Mr. Valentine Ozigbo, MD/CEO of Transcorp Hotels Plc, owners of Transcorp Hilton Hotels and Transcorp Hotels Calabar, was recently honoured at the Seven Stars Luxury Hospitality and Lifestyle Awards held in Marbella, Spain, as the Seven Stars CEO of the Year for the transformative works that have raised Transcorp Hilton to the No.1 luxury hospitality brand in Nigeria and top business hotel in Africa. An accomplished professional with over 21 years cognate experience, Ozigbo, apart from managing the two-hotel businesses of the Group, is also leading five new projects worth over $500m, including the proposed Transcorp Hilton Lagos, Transcorp Hilton Port Harcourt, 5000-capacity multipurpose banqueting centre in Abuja, Transcorp luxury apartment in Abuja and upgrade of Transcorp Hilton Abuja. In this interview, he narrated his experience as CEO of Transcorp Hotels Plc and the work-in-progress of the five-star hotel. He spoke with Iyobosa Uwugiaren
As the CEO of Transcorp Hotels, can you share your experience managing the hotel in the last few years?
It has been an interesting journey taking the brand – Transcorp Hotels, to a race. It is a journey that started when I resumed here five years ago, and I was actually the first CEO since the takeover of the Transcorp in 2005, and given that, there was a gap between when Transcorp took over and when I came on board. There were a number of things that needed to be improved on, and we got started and I am glad to say that we dealt with the issues of strengthening the structures, the team members, getting the arrears of financial accounts sorted out, dealing with all the tax issues, and moving into the service areas—to try to see how we can bring excellence to our team members and guests. And we launched a new vision, and implemented what we call KAIZE, which is building a culture of continuous improvement and actually looking at every single process within the hotel – check-in process, room service process, and asking if we can improve on this.
So, we worked with consultants who are specialists in these areas and we started to see results, and then we now moved into areas that relate to infrastructure and improved the condition of the hotel. Having been operational for 30 years, it needed to be refurbished in a manner that has never been done before, and so we went on to that, voted $100 million to that and if you are on the 10th or 9th floors, you will see the magic going on there. By the end of this financial year and beginning from January or February, we will turn back 10th and 9th floors into operation and you would’ve seen a world class structure because everything is being replaced–the rug, ceiling, sanitary, beds, television sets and the walls—-everything is completely new, modern and best in class. So, all of these we have been doing, and the public has taken note, the world at large has taken note and we have seen improvements through tracked feedbacks in independent manners.
We have what we call salt indices and total satisfaction and loyalty tracker, which helps us to track the way we have been improving in every key parameters, and I am glad to say that we have been on the upward trend and that is why in 2015, the World Travel Award voted us as the best business hotel in Africa, and the award is from votes that come from users of your hotel and not something some people decide to award. We also won the same award in 2016 and two weeks ago, we were again invited to receive Seven Stars Seal of Excellence Award—as a luxury brand and in fact the only Nigerian hotel to ever receive it and not more than three hotels in Africa to ever receive it.
At the ceremony attended by about 180 people and veterans, I was the only black person and at which for the first time ever, the International Hospitality Hall of Fame was launched to honour the pioneers of the industry including Conrad Hilton for instance and some of the living legends that were physically present, I was voted the CEO of the year for the transformation works we are doing here and that is to say that we must be doing the right things.
Taking into consideration the security challenges in Nigeria, how have you been able to run a big hotel like Transcorp Hotels Plc without security breaches?
I will say by design and by the grace of God. I am using the two because on one hand, you do not want to be a target by anybody and not being a target can only be the grace of God. On the other hand, you want to make yourself a hard target, meaning even if they want to try, they will be discouraged, and so, we are doing that in a lot of ways. Some obtrusive, some, you won’t see and we won’t talk about that. We have managed to strengthen our security architecture.
Every staff team member is alert to their duty and I would also say that right from what we need to do in terms of human resource, equipment and processes are always looked into from the point of improvement. But beyond these, there is also the fact that we have received massive support from the Nigerian government because we are the first choice hotel for the government—-whenever any President or any top personality will visit Nigeria, this is where the government will bring them and for that reason, they give this hotel the level of attention they will give to the presidential villa, and so a lot of men in uniform and not in uniform are supporting us.
Most of the time also, they provide us with equipment to complement what we have and so with these supports, and of course the wider works that the security in Nigeria is doing, especially pushing away the impacts of the insurgency out of Abuja and the wider perimeter of the north, and now dealing with issue in a more isolated part, we are hoping they will completely deal with the issue soon. But with that, Abuja has become relatively safer and we have become a much safer hotel. Part of the reasons I feel we must be doing the right things is that we also find certain guests who are extremely anxious to know what we are doing; they usually send their team to do due diligence and they are comforted that we’ve always excelled, which is why top airlines will keep their crew here, as well as certain people from different embassies that are extremely sensitive. I must also say that we are getting all the supports from the diplomatic society. Some of the embassies, when they have certain intelligence, they share with us to help us increase our alertness and personnel; there is actually a lot going on to keep this hotel safe.
Apart from being branded as the safest hotel in Nigeria, what other things make your hotel very attractive?
Our key success factors are many. We are extremely lucky to have a property like Transcorp located on a place like this. What we have cannot be replicated, and so even if you have all the money in the world, all the vision and you want to try and replicate what we have, it is impossible because we are at the centre of Nigeria, which is the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, and within Abuja, we are at the heart of the city, where the three arms zone – the National Assembly, the Executive and Judiciary revolve around us. And with 20 hectares of land in a choice location like this, you won’t find such anywhere. So, if you are going to try and duplicate us, you won’t find it anywhere. It can only be an attempt to want to be like us and I am emphasising this because location is one of the most single important issue when it comes to hospitality. Comfort, access, when you need to get to the airport, do your meetings and visit other places means that you need to be where there is comfort, that is number one.
Number two is that we also have a unique property in terms of what we have; it is a very special design—the lobby is second to none and you hardly find such anywhere globally and the facilities are incredible. We are one of the few hotels that can boast of 30 presidential suites, 20 ambassadorial suites and many more royal and business suites. We have over 20 meters rooms and up to nine food and beverage outlets. So, the facility is expansive and massive. We are a truly five-star hotel because there is nothing you look for that is not here, we provide you everything 24/7, including room service. If you go into our sporting facilities – volley ball, basketball, squash, and lawn tennis as well as the Gym facilities, you will see that it is amazing. There are few other things we are trying to do–we need to improve our spa offerings so that we can have the best spa in Nigeria. And so, infrastructure and products are amazing. Even more important in all of all of these is the staff team members.
For our team members, people have come here to tell me about them and the truth is that we don’t benchmark ourselves with actual standards, which is why I pay special respect to Hilton worldwide, which is the operator of this hotel, and what we do is to follow up, monitor them, manage them to ensure that they deliver, and so, they have done amazing jobs. Our competitors who are also using globally known brands usually wonder why they are not doing as well as we are doing; but it is the combination of the two and not just having the right operator but also have to have the disciplined owner who will support the operator. And so, we are an active owner and not a passive or destructive owner. There are some ownership that exploits, but we are here to make sure that service is our singular objective; and so, once you have that, you have full alignment and nothing can go wrong even if you see complaints once in a while. We see every intervention with a guest as an opportunity to make a very strong lasting impression.
Are your facilities overstretched by patronage; because I spent over 30 minutes looking for a space to pack when I entered the hotel premises?
Maybe that won’t be the right word, our facility is in hot demand at most times and we are 100 per cent in occupancy today. What that means is that if you want to check in today, there is no room because it is all taken and with that we have a lot of traffic. There are times we have up to 10,000 vehicles here and because we have a lot of traffic, it means a lot of people prefer to come here because they are being attended to under a very comfortable process. There are a lot of other complementary facilities, which attract their own crowd – the airlines, travel agencies, telecoms and banks. Besides that we have 20 meeting facilities and they are mostly very active, with that you will see these traffics.
What we are doing to improve on this is that we have embarked on massive external work. As you come out, you will see in front of you another gate and that is going to be an in and out gate; In fact when that is completed, we will shift to the main gate where we want to install a state-of-the-art security infrastructure that we already imported to help with more inspection; but we can’t work there without creating an alternative and through the Adetokunbo Ademola Way, we are creating another entrance into the hotel and the essence is for ease of entry and exit, with that the traffic will reduce. We are also incorporating new car packing facility in the new construction we are doing; with this we are going to overcome the challenges even if the cars increase to 15,000.
Where are you taking Transcorp Hotels to in the next few years?
I am glad that we are already the number one brand in Nigeria and perhaps in Africa. We have to consolidate on this position and to do this, there is a number of ways, we want to consolidate in service delivery, products offering and geographical spread, which will ultimately bring us to that position as a clear leader in hospitality business in Africa. What this means therefore is that we are going to complete this upgrade, we are building a 5000-capacity conference hall next to the Congress Hall of the hotel because we feel that Abuja should be the conference hub for Africa.
The same way high level meetings go on in Addis Ababa, Cape Town and sometimes in Nairobi, we want Abuja to register and so with that, something like the World Economic Forum can happen more regularly and not like a flash in the pan. We have actually engaged major owners and organisers of such big conferences, and we share with them our designs and what we are bringing to the market because we want to engage them to make it work. I am glad to say that designs are completed, we have done tender and about to select the main contractor.
So, hopefully in another four years, that facility will be ready. Within this same perimeter, there are a number of things we want to do to build an ecosystem so that when you are here, you live in a community, and so we are also doing 200 units luxury apartments. Imagine having an apartment within Transcorp Hilton? I don’t think there is any other place you will have something comparable and so this is what we plan to do to maximise this land space that we have here. In Lagos, on Glover Road Ikoyi, we are building two towers, one is a hotel facility sharing the same basement and infrastructure with an office complex and it is going to be about 350 rooms with all the meeting facilities and a few retail outlets.
Piling works have already started and we are about to do tender for the rest of the infrastructure, that is what we are doing in Lagos. In Port Harcourt, we also have acquired massive land and almost finishing the designs, we do have approval from the authorities in Rivers State to commence but what delayed us was that we acquired a church next to the property and the church was willing to relocate because they felt they needed a bigger space and they wouldn’t want hotel sharing fence with a hotel, we will be disturbing each other and they agreed to sell and we acquired that already.
We are done with the design and can make progress with that. Our emphasis is Nigeria before other parts of Africa. Besides all these, we are also looking at other tourism services we can introduce because we feel we have to help Nigeria not just in terms of business tourism but improve in other domestic and leisure tourism.
Apart from the commitment of your staff and other personnel, tell us other support you are getting.
I will actually say that we draw our inspiration from the Group. As you know Transcorp Hotels is the hospitality arm of Transcorp Plc which is also into power, oil/gas and agro business. The group Chairman is Tony Elumelu, who is also the Chairman of UBA and others. He is the single and most important influence as far as achieving success and providing leadership in corporate governance is concerned. At the end of our financial year last year and at the beginning this year, every discerning mind would have seen the trend that things won’t be the same in Nigeria.
We already saw the trend and knew that recession was around the corner and so the tone was set from the centre with Mr Elumelu sending us a New Year message which was on efficiency and effectiveness—saying this is time to maximise our efficiency, cut waste in whatever we do and this is the time to streamline; time for us to know that cash is king and this is time to conserve. All these have helped us to outline our processes. And it was not surprising when we submitted our nine-month result which shows that we have done better this year than last year contrary to the experience of other corporate organisations. Just last week, we spent time with the group discussing cooperate governance—on how to strengthen our business.
Again, Mr Tony Elumelu while addressing us said that in time like this we need to look inward and see where we need to cut cost. We assembled the best in Nigeria and others outside Nigeria to speak to us. We had a team from the Nigerian Stock Exchange, Ifueko Omogui was there; KPMG, and a host of others, including our non-executive board members. They were assembled to actually let us understand the duty of the board members in providing the leadership required to triumph at a time like this and always. So I want to say a big thank you to Mr Tony Elunelu, our board members and the group CEO Mr (Nnorom) for the support and leadership that we are getting. I feel that they have made my job a lot easier because it only requires you to bring in a little imagination and creativity to become a shining star which has made me one.