Mr. Etienne- Charles Gailliez
The General Manager of Transcorp Hilton Hotel, Abuja, Mr. Etienne- Charles Gailliez, is not a stranger to Nigeria. He had worked at the Hilton Hotel in Abuja before he returned again in August this year as GM. In an interview with Senator Iroegbu, Gailliez speaks on his impression of the country, hotel and tourism, the capital city Abuja and plans to take Hilton to the next level
W ith your return to Nigeria can you share with us what your experience was during your first stint in Abuja?
My past experience here was fun and satisfactory. I really enjoyed my time and created bond with the local community and was really looking forward to coming back to this part of the world because I left a lot of my heart here; and I’m happy that part of the local community has not changed.
The hotel is really very special in Abuja, because it is embedded in what I called social issues; whether it’s for private event; official event or relaxation or whether you want to spend some good times with your family.
We also believe that since 1987 when the hotel was completed, we have been part of this network in Abuja that created this special spirit and it’s very different from what you can find in other parts of the world. The hotel is what I will call a business instrument because you can stay there to do business, have a meeting and then you leave. We have been embedded into Nigeria. We have hosted some prestigious guests which included several heads of states who have come to be part of this property, and we are really proud of them. I am proud and excited that I came to take over the management from Andrea and try to build on foundation he has laid and continue with it.
Now that you are coming for the second time, what are you bringing to the table to improve on the work of your predecessor?
I know that part of life is evolution; things change, conditions change, people change and customers also change with their expectations. I have been in Nigeria and have been well travelled and so there is no such thing as a Nigerian hotel of different categories. We have to bring this hotel to the next level. I have the pleasure of my recent past after I have been a director, I went to Madagascar where I learnt a lot about service then afterwards, I was mainly in the GCC, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). There, I was part of Hilton and also was part of another company where we developed six seven-star hotels in terms of service, architecture and friendliness on the food platform and on the hospitality platform and I think that helped me a lot when I came back here.
I think I have a lot of activities and roles; I will take further steps from what people of today are expecting. We have seen that from laptop, people have moved now to iPads , to a more sophisticated technology, to smartphones, they are expected to do their reservation at the click of their fingers, they are expected to have information, they are expected to almost be coming with the social network that we have within. So all these aspects probably I will bring with me now, I have been on this subject and in the coming months and years, we will try to evolve to bring more and more of the sophistication of the kind of service, of the kind of food, also in the feeding habits. For example, in the past, we used to have lunch and dinner as the two main courses but now, breakfast is more important. People tend to ask for snacks now more often because of the pressure of time, and also want a bit of entertaining dinners than it used to be. So I hope to be able to bring this and upscale this to the next phase, the service and facility providers.
You mentioned the issue of upgrading and transforming in terms of upgrading are you going to transform it into a seven star hotel?
I think for the moment, seven star hotels is simply just the way we do our services because in the world categories there are no seven star hotels. Yes we intend to improve the services in this hotel in terms of how we greet the guest and how we welcome the guest after journey in terms of the overall guest relation. We know our clients better because a lot of our clients are really old clients but somehow we always offer the same service to them. How can we pay them (back), how can we go more individual with the people that are staying? Some of them are staying two or three days every days of the week. How do we move to a different level? How do we have the business community come together to have a better perspective?
Since I came here in the middle of August, I have been reviewing where we stand, how the community is. In the past few weeks, I have been to Lagos, so that I can visit the new hotels in Lagos and understand better the market, to know the expectations, whether it is available in Nigeria and what can we bring.
We will start discussing on the refurbishment of the hotel like a change in the issue of the sofa, but in essence, we will be asking some questions. Is this the design we want? Is this how we want it? How can we be better? The whole services have to become much more fluid to the client. In other aspects, we have to look at the conferencing, we have to look at the restaurants to reposition, what we call repositioning the outlets. Do these outlets correspond to the demands? Do these outlets offer what the guests want whether it is food or service or the speed with which they are prepared? In terms of service yes, we want to upgrade the facilities of the hotel. We have to believe that we are the number one in Nigeria in terms of hospitality and same as the formula one team that has to reinvent and rethink every year on year how they are doing to get faster or safer. I think we are doing the same; we are in the same thought process now on the facilities.
You have said that since assumption of office you have taken tour of the local communities including some hotels in Lagos as well. I want you to compare the Abuja you left then and the one you met now.
The city of Abuja has changed. When I look at Abuja now, I can see that the city has expanded a lot. I see new streets; I see new high rise buildings and I see lots of economic activities including local and international names. The offices are here and this is quite good for the evolution and consolidation of Abuja being the capital of Nigeria. The government heart is in Abuja and the economic heart was Lagos, although Lagos is still the lead economic heart at the moment. We see that there is a big trend of bringing the decision back to Abuja and this also means to us that there are more opportunities in terms of the economic aspect of developing the country.
And in terms of development, we have to think of the government officials mainly, we got more and more, and also the business people. How do we cater for these business people, are there changes in a month etc?
This is where I see the biggest trend. When you look into the whole of West Africa, I think Abuja is carrying more and more weight. I am made to understand that the evolution and development will continue and you could imagine some cities in the world have taken centuries to develop and when you see a child growing, and when I say growing; it’s not only in terms of population but also in terms of infrastructure and in terms of being a modern city. So this, obviously for us, brings lots of opportunities, we know that competition is not silent and they are fighting for our own share of the cake and this moves us to develop even further. And on the social network, I was even happy because since I arrived, I gave myself just one week and locked myself in the office because you know that we have to prepare for next year’s budget. So I said am going to close office and all of this but I had so many visitors, people that knew that I am back in town, from contractors, to the long staying guests.
How will you assess the security situation in Abuja, especially considering the spate of bombings? Do you think that it will negatively affect the hospitality and tourism industry such as hotels in the FCT?
The security as at that time, there were some other challenges; some people were more coming from the South, now they are coming from the North. There is also some range of challenges at that time but again I assume this could be, part of the political life of a growing country. The federal government is now putting all actions in place to ensure peace, even though there has been no major incidence in Abuja in the last three months.
As an operator in the hotel industry, yes you know we have to live with the ups and downs of the economy. Here being one of the tourist attractions; we make sure it is stocked with all able hands that are knowledgeable in what is to be done. We also adopted all measures to protect our guests and in collaboration with the authorities to assure them of adequate security and that’s our duty. However, you see that despite the fact that we have had this state of insecurity; the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was still around seven percent last year. I believe it is still growing, which for me is a testimony of the will of the people to continue growing, considering the series of terror events.
How has the security situation affected your organisation. What has the impact been like?
We have been here since 1987, and since then we have seen the good times and the bad times. We have seen how everything happened. I remember when I joined in 2003, the country had the Miss World Beauty pageant which had to be cancelled. Also there were some activities that emanated from Kaduna. The development, ironically, led to a formidable growth for hotels in Abuja. I therefore, conclude that these are political events that we have to go through and you see it all over Africa but in Nigeria this is much more controlled and I think it will be better. It has to get better and we here don’t want to step down and say look let’s go low key and at cheap rate for some enticing strategies.
I think we have to show some resilience to move forward through these events that affect the people of Nigeria. We will remain positive, no matter what happens; we will still be here to serve our guests, we will still be here to protect the team members and yes we will still be here to show that we can come to Nigeria and that Nigeria is a safe place to stay. We cannot just close up the hotel and do things etcetera, which is not in the interest of the hotel and neither in the best interest of the people. That is something that we have to go through. The whole world is upside down, in some countries it is political forces, in other places it is economic, I think the world is going through high turmoil, the whole planet, you often see where there is a conflict. Everywhere the world is changing. Well, at beginning of the century, if you read history you will see a bit of evolution like this, and I think we have to show our resilience you know and take it one day at a time and we are here to protect our business, ensure that our customers always have a safe place to stay and I think that is the best of which we can do as a private entity towards the community.
The hotel is growing but it appears the staff members are not adequately taken care of, especially those that have worked four to five years bind have not been given permanent jobs. Secondly, on the part of incentives for guests as the new management, are you thinking of giving them more incentives?
On the first part; I can tell you that our staff retention is the highest in the whole industry and especially when you consider other hotels. If u look at the retention rate of our permanent staff, I would say we have a 99 percent and we have never had case to sack people except for issues bothering on economic crimes.
Concerning incentives, particularly for our loyal customers, we are taking measures, yes we are just renegotiating the condition of service and I can put my hand in the fire now that this is the best condition of service of any team member of the hospitality industry will enjoy in Nigeria. Coming back to the issue of permanent or casual staff; people tend to stay in the hotel and we are happy to have experienced team members but as the volumes of businesses are fluctuating; we can tell some to take casual leave and can return when business booms again. We have about 700 team members. This hotel employs 700 families; I think that is a contribution since 26 years that we have been providing for these families a health care package and they will still have their salaries at the end of the month.
There are also some other benefits in terms of relief packages to take care of their children. We also actively find a way to create opportunities for those team members who are there with us and I can tell you authoritatively that those of them who have opportunity to come from other hotels especially within Africa, the hotel management actively support them.
The reward system…
We have a reward system for our guests. We believe in rewarding our guests…. the whole system is worldwide and for Nigerians staying in Abuja because of business, they are earning points, which can be spent on air travel airline or accommodation somewhere else in the world. Hilton also rewards people that are staying here because through the number of points and the stages, you know we have blue, silver, gold and diamonds, through the stages. When you come here, you can pay the standard price of the room, and still be upgraded to a suite and that would be a grade to the executive floor. So we believe that in certain ways, we have been incentivising the people that patronise us.
In what other ways are you going to satisfy your clients, especially Nigerians who patronise Transcorp Hilton on regular basis?
As we have discovered that these days people tend to eat less heavy during day time. So we will be looking at offering more and I don’t want to call it snacks but I want to call it health conscious foods. Health does not necessarily mean dieting but healthy option. I think people are also moving to green because the rest of the world is going on a lot of raw food.
We have to get with more international food, spice it up. On Sundays, if you look at what exactly people are eating, you will see that there is a trend; our rules for the menu have been reprinted, for the moment we are introducing to reflect the recent changes more Nigerian local dishes, regional dishes, and at the same time, we are adding international dishes. People now tend to be cautious about what they want to eat and when they want to eat it and we will have to adapt and will go now to what we call menu engineering whereby we look at what people buy, what the mature ones buy and what they avoid and by this we can transform our menu and also the way we do service.
I think more Nigerians have travelled to other countries; Europe, London and the Eastern part, so they are much more aware of what is being done in other parts of the world and want to find it back here as well. We are following the worldwide trend.
Do you have any thing going in the area of Corporate Social Responsibility projects and programmes?
Yes we do have lots of them but the outstanding ones are our support, care of orphanages. We also support HIV-AIDS activities at the Hearts Foundation. Recently, we held an International Youth Week, where we educated youths on what running a hotel meant. We have also been donating food worth $3000, every month to hospitals in Kubwa, and we have done this consistently for the past five years. We also do several things in other parts of the world like United States, where we have put a lot of efforts to supporting their arts, and cultural activities. Similarly, if you observe every time you come into the hotel, at the lobby you will see art exhibition there always.