The unending quest for the grading of hotels is forever on the front burner with hotels, regulatory bodies and sometimes host states clamouring for the right to grade them. But we should harp more on standards than stars and grade levels as stated by Alexander Gassauer Area Manager Nigeria (Starwood Hotels and Resort) at the 8th edition of Akwaaba, one of the West Africa's leading travel and tourism events in Lagos OMOLOLA ITAYEMI reports.
Starwood has a presence in Nigeria for 27 years represented by three brands namely Le Meridien, Sheraton and Four Points which caters to budget, mid-market and luxury customers. With over forty years experience in hotel business, 26 years of which were spent in the Starwood Group, this is Alexander Gassauer's opinion of what should prevail in the hotel industry towards standardization of hotels.
"I believe the customer demand has grown rapidly in the past years. Simply a bed and a roof do not draw customers anymore. Nigerians have their needs and demands for service and delivery. Although the infrastructure has not improved, and here I am talking about basic needs like electricity, hot water. When I came to Nigeria 8 years ago, we had better electricity supply than today. Guests today expect this to be in place in hotels and here I am sometimes surprised to hear "but in a Sheraton I expect no power cuts".
A firm believer in standards and not ratings, Gassauer believes the customer feedback through internet platforms of hotels and restaurants could be relied upon to tell hoteliers or restaurateurs know where they've gone wrong.
"But here it is interesting to see that 90% of guest comments, whether positive or negative are insignificant. It is the standard that is noticed by the human senses - the taste of the food, the smiling and friendliness of the service, the comfort of the bed, the smell of fresh bread or coffee. There is a difference between Nescafe and freshly brewed coffee. Who is looking forward at the perfection of a waiter, serving from the right? Who says the fork has to be on the left. If the waiter is smiling, giving the guest this personal attention we are on the right track than a frowning, unfriendly, yes, even sometimes rude attitude but perfect service.'
"For me, emphasis should be on perimeters that make up standards such as pride, market demands and brand. They are key in defining loyalty to hotels. Pride for instance stems from the way the owner, customer, manager looks as standard as pride. I am proud to have a hotel with high standards and then will define the standard. Or a guest who says I expect a hotel to have certain standards, like 24hr room service, china versus disposable crockery or international cuisine versus local.
"In the second instance, what standard does the market require, besides quality standard? 'I think here local standards demand security and hygiene. For example in Nigeria, we definitely need to look at different security standards than in other places in the world. When I was in Dubai, we had 4 security agents and here we have 60. But again the guests standard expectation is safety, we have to adjust to the market need. Or hygiene, which is in a climate like Nigeria of absolute priority.
"Global chains have their own standards, which define the brand. We at Starwood have different brand standards for each brand. We have a branded bed, showerheads and so on but also service standards like internet services, breakfast menus etc. Here, we want our guest to know his expectation before he comes to the hotel. If you come today to a Sheraton or Le Meridien, you know what to expect.'
'We have to look at different market segments, a business traveller has different needs than a leisure guest. A business traveller wants a stay which is controlled by efficiency. He wants a same day delivery on laundry; he wants an effective business centre, Internet. A leisure traveller has completely different priorities. First, the main difference is the fact that a leisure traveller always pays from his pocket, while a businessman's trip is mostly paid for by a company.
'More competition is another factor in improving standards. Whereas, we had 4 hotels with some decent service in Lagos until 2008, we have 15 or better products today. Customers have a choice. With better guest satisfaction the rate becomes secondary. Guests are prepared to pay premium rates for premium service.
"Service however is only possible with professionally educated associates. Hotel leaders must have the skills to operate a hotel. And this education is simply non-existent in Nigeria. There is not one hotel/tourism school in the country. This goes from basic skills like cooking to practical skills as well as product knowledge up to managerial skills like Food & Beverage management. Hence the training becomes more and more important. We at Starwood Nigeria just completed our first culinary academy where we had 14 cooks from all of our hotels trained in the Le Meridien Ibom on practical and theoretical food production knowledge."
"I affirm that there is also no correlation between star rating and rates. Five stars does not mean more expensive. The set up of the business, the market and the cost structure define a rate. We can also not compare rates to other destinations. An up market hotel in Egypt charges different rates than a mid market hotel in Nigeria.'
'I'm not a strong believer in Four Stars or Five Stars or Seven Stars and One Star. I believe that the main focus where you say an upscale market hotel, a mid scale market hotel or a budget hotel comes better into effect.
He further spoke about the growth of Starwood Group of hotels in Nigeria in relation to standards. "Twenty-six years ago, we started with our first property, the Sheraton Lagos. It became an icon in the industry here.
The thousands of employees that worked in the hotel made an extremely important foot to the industry all over Nigeria. They left the Sheraton and now working now in other hotels in the country, thus importing the service quality of Sheraton to other properties.
"Then we added the Sheraton Abuja, a landmark property in Abuja. Both the Sheraton Lagos and the Sheraton Abuja will undergo a major renovation. In 2006, the Le Meridien Ogeyi in Port Harcourt and the Le Meridien Ibom in Uyo joined and 2010 we opened the Four Points by Sheraton Lekki. We have very nice growth in our Nigerian portfolio; we are opening a 220 room Four Points in Ikeja, a 150 room Four Points in Ibadan, a 150 room Four Points in Benin City and the first Luxury Collection Hotel in Ikoyi.'
"Those are projects that are confirmed, but we also have some very interesting ones in the pipeline all over the country. So, overall, I see a very bright future for the hotel and tourism industry. We should not count on government alone. Government can only provide the infrastructure, the rest is private entrepreneurship.'
'And a good entrepreneur has his standards set to what the customer wants and if meets them he will be successful.