From Africa rising to Africa opportunity

How one hotel group is changing the continent’s hospitality landscape

The executive team behind BON Hotels has stood on the shoulders of giants. Perhaps this is what has enabled it to see far into the future of Africa’s hospitality industry, and understand what it truly needs.

The term “Africa Rising” has been used time and again to describe the rapid economic growth across Sub-Saharan Africa post-2000. It’s a narrative that’s been popularised from the front covers of magazines to the names of foundations and private corporations. And it’s turned the Western world’s focus to the continent as it looks for new opportunities.

But, to truly rise, Africa first needs to recognise its own opportunities; service its own markets; ensure the same tide raises all its ships. It needs to develop its potential from within, by people who are prepared to take on its challenges, and understand intrinsically what makes Africa tick.

It’s why South African-based hospitality company BON Hotels, formed in 2013, diversified their operations extensively from South Africa three years ago into countries such as Nigeria and Namibia, and are now turning their attention towards Ethiopia and Angola. Not to service the interests of the Western world looking towards Africa, but rather the needs of Africa’s own business-men, -women and families, in what CEO of BON Hotels, Guy Stehlik, refers to as the BON “international standard mid-market hotel offering.”

“What we find in Nigeria and many other African countries,” says Stehlik, “is that the international groups have set up shop, but their imperatives are to do this with one mega hotel in a main city, tick it off their list and then move on to the next country to do the same.

“The opportunity we’ve seen is to make sure, instead, that the mid-market needs of millions upon millions of Nigerian business people, corporates and the like are catered for in affordable, full-service, top-class four- and three-star hotels across the country.”

As a result, of the 37 hotels it operates across the African continent, 26 of these can already be found across 14 Nigerian cities, most of which are between 40 and 120 rooms in size, with many more soon to come on line.

“The DNA within our own company today is that of the vision my father, Otto, and his Protea Hotels team had when they pioneered the Cape-to-Cairo axis for the first South African hotel group, many, many years ago. Long before it was fashionable to do so.”

“For us, today – as BON Hotels – expansion into a country like Nigeria is really about recognising the opportunities behind trade routes that have existed literally for thousands of years. And not only in the larger cities but also the towns that form an integral part of the commercial offerings in the country.”

Traditionally, notes Stehlik, many of these centres have been serviced by no more than local hotels, usually not run to the standards that their business communities have come to expect: “So the opportunity to bring in a strong mid-market service offering in these regions is really attractive.”

As a result, there has been instant traction purely because of the uniqueness of the offerings.

“What also works for us,” notes Stehlik, “is that our hotels are not really segregated into different markets, like we have here in South Africa, where one hotel is geared towards the international-high end market, or specifically the American market, or even towards conferencing.

“Our hotels appeal to everyone and all the markets which are capable of being served by an hotel – including from families getting together, to large-scale functions like weddings, international groups, individual tourists, local government events, corporates – the whole cross-section of all types of markets that now have a place to converge where there was nothing before.”

Stehlik admits, however, that there are a number of challenges to doing business in Africa, but it’s these very challenges that have spurred the group’s expansion trail: “One of the reasons we got involved in other African countries was because we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. That’s been a repellent for most other South African hotel groups.

“It’s difficult to find the right partners; it’s difficult to run hotels from South Africa; it’s difficult to set up shop and have boots on the ground. You need to understand the cultural differences and the way that business is done in different African countries – often vastly different even from one another. But given the experience we’ve gotten in the process, we now know how to do it.”

As a result, in addition to its South Africa head office in Cape Town, BON Hotels has an International West Africa office in Lagos, with prominent local Nigerian, Paul Umoh, one of its Executive Directors, at the helm.

Apart from ongoing expansion currently taking place throughout Nigeria and Namibia, next on the cards for the group will be its first hotel in Ethiopia, opening in September this year. Angola will not be far off.

Explains Stehlik: “We believe East Africa is already a relatively mature hospitality market, somewhat overtraded in certain regions, which is why we are focusing on West Africa and on countries that are emerging from difficult pasts, democratising their economies and liberating themselves from corruption. And where we see that happening, we’ll get involved.”