Shalom Asuquo-Ankoh is the chief executive officer/ managing director of Travel Lab Nigeria Limited, and functions in multiple fields, she spoke with ANDREW IRO OKUNGBOWA on her travel odyssey as a travel consultant.
Asuquo – Ankoh, who is the chief executive officer and managing director of Travel Lab Nigeria Limited, with offices in Uyo, Akwa Ibom and Lagos states, is a product of the London South Bank University, and completed various industry-related courses from the London Business School, Ross Business School, the University of Michigan and Lagos Business School, among others.
She is a seasoned Nigerian-American business professional, with over two decades of cross-functional experience. She has over the years earned different certifications and well – acquainted in multiple –based knowledge fields, as she describes herself as a chatbot engineer, travel consultant, an executive director with the John Maxwell Team, a John Maxwell-certified peak performance coach, Maxwell Behavioural Analysis consultant, management consultant, speaker and trainer.
Before settling into her present role and the world of travel, she has served as the special assistant to two former governors of Akwa Ibom State between March 2012 and September 2018, among others. Thus her extensive experience revolves around building and sustaining business partnerships with credible local and international brands to help amplify the impact of startups or other businesses and boost revenue in a truly exponential way.
With her interest in humanity and widespread experience and knowledge, her forage into tourism in her later years was expected given the nature of tourism and its multiple benefits, as she says that: ‘‘Tourism is a value chain anyone can plug into, thereby creating an array of job opportunities for professionals and non-professionals.
This was highlighted in the 2019 World Tourism Day Theme: “Tourism and Jobs: A Better Future for All.” ‘‘It is one of the most flexible and least monotonous job descriptions because you can choose the days and hours you want to work. With ever-increasing internet penetration, you can choose if you want to build your office offline that is, brick and mortar, or online on social media platforms or even both.
You will just need to ask yourself the questions: who are my customers and where can I find them? ‘‘Since I am big on continuous learning and transformation, tourism professionals are some of the most informed professionals you will ever interact with as they always have up-to-date information about our ever-changing world.’’
Tentative sojourn into the world of travel
To begin with, she did not launch full time into the world of travel when she started out in 2010. As a banker then, she felt it was something she could take in her stride alongside other engagements of hers given her flair for multi – tasking. ‘‘It was very challenging at first as I had a lot of learning and training to do. I was able to afford the training since my 9–5 job was lucrative. Nevertheless, my business suffered as I had to constantly perform and meet my targets on my day job,’’ she says of her tentative sojourn.
First shot at organising outbound tour
With a focus among others on giving advisory services to families that want to relocate from Nigeria and formulating the strategic plan that drives the business growth of the multi –million naira travel-tech firm she oversees, it is perhaps safe to say that her path was paved by her first tour package and since then she has glowed in the light of the business and expanding her scope. ‘‘My first tour was outbound in France, Paris (Euro Disney) in 2010.
It was a reunion of six siblings residing in different continents. They were coming together with their respective nuclear families to meet after being apart for over seven years. I had just assisted the sibling in Nigeria with her Schengen visa to attend a one-week executive education programme in one of the leading business schools and we got talking about her plans to meet with her other sibling over there.’’ She had thought that was the end of the transaction, however, that success opened the door for a life and business changing experience for her: ‘‘Before you know it, she had called her eldest brother and it was a done deal.
They were a party of 22, including their respective children. ‘‘I used email and phone calls to seal the deal. Remitting payment among the clients, my company and the various properties (hotels) was easy. Schooling in London between 2005 and 2007 had allowed me to visit the location several times via Euro Express, and I had gotten to meet and interact with lots of destination management companies (DMCs). ‘‘The toughest part of the brief was to ensure that we had Nigerian food for the entire family for two days. This was crazy because at that time I did not know of any Nigerian restaurant in France. I had to contact a restaurant in London that delivered. This made me very happy.
Since I am driven by excellence, I had to make a quick visit to ensure that we had all the things in place. ‘‘The memory of this tour still makes me smile. To this day, I still do business with the family; we have planned a good number of other interesting family get-togethers.’’
However, it has not all be smooth sailing or success story as a tour operator or travel consultant, as she tells you that the journey has been a mix tale of failures and successes but she remains focused on the goal of offering a life time experience to her clients. ‘‘I have had lots of failures and successes and I would say those failures have allowed me to question everything. The successes I have seen are evidence of past failures so they both go hand-in-glove.
Nevertheless, one of my most recent packages, the Akwa Ibom State Fam Trip, was a good success. ‘‘My goal was to invite other international professionals and tour operators to experience the sights and sounds of Akwa Ibom State. This was done in conjunction with the Ministry of Tourism. Though the trip was short, it made an impact.’
Asuquo – Ankoh is quite engaging, with big dreams for Nigerian tourism and one of such dreams is targeting one million international tourist arrivals monthly for Nigeria. A pipe dream you would say that is not going to happen in this century or her life time, however, she is quite optimistic despite acknowledging the challenges confronting Nigeria as a tourist destination.
‘‘My mission is to have one million monthly international tourist arrivals into Nigeria for just leisure travel. Do you know the impact this will have on our economy, ranging from hotels, restaurants, taxi services, tour guides, interpreters, other attractions? It would be massive! ‘‘I never see difficulties or impossibilities – those words don’t exist in my dictionary.
My time in the banking sector helped me build resilience. However, the state of tourism destinations in Nigeria bothers me. Accessibility to most of these beautiful destinations is limited due to poor road access and this could pose a serious security threat, like kidnapping. ‘‘Also, the level of poverty in these areas would break your heart. In one of my solo trips, I broke down and cried at the sight of abject poverty amid beauty and plenty. The truth is that we live in these constant dualities.’’
Changing tourism landscape
The advent of COVID – 19, for many has further exposed the poor state of Nigerian tourism and the loss being suffered by tour operators and others in the tourism sector. With the benefit of hindsight, she paints a picture of the present state of Nigerian tourism, expressing optimism that domestic tourism is gaining traction from the post COVID -19 era.
‘‘Before the pandemic, the challenge was finding the balance between outbound and inbound tourism; outbound was 85% and inbound was between 22–25%. At that time, it was very lucrative and one needn’t be online to reach clients and be impactful. ‘‘Post-pandemic, the landscape has changed; there is still outbound tourism but with over 70% drop in business travel and an increase in leisure travel. Also, there is the additional cost of the COVID-19 test at both the departure and destination points. These changes have led to an interesting boom in domestic tourism.
‘‘We began designing packages for the domestic market last year but with the second wave of the pandemic, we plan to have more outdoor events with a maximum of 10 people. If not well-priced, there is the risk of running at a loss. ‘‘The impact of the pandemic is very interesting as it has opened lots of domestic destinations, which is what we had hoped for over the years.
The pandemic collapsed the season and what would have taken years to happen, happened in just three months of the lockdown. ‘‘During the lockdown, Naija7 Wonders team organised a zoom conference, the ratings were very high and the new destination came alive. Thanks to Mr. Ikechi Uko, the brain behind such a phenomenal experience.’’
By ANDREW IRO OKUNGBOWA