The Rwandan hospitality sector is characterised by new opportunities, need for capacity building and training as well as the need to foster necessary partnerships. This is still work in progress for most players still in the local market.
Radisson Hotel Group has been in the Rwandan market for three years now and is currently managing two properties; Radisson Blu Hotel and Convention Centre and Park Inn. Given the growth and challenges of the hospitality sector in Rwanda, Business Times' Collins Mwai sought to understand the firm's experiences and trends in the local market and held an interview with Federico J. Gonzalez, President and CEO of Radisson Hotel Group who was recently in the country.
Three years after joining the local market, what's your general evaluation of the market and its potential?
When you look at the Convention Centre, the team did nearly everything right. This is because there was joint work in cooperation with government, Convention Bureau and other stakeholders to have clear vision of the goal. This has been reflected in the kind of services, prices, human resources, food among other things we have. The second thing that was a success was employing local talent. There are close to 400 staff and only 3 per cent are expatriates. That means we hired, trained and have grown local talent which was done since the beginning.
The third level is collaboration in the cooperation with the government in promoting the country as a destination. We showcase Rwanda and the facility jointly in cooperation with Government.
What are the financial returns and profitably?
I think so far the performance is good given the trends this year and last year. It is different from filling rooms, its selling destinations and summits. These are events that take long to plan and execute and so far we are seeing very good performance. In the eyes of many convention organisers today, this is probably the top destination in Africa.
One common complain of hospitality sector providers in the region is lack of availability of ready skills in the sector, what was your experience when you started out in Rwanda?
When you employ people, there are two things that matter, the skills they have already, and their readiness to learn.
I would say that the willingness to learn is more important. The fact that three years after opening, 98 per cent are local employees despite the fact that most of them had never worked in hospitality before, it is a sign of willingness to learn.
We have been able to train them because of their readiness to learn. We have also seen a very strong willingness to learn and grow as well as play a larger role in the future. We also have an opportunity to work with the education system to develop good hospitality schools and build capacities.
It is said that there are high levels of financial leakages in the Rwandan and regional hospitality sector as a large section of inputs is sourced from outside the country. What is your level of imports and how can more be sourced from the local market?
The evolution of this hotel is impressive in the sense, that as of today, we only import only 10 per cent of the inputs. We came from 60 per cent when we launched to 10 per cent.
This is because of the willingness of the facility to work with the local community as well as the support of the Government and the development of the country. There is still some percentage that could be reduced over time. But we are very happy with the trends. It is one of the few facilities across the world with little imports.
How can these be replicated across the rest of the market?
One of the things needed to replicate this elsewhere are standards and regulations that govern the outsourcing of products. Then there is need to identify and develop the right industries in the country to deliver towards the intended goals.
Rwanda is currently in the process of establishing itself as a top Meeting, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) destination, from your experience elsewhere, what are some of the preconditions to achieve this?
The number one thing is safety which is already there. People feel that they are safe. The second thing is stability in the economic and legal framework.
This is a country where we have not perceived any corruption, the Government is professional and there is predictability over time.
The third thing is having people who are willing to learn and grow and do things better, which there is also.
The order in the country also puts Rwanda in a strong position. Increasingly, the country is more and more accessible due to the connections of the national carrier and the open visa policy make it possible to have people from across the world access the country.
I think focus always helps, making sure the country remains as safe, investment friendly, and also make advancements in hospitality education going forward to ensure that there is capacity.
What are some of the trends you would say are becoming common in the hospitality market in emerging markets such as Rwanda, and how is your brand working to stay relevant?
There are two levels. We started a plan in 2017 where, among other goals, we planned to be among top three companies in the eyes of our stakeholders, customers, shareholders and people who want to work with us.
We have put in place a plan for five years untill 2022, which has multiple initiatives. Beyond selling our rooms, we are making sure that we re-invent experiences of customers to make it memorable. Beyond the services, we want to make sure it is memorable. The second one is that, beyond selling rooms at the right prices, operations are profitable. This requires management input, efficiency, training, quality human resource systems among others.
This is why it was important to hold (our Group) meeting in Rwanda as the Rwandan facility has gotten most of these aspects right and is an example of training, quality, and value. Most of the people who work here had never worked in the hospitality business before.
What are your plans for investments in the region?
In Africa, we have 96 hotels, active and in the pipeline. We would like to have between 150 and 200 hotels in Africa in the coming years. We are currently number four in Africa but want to do better. In East Africa, we have five hotels that are operational and six in the pipeline.
What are your expectations from the local ecosystem and stakeholders to further grow the hospitality market in Rwanda?
I think the most important is to have consistency in aspects such as connectivity. The market needs to know about the location in East Africa that is unique and has quality, safe, accessible among other qualities. There are not many places where that happens. We need to make sure that the demand really grows.
Part of the ways people can learn that is by coming here and experiencing it for them to see what has been built and achieved in only three years.
We brought the general managers from across the world to come and see what has been achieved here as part of best practice sharing.