In a recent interview with Chinedu Eze, Chike Ogeah, the Managing Director/CEO of Mac-Folly Hospitality Limited, highlighted his prediction that the hospitality industry, agriculture, and technology will soon become the pillars of Nigeria’s economy, moving away from the current over-dependence on crude oil.
According to thisdaylive.com, Ogeah emphasized the transformative role of establishments like the Marriott Hotel, owned by the SIFAX Group, in redefining the landscape of hospitality in Nigeria.
When Marriott opened in Ikeja, it kind of redefined the location of a good hotel in Lagos. Prior to that time, the best hotels were said to be in the Lagos island. So, what has been the experience so far?
I thank you very much. You see, in relation to that question, you must understand that the location of this Marriott was strategically done, in the sense that we already have, like you know, an aviation company that operates at the airport. And the visioning of this particular Marriott, we wanted to marry hospitality with aviation. And that is why if you come into the Marriott, you will find out that possibly this is the only hotel of that class in Nigeria that have cabin crew lounges that was designed into the building of the hotel.
So, we actually had the airlines in mind in building the hotel. We wanted a number of airlines that would stay in the hotel in their long stay, which means you will have crew there 24-7 because you know how it works, when you fly for a certain amount of hours, you have to do your lay-by, then the new crew will take over. So at every point in time, we always have cabin crew. We have Lufthansa, we have Emirates when they were coming, until they stopped. We have Delta Air Lines; we have United Airlines. And in fact, what we really wanted was just two, we ended up having five at some point, which really, from the point of business, is not very good for us because we only have 250 rooms. And when you have those long stay crew, you have to give them special rates because it’s a long-term contract and all of that.
So, to that extent, it has been a roaring success because we were able to now capture that airport clientele which is very, very important. We even have people that live on the island who come over to sleep in the hotel when they have early morning flight the following day. This is because they cannot vouch for the traffic, especially those that live way beyond Lekki, Chevron and all that. We have many of them that come and stay in the hotel before their flight, whether it’s local, whether it’s international. So like you rightly said, we totally redefined and built up a new level of clientele, which we are handling now.
And that is why, as I speak with you now, we are about to embark on an extension, an extension in the sense that, if you look, we have a land, big piece of land, which is ours next to the hotel. And what we have decided to do is to put in a Marriott Courtyard. The Courtyard is a bit of a lower brand than the premium we have on ground now. But in the way we are going to do it, we are going to connect it to the same hotel. So it’s going to be like one same hotel, but the Courtyard will have its own distinct characteristic, which is beautiful and very different from this. It will be a sight to behold, I assure you, by the time we finish it in 24 months or so.
At least we are going to get additional 100 rooms there because right now we are always full. We don’t have to take guests all the time to our sister hotel which is the Sheraton. You know Sheraton is now part of the Marriott brand. So, we work in synergy with the Sheraton, Protea, because you see the Marriott has their brands in different categories, luxury, premium budget and all of that. So, but the whole brands, including Regis, The Ritz-Carlton, JW, those are the very highest of levels. And how do they get this categorization? Basically, due to things like how big your rooms are, what kind of conference, convention center, conference room you have, and all of that. So, what we have done is that we have done the best, I mean everybody can see it.
You started few years ago and you have been able to earn this goodwill. Why do people prefer Marriot?
We have been there I think since 2021 basically two years. And then like I said, even the Marriott headquarters acknowledged and success so far. We relate with them in Dubai, we relate with them in Johannesburg and, of course, we relate with them in the global headquarters in America and all of them are of the view that never have they seen both the kind of numbers and the kind of reviews they are getting from this particular brand in sub-Saharan Africa, which is our Marriot. So, to that extent, we thank God, we thank Nigerians. It has been a roaring success. And I thank God because it was a very difficult decision when I made up my mind that we are going to go fully into this. It took us seven years to build that hotel, pain stakingly. Once I finished as a commissioner in Delta, I came back and said, okay, it is time for me to walk away from the public sector. If you can recall, you know my relationship with the SIFAX Group.
With what you have achieved so far with Marriot here in Lagos, the brand now knows that there is huge market in Nigeria. Do you think another Marriot will come up?
No, we are Marriott in Nigeria and Marriott is us. And I can assure you that as we are speaking now, aside from trying to get these additional keys, because when you talk about rooms, that is what you call them, keys; these hundred keys that we are trying to get, we will have more rooms for our spa, we will have more recreational facilities. There will also be a banquet hall. Everything will also be there. It will have its own check-in place, but you can also check in from the main hotel because it will be connected with ramparts and all of that. Aside from that, this is just a short-term plan or immediate plan that we are doing. We are also envisioning that once this takes off, somewhere down the middle, we want to build a convention center which most likely will be somewhere on Island. And we also want to build most likely a St. Regis or another higher luxury brand in Abuja.
What is the level of the utilization of your conference halls here?
The conference halls are always fully booked. The demand is high. I am always having problems with getting them for clients; even as I speak with you now, four or five people are the demanding the conference halls on the same day. People are coming and we are talking about big clients, big governmental agencies, both Lagos state, federal government and many others. They want to do their conferences. We have to adopt first come, first served method to overcome the pressure.
But what is the timeline for notice?
Well, you see, it is up to the person that wants to use the facility. You know when you want to do your event but it’s obvious that the sooner you let us know the better. So if you have an event in a month’s time, there is nothing wrong talking to us now so we can start blocking those dates for you. We have events we block three months before. We even encourage people that way. Most times one week to the event, you see some other people will come to demand for conference halls. By then it will be late because we are already committed to another client.
With state-of-the-art hotel you built in Ikeja, it is obvious you have diminished competition because your hotel stands above others around it?
Well, I don’t know about diminishing competition, because you see the good thing about this sector, this hospitality sector, now, when I talk, I talk like an expert, but you know, I learn quickly. The uniqueness of the sector is that it creates its own market. Do you know that, up until when we were doing the Marriott, so many people were wondering what we were doing. How can you build a hotel like this here, who is coming here in Ikeja. But since we did it, how many hotels have come up? Of course, you know whenthe big man stays with us, the Minister or whoever, he has SAs, he has directors, all that. So they all cascade to all these other new hotels around us. So it’s fantastic, and they are all there. And even aside from that, one or two others of such hotels will still come up. So, what I am trying to tell you is that this market is elastic. Hospitality creates its own market. You will be surprised where people just come out from to books rooms in the hotel.
When I was looking through the books at some point, I realized that even families in GRA, Ikeja here will come at the weekend and check in just to have that experience and they will spend the weekend. And they can walk from their house to the hotel because they live close by. You understand? There are different levels of clientele and they are just different, you know. They are all varied and wide and ever expanding. In Lagos the demand for hotels is very high. , I don’t know how many keys (rooms) there are in all the hotels on the island, even if we say, let’s call it 10,000 for reasons of argument, and maybe 5,000 in Ikeja, or wherever, there is still room for more hotels because demand is unendingly high. So, Lagos is still looking for more hotels. There is an increase in population, economic activity and other things and people are doing new things, new projects.
I want you to rate your rooms?
It’s not even for me to rate our rooms. I can’t be a judge in my own case, Marriott has a mechanism, it is called the guest GSS, the guest response and all that. Like I said to you, in sub-Saharan Africa, we are number one in the Marriott Group. And Marriott, as you know, is the largest hotel group in the world by miles. Nothing comes close to Marriott. So, to that extent, we are happy. It’s not easy, of course, we have a lot of threats. We have a lot of challenges, like in Nigeria where power is a major issue and we spend so much money to keep it running. Because there are people out there having fun, they don’t understand what it is to power that place 24/7. There are times when we have all this downtime in the grid and we are just running different kinds of forms of generators back to back for 72 hours non-stop. That is challenging financially but the ultimate is to provide absolute comfort to our guests. You know what it means to keep the chillers in the hotel going. You can imagine.
They said that cost of hotel rooms is high in Nigeria because of the input of the cost of power generation. How much you pay to generate power?
Well, not really. If you ask me, it is a total package. The whole ambiance is what you are selling. Number one, you have to give your guests a secure environment where they come in and feel absolutely safe. And you see, security as people should know by now, is not about carrying gun, you go to our hotel, you don’t see policemen with guns and all that, but I can assure you that in the four corners of that hotel, nothing can get past them. Because of the way the hotel was built, with the kind of security input we have, with the overall CCTV footage and cameras we have there; they are impenetrable. We have had situations where people picked other people’s phones and immediately the alarm was raised, we closed down that place and we got the persons that did it. We get them because we go to the CCTV. We have different command centers all over the place. We have the latest technology there. So it’s really a different world out there with what is going on with the world of hospitality now. And I am happy that Nigeria is catching up with it, but I am proud and I am happy to say that we at Mac-Folly and our brand which is the Ikeja Marriott Hotel, we are frontrunners in breaking new grounds.
Do you still import some of your food items?
Well you see, let’s be sincere, Nigeria has some of the best and natural and organic food items in the world. Our soil is the best in the world. So whatever you want, vegetables, oranges, fruits, we are also the best. But we have different clientele we cater for. So don’t forget, it’s an international hotel. Like, for instance, there is a loyalty program of the Marriott called the Bonvoy. Now that Bonvoy, you have to be a member of that club. It’s a worldwide club. And what it simply means is that once you are a member of that club, there are different categories, ambassadors, different classes of it. Once you get to those higher classes, and even once you become a member, it means that once you go to any country in the world that there is a Marriott, most likely that is where you would stay. Because you get points and those points help you to get free rooms over time and so many other freebies you can get from the hotel.
So, what that means is that whatever we do, we always have to encourage foreign clienteles by giving them what they want. We have people who come and say to us they just want the South African steak, which is a different type of lamb or different kind of meat that we use from Nigeria. Of course, that will be more expensive. But we always have them. Like I told you, thank God for our operations at the airport. We have a way making these things available by importing them. Even grapes, there are some of them that want the grapes that are coming from Europe and others. So we have these things, you know, almost coming in and out all the time. So we cater for those ones. Oh yes, so whichever one you want we endearvour to meet the taste and need of our guests.
Okay, let’s move a little away from your hotel and look at Nigeria. Nigeria can produce variety of farm produce, but the challenge is moving them from the farms to Lagos, Abuja, to Port Harcourt where the market for them is. With you being in the air transport sector, is there any way such produce can quickly be brought in?
Well, I should be asking you that question because you are esteemed member of the aviation sector. And I noticed that, that is one of the few things that both the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and the Ministry and the major stakeholders in aviation, even the Aviation Round Table, the think tank of the aviation industry, that is what they are talking about now, especially export of farm produce from Nigeria. And then also internal, like you said, movement of these perishables from one point to another in a way that they will remain fresh as they get to the consumers. Now, what are the problems that hinders this? Security. And the farmers able to go to their farms in Jos, in those plains of the Plateau, where we get most of these lovely apples and grapes and all that. Are they are able to go to their farms freely? Insecurity is a hindrance to our realizing our huge potential in food production. So, as long as we have insecurity, we will have these challenges.
That is why the first and the most important priority for any government is to secure the country. If this country is secured, and we can get away with all these religious and ethnic issues we have in Nigeria, Nigeria will be one of the greatest countries in the world, I assure you. And that is why we are prayerful and we are hopeful that this government will get it right. Because the last government, I can say, did not do much. In fact, if anything, we were stagnated or went backwards in the area of security and that also reflected in the economy. You see, all the cargo planes that come into the country are fully laden, but when they are leaving Nigeria, they leave empty because we don’t have much to export. Why should that be? Why should that be in a country of over 200 million people with the kind of land we have? That thing breaks my heart.
So those are the things, and those are the issues, we pray that the new Minister of Aviation will bring up policies and work on all these things to be able to stimulate our exports. But like I said, we are still on security because when the place is secure and then there’s things like sanctity of contract, there is peace, money only goes to where those things are, that way we can now get foreign direct investment and we can get people that can come and do large scale farming. The era of hoe and knife is gone. Farming is one of the biggest businesses in the world right now, real mechanized farming. In fact, if you ask me, that should be our new oil.
From the kind of clients or guests you are getting, especially expatriates, would you say that in the area of economy, that things are gearing up in Nigeria?
Well, I will not lie to you. You see, every time a new government comes, there is always optimism. Because you know it’s a new day, you know that things will be done differently. Though in this case it’s the same party, and people were a little bit sceptical that, oh, your party was there for eight years, what is new. But as we are seeing, what is new is that the people that are there are new. So, to that extent, I can assure you that, because like you rightly said, I interact a lot with the international community in the hotel. And they are hopeful, they are seeing changes. The ease of doing business, I think government is putting a lot of priority in that. And if you notice the mantra of this new President, he goes around the world saying, anything that will distort or disturb your investment or double taxation, all these kinds of challenges, we are going take it off. We are going to clear the road for you. He has made that absolutely clear and I know that is already going on. So we can feel it like you rightly said, even with our clientele in the hotel.
This hotel has encouraged you, you are going fully into hospitality. Are you going to cut down investment in other areas of your businesses?
No, you know the good thing about this is that the SIFAX brand which is the parent company of all these companies of which Mac-Folly is one, SAHCO Plc is one, we even have a financial company. We have an insurance company, we have a power company, where you have oil and gas, we have a haulage company with trucks. So the truth is that we are in every sector. The intention is to make ourselves self-sufficient. So that whatever we are doing, whatever we need, any company can feed off on the other companies. Of course, you know the major company in the group is the shipping, which is marine, ports and cargo, which is in Apapa, that’s where the headquarters is. And all our companies are sustainable, they are all doing well, and we are investing equally on all the companies.
I mean, ports and cargo, like I told you, which is the flagship of the group, they now have about three or four ports. They opened one, the one they call Ijora Container Terminal, in Ijora, they have off-dock ports. That is ports that they take containers where there is no sea, all of that. There are even one or two of them that are running up north, that the company has the franchise for, operating the ports up north. The company has the franchise for operating the port up north in Kaduna and Kano. So we are still investing evenly amongst all our different businesses. There are some newer ones obviously that will need more attention.
You know your decision to expand this hotel is a preemptive one because you have looked at the market and what the future is going to be?
We are reacting to the demand and what is going on with the present hotel we have. Yes, yes. And all the permutations are that we need more keys (rooms). What happens is that when people get used to value, when people get used to value for money, that is what I found out about Nigerians, a Nigerian man will fight you to the end if he believes he is giving you 10 naira which you do not deserve, giving him rubbish service for that 10 naira. But that same guy will come back and give you 300,000 naira without blinking an eye once he thinks the value he is getting for it is worth the money. And what I can assure you is that like we said earlier in this interview, it’s from the feedback we get from our guests, they are too happy to spend every dollar, every penny, every kobo that they spend in the hotel.
Finally, what will you want government do to enhance business, to enhance the hospitality industry?
We want government to realize that hospitality again, like agriculture, can be the next oil in Nigeria because right now government must be looking at Nigeria beyond oil. We found out that the biggest economy now in the world, if you ask me, the first top five companies in the world are tech companies. So it’s the knowledge economy. There is nowhere the knowledge economy is domiciled more than in the hospitality world because they stay there, those kind of people, like Mark Zuckerberg, if anybody, any of these people, if they come, the first important thing before they go anywhere will be what kind of hotel do they have where they are going. And then when they get there, don’t forget, they have to operate. And these are people that just operate with gadgets, and they can be anywhere.
I mean, since COVID-19, we have seen how people have utilized technology. Do you know there are Nigerians that live in Nigeria that work in Canada, that work in America, work in Europe, all over Europe and they will not go there one day in a year and they are working remotely and collecting salaries. What COVID-19 has done. So, what I am saying in all this is that the hospitality business needs people to put infrastructure in place for them, that kind of thing can be possible. Like power. Yes. So that is why it is so critical and so important that government must invest in the twin threats to the country, which is security and power. With that, hospitality will thrive and pretty much everything else.