Surviving and thriving in Africa

Since returning to Nigeria for my third and final African adventure, and as a result of my recent HOTELS post, “Out of Africa: The end of a journey,” I have received numerous calls and emails from hoteliers around the world asking me about life in Lagos, and what it takes to survive and thrive as an expatriate hotelier in Africa.

The first part of the question is easy enough to answer. Life in Lagos can be very tough indeed for many of its 20 million inhabitants, but for those who work in one of the city’s 130 hotels, life is a lot easier, especially since pay and working conditions have improved greatly year on year since I first arrived in this amazing country way back in 1989 to take up a post at the newly opened Nicon Noga Hilton Abuja.

At that time newly hired commis waiters and trainee room attendants earned the equivalent of US$30 per month, plus service charge and a share of tips, whereas now, almost 30 years later, our newbies here at The George Lagos earn around US$200 a month, plus another US$200 in service charge and tips, an amount that is considered a very decent, liveable wage in this challenging economic climate, despite what many outsiders might think.

As for the second part of the question, what does it take to survive and thrive as an expatriate hotelier in Africa? I would say first and foremost that any hotelier dreaming of embarking upon an African odyssey must be resilient and ready to deal with situations that are not normally taught in the comfortable classrooms of European hospitality schools and colleges.

For example, with a fully occupied hotel yesterday, the local power supply was cut off without warning (a common occurrence here, with outages occasionally lasting for 22 or 23 hours citywide) while our diesel gensets were undergoing maintenance. This unexpected outage resulted in a shutdown of all power in the hotel for several hours, along with the internet and air conditioning, which caused a major problem for our in-house guests and for all the delegates attending the international conference taking place at that time.

How do we deal with such chaotic situations? Well, it’s easy enough to shrug one’s shoulders and say TIN (“this is Nigeria”), but instead, we tried to focus everyone’s attention on the work at hand, which was to cool down our exasperated and thirsty guests, and to keep them updated on our repairs, which on this occasion, produced a great example of team spirit. We had the faulty genset up and running after only 15 minutes, and after offering free refreshments to all our guests as they sweated through the unexpected interruption.

Then there are the daily regional and local flight cancellations and delays, the incredibly tight security at the airports, missing luggage, visa problems, counterfeit currency, fake wines and spirits, bloodthirsty mosquitoes, fuel shortages (yes, even in Nigeria), regional terrorist activity, water problems, occasional tummy problems, internet problems, traffic problems (most of our staff members have a four-hour commute every day), staff health problems, slithering snakes and cavernous potholes, Voodoo curses from former disgruntled employees, and finally, there is the C word, corruption, which presents the greatest stumbling block to national growth in many developing African nations.

I must also mention the enormous business development challenges we face in a city where many hotel managers are afraid of increasing their room rates in case they lose precious market share and as a result, their own jobs or management contracts, or their sandbagged annual bonus targets, if revenues and profits decline.

After an inflationary trend that saw the average price index in Nigeria increase by as much as 50% last year, I expected my fellow hoteliers to pass on some of that hefty increase to their guests, but instead, most sat comfortably on their 2016 rates, and on their 2016 market shares, while we took a gamble and increased our 2017 rack and corporate rates by 50% on January 1. As a result, we have seen double-digit revenue and profit growth every month since the year began.

This was not an easy decision to make and maintain, especially after many previously loyal accounts jumped ship due to the higher rates. Now, nine months later, we can see that our resilience and our determination not to absorb the monumental operating cost increases is paying off handsomely, while many of my local colleagues are faced with static or declining rates, revenues and profits.     

While serving in Karachi, Pakistan, from 2007 to 2013, I also wrote about the need for resilience, as did my dear friend and fellow blogger Larry Mogelonsky, who offered great support to me during a time when the city, and indeed the country, were under siege by miscreant dark forces, and while many of my fellow expat hoteliers headed to safer and less volatile operating environments.  

As I explained recently to my youngest son, John, who will become a freshman next year at one of the world’s best known hotel schools, I urge young hoteliers who may be considering their own African adventure to learn as much as you can from your lecturers about all the knowledge, skills and traits essential for success in the wonderful world of hospitality – but also try to take some time out to learn what resilience means, because without that essential trait, neither Livingstone, Tarzan or this old African adventurer would have survived our first days in this wild and wonderful continent.