Vice-President and Regional Director for Africa & Indian Ocean Operations for Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Hassan Ahdab, manages close to 40 operating hotels in 17 countries in Africa and the Indian Ocean region. He chatted to Sawubona about Starwood’s place in the African tourism market, some of it’s latest innovations and looking ahead at some of Starwood’s plans for expansion.
“Our group was one of the first [accommodation] settlers on the continent. Everyone knew about the Sheraton brand – it’s very iconic. And then we came in with the rest of the brands on the rest of the continent. So this gave us an edge to have trained people from Africa. About 99% of our teams working in the hotels are nationals from the country. We hire them, we train them – we look for the right attitude, a little bit of knowledge and we give them the skills they need to deliver a good quality of service. So this is why we’re in Africa and we still believe that we have a lot to do [here]. A least every capital city deserves one hotel or one brand. I’d say that’s our dream.”
“Why Africa? For me personally, it’s a very interesting continent. I served Africa for more than two decades so I love Africa. I grew up and I work in Africa so I’m passionate about it because I still believe in the sentence I used to use in conferences: ‘welcome to the continent of the future’. It’s very likely that this continent of the future has become present now because if you look at all the big magazines, they have headlines and trendlines about Africa. This confirms the belief I had in the continent.”
On African tourism
“Africa has a lot to give to tourism from a leisure point of view. We have exclusive beaches, the inland and the mountains. We have all the flora and the fauna, the big five and safaris, rivers and historical sites. All this is part of the attraction of coming to Africa. Then there’s the genuinity of the people. So we have all the things we need to develop tourism. And then we [Starwood] have the right locations and the right products. We still have a lot to do to continue increasing tourism but with the exclusive destinations for example the Victoria Falls, I think the continent meets everyone’s needs when it comes to exploring leisure in Africa.”
“In my region, today we have about 11 000 employees across 34 hotels. We definitely favour people from the country to be hired. Everybody is treated equally as far as we’re concerned. Only when we don’t find the skills we need locally, do we bring in someone from somewhere else.”
On tech innovation
“Technology is a game changer. From our point of view, it’s important to invest in technology to keep up to date and and to get ready for our millennials. They’re all tech-savvy and they want to connect and receive information quickly so we try to keep up. Our latest programme is called ‘Let’s Chat’ and as customers check in, we connect to them on an app. So if they need something, they can send a message to hotel personel.
“We’ve also created an application which we’ve called ‘keyless’, which is used exclusively by our SPG guests – SPG is a loyalty programme for our customers. These customers are able to use the keyless system to open their rooms. So I think this makes our company completely innovative and ahead of the game.”
On giving back
“We have a programme called ‘Check Out for Children’, which every booking contributes to. We collect all this money and, partnered with Unicef, we spend [it] annually on various projects to support children in Africa. Last year we celebrated the 20th anniversary of this Unicef collaboration and, from the beginning of the programme until the end of 2015, we’ve collected about 30 million dollars. So far, this programme has helped up to 4,5 million children in Africa. So we are here to serve the community, train people and give the community back what it deserves. This is what Starwood is all about.”
On new projects
“We are building 23 more hotels – we opened two last year and plan to open another five this year and an additional five over the next couple of years. The earliest hotel opening is the Westin Cairo. It’s a really nice, sleek hotel with about 140 rooms and a spa – all situated on a world-renowned golf course. This is a really perfect addition. The second one is our St Regis, Cairo. It’s a stunning, exclusive property with a high number of suites and apartments, as well as one of the largest banquet rooms in Cairo, which can cater for up to 1 000 people. We also aim to open in cities in Nigeria, Algeria and other countries.”