Balogun: Our Goal is to Make Ikogosi Warm Springs Resort One-stop Tourist Destination in Africa

          Managing Director of Glocient Hospitality Limited, a subsidiary of Cavista Holdings, Mr. Lanre Balogun, in this interview provides insights into the dilapidated state of the Ikogosi Warm Springs Resort and Conference Centre in 2022 and steps undertaken in more than one year to revamp and expand the resort to a one-stop tourist destination in Africa. He stresses that private sector participation in such ventures remains the only lifeline, saying government has no business in business. Charles Ajunwa brings excerpts:

What is Glocient all about?

Glocient Hospitality is the hospitality arm of Cavista Holdings Limited. Now, Cavista Holdings has interest in hospitality, fintech, technology and agriculture. So, for fintech, we have Payzeep. For the technology company, we have Cavista Technologies. For Agriculture, we have Agbayewa Farms.

Ikogosi has been a mixture of success and failure. Over the years we have seen so much promises as to what it can offer, hopes raised and dashed.  What makes your hospitality management believe that it wouldn’t be the same?

Let me give you a little bit of background to how Glocient came into Ikogosi. First of all, government we all know, historically, has no business in business. At Glocient Hospitality, we have assembled, and I’m saying this with all humility, the best hospitality team in this country. Between me and my team, we have over 85 years experience. I worked for several years with the holding company of Radisson Blu, owners of the Raddisson Hotel, Ikeja, the Raddisson Blu, Ikeja, Park Inn by Radisson VI. I also worked for Avalon International. When you’re starting a business, it’s called conceptualisation. That is, the owner of the business has a vision of what a person wants, and what is achievable, and better ROI, return on investments, and you go to construction, opening, pre-opening, then you open the property.

So, Cavisa Holdings’ leadership, in their wisdom, wanted the best hands they could get in the country, with the best experience. When they got the concession of this place in 2022, to run a business like this, and they wanted a whole Nigerian team, they didn’t want any external body to come and say because Nigerians couldn’t do it, they had to bring people from abroad. So, I was the first to arrive. I pulled my colleagues in the same industry, put heads together, and we visited this place. To some people, it wasn’t doable. But when we came here, you must have the passion, zeal and most importantly, you must have the understanding of the business. That is the most important. And our approach in making this place a success is what we call SLAM, which is ‘Sell, Leadership, Alignment of Strategy and Management of Cost.’

Management of cost in Cavisa Holdings strategy is the most important, because you have to manage cost. So, everything you are seeing here was done by ourselves, no contractors involved. The rooms you stayed were done local. We got the local furniture people, the local artisans, the tilers, and the plumbers. But with experience, these are people that did other international brands that you see in Lagos.

What about the room designs?

We did everything ourselves when we came here. I can boldly tell you that. It wasn’t properly aligned. The alignment in the rooms where you have the media wall, the TV wall, that was not where it was before. There was a window in that place. But, you know, from the hospitality experience, you must sleep. And your bed, your media wall must align directly to how you are sleeping. So, all that we had to bring in our experience to design that. Experience and know-how was what brought us here and within eight months, we were able to complete 60 rooms. This place was completely dead when we came in. You couldn’t stay here for one hour. This place you are is where bats converged. There was no roof. The roof was falling off. It was dark. We couldn’t even enter. And even the leadership of the state, when they got in here, they were shocked. They were shocked about what they saw but we have been able to turn it around within the shortest time. And the resources we put in here, from what you are seeing, it’s bigger than what we actually spent because of our experience and how we’re able to run and manage the projects. So, principally it’s the knowledge and the zeal and passion for this business. Now we have brought it back. It’s now known all over the world. We have guests coming in from all over the world to visit Ikogosi. Even when we go to markets to tell people about Ikogosi, people tell us Ikgosi cannot be this. We had that challenge when we go to Abuja and other places because they don’t believe that Nigerians can transform businesses.

This is not the first time Ikogosi is being renovated only for it to be run-down. What is Glocient going to do to make it different this time around?

Glocient is the first that would transform Ikogosi to this standard. The last people that did it didn’t invest anything and they didn’t have the knowledge. With due respect to them. That’s why I said government has no business in business. When we took it over, there was still somebody running the place and they had an agreement with the state. But we didn’t meet anything in place. So, if they were running it, it would have been different. What we came in with is knowledge. Like I said, I was with a group for 22 years running international hospitality businesses. We designed, like I said, from conceptualisation to opening. My Director of Sales and Marketing has the same experience. One of the finest tour organisers in this country; my Deputy General Manager, Mr. Dayo Olujekun, ran one of the best tourist organising companies in Nigeria; and Mr. Francis Obosi is known all over the country as the best man when it comes to running hospitality business. So, we come with experience and knowledge of how a hospitality business should be run.

Don’t you think a change in government may affect all you have done here?

Before signing the concession, we dotted the ‘I’s and crossed the ‘T’s. So a change of government doesn’t affect our business. We have a proper agreement in place and we will ensure the proper execution of our agreement.

What are the facilities put in place that were not here before?

First things first, the standard of the room we have here was not what they ever had. The class of rooms we have here, we reclassified the rooms. The state of the spring experience you have is not what it is. We upgraded the spring experience. When you go to the spring, the state of that place was not habitable. We upgraded it to a world class position. We are still continuing with the upgrade but at the stage we are presently, it can compete with any tourist attraction anywhere in the world.

The dining experience, we use QR code here now, which is obtainable worldwide. It was never in existence here. The security architecture we met on the ground was almost zero.

For our business, if you have one security breach, it kills our business. Majority of our clients are from outside Ekiti. They come from Lagos, Abuja, Akwa Ibom, Rivers and others.  Now, everybody is very security-conscious and they want to know the security arrangements we have before coming to Ikogosi. Rest assured that the security is top-notch. We have experienced hands, people that have managed security of major VIPs in this country, we’ve brought them down here to look after our security architecture. On the infrastructure, we’ve categorised the property into three camps. There’s camp A, on the other side where we have 32 rooms, here because it’s called Camp B, we have 43 rooms. And Camp C, which is called the Villa, has 15 rooms and a Presidential Villa.

We’ve invested a lot in upgrading the landscape. The landscape you see here is not what we used to think. So we made it habitable. We’re having a fish pond here. If you go outside here, you see that those things, those grasses you see there were not there. We actually planted those grasses, cleared the bushes and we’re creating what we call a forest park where people come, they can meditate.

We’ve lined the stream with hard core rocks to provide a befitting outline to the stream.

 We have park benches, pool and people come there to meditate and relax. You know we are tired of the hustle and bustle of the metropolis. You want a serene environment, a peaceful environment to sit.

Arrangements like this, are being made all over the resort for families, for media and others that need quiet time to refresh. A boardwalk is being created from the reception because we are building a new reception here. Construction work is not concluded yet. In fact, this restaurant you’re seeing, by the time you come in December, it will be totally transformed. We needed a decent place for people to dine and eat. Those that have been here before were blown away by what we have on ground.

From our leadership standard, our chairman will tell us, you are not even 10 per cent of where I want you to be. So, imagine an investor telling you, yes, you are happy but this is just 10 per cent into our destination. Conceptualise that and imagine where we are going.

What is the lifespan of the contract for new Ikogosi?

There is an NDA, non-disclosure agreement. We can’t discuss that.

Can you tell us, in terms of your investment so far, what is the value of the investment you have made?

It’s a foreign direct investment. So far, we have expended in excess of a million dollars, and we are going to invest more than $5 million.

What is the tenure in terms of upgrading this place?

We don’t have the tenure. We just want to continue to improve the resort and complete the Camp A and we want to have a helipad here. We want to have a sports centre. We will continue to invest and we hope to make it a resort that the world wants to visit.

Can these projects be competed in the next 10 years?

In the next 10 years, our goal is to have completed all the rooms here. Our goal is to have a golf course, make Ikogosi number one holiday resort in Africa. And our goal is to completely transform the economy of Ekiti State. Now, our leadership vision, when they ask him (our chairman), why are you investing in Ekiti? The first is jobs. Second is more jobs and the third is more jobs. That is the vision of the principal, Mr. John Olajide.

How many other rooms have been upgraded to this vision in Ikogosi?

In total, we have 92 rooms. We’ve completely upgraded and revamped 60 of them. But our goal is to have 120 rooms. So, we have 60 saleable rooms now.

You mentioned the warm spring experience. Is that the key selling point for Ikogosi?

The key selling point for Ikogosi.  When you come to the spring, Ikogosi has the only warm and cold springs in the world. They both flow side by side and they maintain their thermal properties. For you to experience this, we tell our tourists, take off your shoes and use your bare feet. We have this warm spring coming this way and we have the cold spring coming the other way. All in the same area. So, they meet at a point. We encourage you to take off your shoes. You walk from the warm spring and you go to the cold. The cold is like water coming from a dispenser. You experience it. By the way, the water you use in your room also comes directly from the spring. The swimming pool is also a thermal pool. The water comes directly from the spring.  Now I would like to add that we recognise that this is a very special place and so we must respect and uphold the culture as much as possible. Before we did anything, we had to see the custodians of this town to tell them, this is what we want to do. Eighty per cent of our staff are from the community. They tell you, we are grateful you transformed our economy but the way it is, is the way it has been since our forefathers got here. Do not touch what you have there. You can make it clean but the way it has been, keep it that way. But if you want to experience it, you can walk and feel it. Also, take the water because the history we have here is that people that are looking for children, when they take the warm path of the spring, they believe that it makes them to be fertile.

From what we see, we had women that come to say ‘thank you’ to the spring. That’s what they believe and it works. So people don’t take any water if it’s not the spring water. That is why we have channelled water to the town. So this water in town, it’s directly from the spring. But you can experience it, feel it, up to how deep you want to go.

What is your experience in terms of the work put in place and patronage?

For construction, it’s been a lot of hard work since December 2022. Like I said earlier, we’ve been able to put in 60 rooms, pools, shopping centre, build a 250-seater conference hall, rebuild the old 100 seater hall, build the restaurant, reception and improve the entire landscape at the resort and the springs.

Yes, some might think what we have done is very beautiful, but in our eyes, we still have some way to go. It’s capital intensive, you have to do it yourself and you have to track the progress yourself.

Do you have plans to acquire other similar tourist properties that abound in Nigeria?

Yes, we are interested in any hospitality project. In fact, we are interested in those that are moribund but we need to look at the location. In hospitality, it’s location that’s number one. We have to look at location, we have to look at the reputation and the history of the property.

You know, some properties have reputation in this country and hospitality is a very sensitive business.

Between MICE and your holidays, which is your stronghold?

The strongest hold anywhere for our business is MICE (meeting, incentive, conference). MICE is a no-brainer. If you have a telecoms company come with hundreds of their staff, that translates to your F&B revenue. Translates to your room revenue and translates to your merchandise revenue. So because they come, you have holiday, you have a family of 10, 15 come, but you have a hundred people come, they fill your rooms for one week. They eat and they dine. So our major selling point is MICE.

Have you been attracting such people?

Yes, we have the capacity for such events here.

Why do you think I should come to Ikogosi and come again?

Ikogosi is the best holiday resort you can visit. It is most peaceful and Ekiti State is the safest state in Nigeria, statistically. We’ve been here two years and there’s not been any case in our locality of any security challenge. Don’t forget, we are part and parcel of this society. Most of us are not from here but lkogosi flows in our veins. The town flows in their veins and they take the resort as theirs. So the resort and the state is very safe to visitors and tourists.

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