was N20, 000. That was all I got and I asked them to leave and started running the business by myself. A lot of Nigerians are doing great in the Hospitality Industry. I work seven days a week to be successful.

Do you have any reward system for your staff?

We organise party for the best staff member every month. . In the party, the worker sits and is served the way the Company workers serve guests, we play music, they interact and enjoy themselves. Best staff wins certain amount of financial reward.

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