June 11, 2009

Ebbesen: ‘we want to transform Abuja Sheraton’ $10m for renovation

Before his appointment as the General Manager of Abuja Sheraton Hotel, Danish national Mr. Morten Ebbesen   also held same position at the Corinthia Hotels International, comprising the five_star Corinthia Beach Resort, Corinthia Hotel St George’s Bay and the adjoining Marina Hotel.

Morten Ebbesen has a wealth of experience, having held general manager positions at the five_star Pestana Grand Hotel Madeira, and the Millennium Mayfair and Sheraton Park Tower hotels in London. While at the Millennium Mayfair, he was instrumental in developing the celebrity chef restaurant ‘Turners of Mayfair’.

He was one time executive assistant manager at the Sheraton Hotel Abuja in Nigeria and this explains why he said “1 chose to come to Abuja because it is the place I believe personally in , it is one or the most exciting place 1 have ever visited .”Morten Ebbesen   who  speaks fluent Danish, English, Portuguese and German said he is ready to take the hotel to the next level with the co-operation of the owners and the workers.
In this interview, he shares his thought for the hotel. Here is an excerpt.

WHAT is the current level work in the effort of the hotel to maintain its position as a leading brand in the hospitality industry?

We are working on two fronts at the moment, and 1 think the two of them hang together. We need to invest money, we are investing 10 million dollars (aboutN1.7bn) in the  new  rooms, and we need to make sure we tidy the place and bring  up the staffs moral up.

I like to say we are  the chasing pack, we are falling behind, we need to come back. I’m here because I want to be here. I’m not about to retire, I haven’t been sent here. 1 chose to come to Abuja because it is the place I believe personally, is one or the most exciting place 1 have ever visited and I have worked in many of the hotels across the world. I have visited hundreds of hotels. I love this place. It is so special, it has an atmosphere that is unique. It has wonderful staff. It has all the right attributes to really create a super five_star hotel.

At the moment, if you ask me, as a business traveler coming to Abuja, which is the better hotel in Abuja? My opinion is that Sheraton has the upper hand in terms of atmosphere, friendliness and has a kind of living with nature ambience. This place has a soul. What we need to do is to tell the world that we are moving forward.

1 am here for the next five to ten  years, God willing. I have a chief engineer who will be here for the next five to 10 years, God willing. So, between the two of us and 10 million dollars from the owners, we will transform the place.
What we have done so far is that we’ve fixed the back_bone of the hotel, we’ve fixed chillers, air handling unit and the generator capacity.

So, these  three are done, ready to role. Now, we need to focus our attention on front of house, we are going to fix the hotel rooms and we are going to do a bit transformation of the restaurants, among others.

If you look at our restaurants now, we have by far the more variety and offering. In terms of food and beverages offering, we have by far the best, we have good quality food and all our patrons love it. Our shortfall, where we need to prove, is our hotel rooms. In the hotel rooms, we have 50 per cent inventory  new, and when we get negative feed back from our guests, it is about the new products, it is about the old product. So, we need to make sure we get uniformity in our products and the products will be brought in the next six months.

We will get four model rooms in the next six weeks and we have a designer coming to do another model room in about a month. So, totally we have five rooms of different flooring, concept and design for the owners to choose from and the owners will choose one. it will be duplicated into 200, so in the next two years, we will do another 200 rooms, and the rooms will be of international standard, fresh, bright, exciting and we will have a product that can reach out to the  public.

I’ve done two events in the last 10 days with the staff. My motto is we can work hard and play hard. So, last week I took the whole staff for lunch, we had barbecue outside in our Coconut Beach and I dressed up as an Alhaji from Kogi State. We put a band on, and had great time.

The staff walked away with the feeling of ‘we belong. This week, we did something, The union organized a football match in my honour as a welcome gesture and 1 said that is fine, you can do_a football match for me, but I am the goal keeper. So, we got sponsorship and we had a great time. I am pulling with them, it is not me doing it but they doing it.

We still have issues with staff that are not behaving, we still have issues with staff who need to be disciplined, but as long as we make sure the decision is based on facts and not on emotions.. .what I want to do is to make sure that everybody knows what  we expect, and the only thing we expect is that they treat our customers like kings: ‘yes’ is the answer, what is the question?’ we make that the customer is at the centre point of our attention at all times.
We spend a little bit of money tidy the place up, 1 tell you if you come back in six months time, you will see for your self.

My mission statement is that we are one team, there is no white or black man, there is one team, everybody works together and 1 will role my sleeves up and do any job that any of my staff do, because 1 am not sitting here trying to run this hotel from this office, I am out there with the boys. We move slowly but surely to improve guests’ experience.
Injecting the money, how far will it go?

The 10 million dollars we are looking at this moment is not enough. We need another 10 million dollars. But what we are doing is that we have an agreement with our owners to be setting aside 10 per cent of the profit of the hotel to continue with the replacement of old facilities in the hotel. We will continue that. So, if I have 10 million now, that means I can do, maybe, 150 rooms now, and at least in a year’s time we will have enough fund to turn the rest around, then we will have a full compliment of fresh, new wonderful rooms.

The first thing 1 did when 1 came here was on the issue of identity, I said okay, what do we do? We have Tower Three. When I was here 15 years ago, we used to have a bird cage there and it was full of birds. It was really lovely and over the years they all died, nobody really cared about the birds. So, I said let’s try something different. Let’s put in personality into that Tower Three. So, I went out and found two monkeys. One is called Penelope and we got the other not too long ago. He is called Batty. They are our new mascot. What we do is that on Sunday afternoon, we take them for a walk around the hotel, and we introduce them to our hotel guests.

So it is just the little things…you know the Sheraton motto used to be ‘Little things mean a lot’ and if anybody starts talking a General Manager who every  Sunday afternmn, walk round with  two monkeys in a chain, everybody will think he is completely nuts. I say okay, you can think I am nuts as long as you talk about it.

The other thing we arc doing is that we are trying to create more entertainment, more atmosphere. Just to drive home the point 1 have decided to become the DJ in the Elephant Bar, that Saturday, because I was the DJ, we doubled the  normal revenue from there.

The conclusion to all these, is that if you want to make this place work, you can actually make something really exciting here because this is a lovely hotel.

How has the economic meltdown affected you?
None whatsoever, the economic meltdown has not hit us. What is happening is that we predominantly get business from the government.

There is a slow down in terms of government spending, but in terms of government and other activities in Abuja, there is no slow down. Maybe there is a change today between people having contracts to actually produce and people getting contract to actually consult. We are doing well. We are fully booked for the better half of this month,  July is kind of here, and there, ,August there is no slowing down.

From October 10 to November 10, we are fully booked, because of FIFA under 17 world cup.
We have also had contracts of four new airlines coming to Abuja, you imagine what kind of business activities that generates for you.

Do you agree with the assertion in several fora that hotel room rates in Nigeria is the highest?
I will give a very simple answer_the law of supply and demand. It is all about supply and demand. East Africa at the moment is predominantly banking on tourism, so they have a much higher number of hotel rooms of all sorts of categories and lots of investment from foreign investor.

West Africa has never really had investment in tourisms sector in the same fashion, however, West Africa is the holder of oil mineral, diamonds and what is going to happen…? My prediction for the next ten years in Africa, there is going to be a swing of power from East to West. East Africa is going to suffer because of the economic issues in Europe, West Africa is going to be booming. There will be more players in the market, more investment coming into Nigeria and the other West African countries. We will get some competition but at the moment, we are doing well.