Abiola Lawal is a pathfinder. With passion and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, he has dotted the Nigerian travel and tourism landscape with two trademark products; FlyBoku for low cost travel and Ashton and Dave Travels Holidays for corporate travel. Arguably, one of the leading travel and tourism entrepreneurs, Lawal is a visionary and technology advocate that believes there are tons of untapped employment opportunities within the tourism industry in Africa. He speaks to Omolola Itayemi about his childhood, working with top blue-chip companies in USA, how the web has revolutionised travel
How was your growing up?
I come from a relatively large family. I am the fourth of eight children made up of two girls and six boys. There used to be a running joke growing up that my mum doesn’t have to pay for professional services because she has a kid for every profession. I am very proud of my mother. She is my role model in so many ways and she has a fantastic dedication to education as a primary way to empower her children despite the fact that she supported all of us under very challenging and incredible circumstances. As a result, I have always drawn motivation from my mother’s strength. She is somebody who is not traditionally educated but educated every one of her kids. I also have two girls and a boy of my own. I was born and bred in Lagos and I attended University of Ilorin (Unilorin) where I studied Economics and Finance. After graduating from the Unilorin, I relocated to Canada first and then to the United States.
How did you end up in hospitality with such a rich resume?
The most fascinating job I had on arriving in the U.S. was working for Skywest Airlines, which is a subsidiary of Delta Airlines. I had a chance to discover places, people and learnt a ton about aviation logistics and travels. I got enamoured by this amazing experience and consequently, my interest in travel became more affirmed. I was working for Skywest Airlines and Walt Disney before I left and went for graduate business school and progressively worked for a consulting firm before making an entry into the oil and gas industry but ultimately, you have to go for your passion, something that you really adore and my passion is hospitality.
I didn’t get into the travel industry in a glamorous way. I actually started by loading bags on the aircraft at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in the early 1990s and I was very proud of my job as a young man trying to discover his path in the United States. I was working two jobs as well as going to school because I had a plan to get an MBA. After working for five years, I got admission into the University of California, Irvine, for my MBA and from then on I mostly worked in the corporate world. I had a chance to work with Disney which I found very fascinating I witnessed customer satisfaction first hand once they arrived in Disneyland. After Disney, I worked with Ernst and Young which is a major consulting firm globally. At Ernst and Young, I learnt a lot in terms of helping companies get better at what they do. I received fantastic training and received a lot of exposure to multiple industries that equipped me to do a ton of other things in my life. I ended up spending five years at Ernst and Young and then joined SAP, a global ERP company, a few years later. While still working with SAP, I took a trip to Nigeria and was introduced to the founders of Oando. The founders really liked my profile and were trying to take the company to the next level. Oando brought me back home and hired me as the Group Chief Strategy Officer and later as Director of Gas and Power Business Unit in 2005. After Oando, I got another opportunity to oversee a transformational strategy at a company called CAMAC Energy Inc. CAMAC Energy is a company based in the U.S. but a lot of their footprint asset is in Nigeria. My employment with CAMAC gave me a chance to move back to the U.S. and eventually we took the company public, making it the first Nigerian company on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). Afterwards, the board asked me to step in as the CFO of the company.
After my experience at CAMAC Energy, I felt that it was time for me to refocus on my love for aviation, tourism and travel. I moved back to Nigeria and decided to refocus on my initial passion for travel. Ashton and Dave Travels was launched in 2007 but I wasn’t fully involved initially because we had other partners involved. However, I came back full circle to run the business and inject innovative ideas into the company to move us forward. In addition, Flyboku was launched in 2015 and we also have a small charter helicopter operation that we also work with. While Ashton and Dave is more for corporate travel, Flyboku is more for personal lifestyle. Mr. Boku, the brand personality, is your digital agent online that allows you to discover more places. So, that explains the full cycle of my career.
I am a simple Nigerian who is committed to a Pan-African development.
What does Flyboku mean to you?
Flyboku for me is a passion about discovering new places, discovering new experiences. Like I said, I started my professional career in Los Angeles before I went to graduate school but I have always travelled. When I was in the U.S., at some point I became a “Million Miler” with American Airlines which meant I became a gold member for life. So, I have always enjoyed the travel experience. However, the process of getting to that status was relatively easy and the routine of searching for a flight and booking a flight and a hotel is very seamless. I came back to Nigeria and felt that the process was very inefficient even though I believe that Nigerian travel agents were doing their best. You cannot live a disconnected life in a connected world. I felt that the majority of people out there including Nigerians were looking for a simple way to look for alternative destinations of where they want to go without feeling harassed by a travel agent. These customers just want to search in the comfort of their home or on their phone and be able to decide based on clear choices. I wanted Nigerians to have the same experience that anybody in the West will have. I called it the Global Standards for Local Adoption. Boku-Boku is the Nigeria context of plenty opportunities to view and consume information.
Flyboku can also be seen as a social media platform where you can share your travel photos and experiences. This is not an idea that is enforced or pushed by an airline. This notion is fostered and managed by real people. This form of sharing and feedback is quite important because people are looking for more affordable ways to travel nowadays. This is the original thought that went into the Discover Africa Campaign. We have 54 countries in Africa and you will find out that most of us that travel have been to the rest of the world but have not been to most African countries.
A few years ago, I met an Australian man in the U.S. and he was sharing with me about some fantastic places to visit in Africa. He mentioned he has travelled to at least 30 African countries and visited some amazing places in Cape Verde, Nigeria, and Zanzibar. I felt embarrassed because this gentleman from Australia knew more about Africa, about my own backyard, way more than I did. I saw this as an opportunity to know more about Africa. Well, how can you trade more when movement is limited? Flyboku is meant to be part of the innovation that enables this process. Boku-Boku is the Nigeria context of plenty opportunities to view and consume information. Mr. Boku is essentially to integrate entertainment with travel and tourism, so we have Mr. Boku, Mrs. Boku, Baby Boku, Grandpa Boku, Grandma Boku and they make up the Boku family. For each of those people there is something out there for them. This is how the web has revolutionalised how we travel.
So what you are trying to say is that when we fly Boku it doesn’t stop at ticketing, you also do packaged tours?
Yes, as a matter fact that is our core competency. Ticketing for me is how you get there. Ticketing is just in the background. Your lead is; what am I going there to do? That’s why we say “wherever you want to go Boku will take you there’’. We cater for you from when you land to where you going to stay, to what you are going to do when you get there, your pick up and drop off, your visa and travel insurance, basically the 360 of everything you are going to need to have a safe, secure, fun, and amazing experience.
Why do you think we need technocrats in tourism?
We need to understand that if we are to compete favourably with the world, we need to bring in technocrats, people who understand tourism is a business. We know we are not very great at infrastructure, it will take us a lot of time to get there but we do not have to stop and wait for 20 years before we can build tourism, we can start building it around the strengths we have already which is the private sector, particularly the SMEs. We need to encourage them with tax friendly policies to build their businesses. My target is to make tourism in Nigeria a viable, development tool, one that we can begin to show our own pride with our own strength. With these resources we can develop our infrastructure over time for the next generation. It is about having the right vision with the right execution, bearing accountability in mind. Tourism will become more viable in Nigeria if we focus on our strength and let it propel us, this can only be driven by the private sector.
What’s your travel style?
My travel style is about comfort and practical. For example, if you see me get on the airplane, I think about how I am going to sleep on the flight if it is a night one. Everything has to be fit for purpose, the outfit and all. When I am out there, I put on Nigerian natives for formal events so when I say made-in-Nigeria it means something.
Which city has the best vibe to you in the whole world?
It is hard to choose one because every region has a different one. One of my favourite cities which I found compelling is Cape Town, South Africa.
That is because I think it has almost every kind of thing you want, from marine life to adventure, nature, wellness good restaurants, and African culture. But also, to be honest Lagos is an interesting city because home is always special. There are other places in the world and one of the things we are doing is called ‘discover Africa campaign’. We have 54 countries in Africa that are under explored. Part of the reasons I came up with that campaign is that I met an Australian guy in New York who has been to about 32 African countries and I almost felt ashamed as an African.