By Godwin Ndifreke
THE hospitality industry in Akwa Ibom State is experiencing a phenomenal growth that is fast assuming the nature of a revolution. This growth is in tandem with the fact that the state is emerging as a tourism and hospitality destination not only in Nigeria, but also in the West African sub-region. Over 2,000 hotels have so far been registered in the state, to ensure standardisation of operations, in order to make them function in line with international best practices.
The changing hospitality landscape in the state has come about as a result of the very conducive economic environment the government has created, which has attracted investors from within and outside the state, and in turn spurred massive investments in the hospitality industry.
The government’s thinking is that as the state’s private sector investment increases, more and more people will continue to come into the state to take advantage of the opportunities that are available for investment in all sectors of the economy, hence the need to expand the hospitality industry to cope with the expect influx.
The impact of the booming hospitality sector in Akwa Ibom is already being felt in the area of job creation, as hundreds of young men and women have been employed to cater to the needs of the growing number of visitors to the state on business and leisure.
The development has spurred hospitality operators to embark on training and retraining of staff to enable them to acquire skills that are needed to provide the manpower that is expected in running a specialised industry that operates with the highest standards.
One such training organised recently by Tojum Hospitality, an industry expert, involved managers drawn from different hotels in the state, who were taken through all the ingredients that are necessary to ensure efficient management of hospitality outfits, meet international standards and guarantee sustainability, under the theme, “Hotel Sales, Service and Standards”.
Leading the effort to develop the specialised manpower that is needed to run the hospitality industry in Akwa Ibom is IBOM ICON Hotel and Golf Resort, the industry flagship in the state. The hotel is currently running an intensive one-year capital development programme that is aimed at converting semi-skilled employees to experts with skills that would enable them to operate at high level anywhere in the world.
This is expected to equip them with the knowledge and skill that are required to run the hotel whose partner, the Kenya-based ICON Hotel Group Africa, is a household name in the African hospitality industry.
The major benefit of these training programmes is that the participants are indigenes who would be expected to man key positions in an industry that is expanding very rapidly. The state would not find itself in a position in which it would need to look for expertise from outside to run the industry.
A middle-level employee who works in a strategic department of the hotel, who is participating in the training programme, is full of praises for the new managers for embarking on transfer of skills to the people of the state. “The knowledge and skills we are acquiring in this progrmme is going to help us to see our service delivery from a global perspective,” he said. “We are going to see our clientele base as not being the people of Akwa Ibom, not the people of Nigeria, but people from around the world”.
The effort to make Ibom Icon Hotel and Resorts a world-class hospitality outfit is going to raise the standard of service delivery in the industry in the state and spur more competition, which is needed to make the industry thrive. This is healthy for the growth of the sector. It would contribute to making the state the hospitality destination of choice, not just for Nigerians from other parts of the country, but for foreigners as well.
The possibility cannot be ruled out that in the near future, other hospitality operators may look in the direction of Ibom Icon Hotel and Resort as a poaching ground for skilled staff. This would make the hospitality industry in the state to be at par with what obtains in other parts of the world.
As the Akwa Ibom hospitality industry expands and becomes more sophisticated, so also will it guarantee employment generation for the youths of the state that come out every year from institutions of higher learning, with the certainty of improving standard of living. It is helping to achieve the job creation goal of the government.
A managerial staff at Watbridge Hotel & Suites in Uyo is quite excited about the opportunity the hospitality industry offered her to get a job almost immediately after her national youth service programme upon graduation with a degree in Geography and Urban Planning from the University of Uyo.
“If I didn’t get this job I would probably be in a place like Lagos searching for jobs that are not there, because I have a relative there; or I would be at home thinking of what to do with my life,” she said.
With the job, she is able to contribute to the education of a younger sibling who is also in the University of Uyo.
She sees the rising number of hotels in the state, especially Uyo, the capital, as healthy for the growth of the industry, because it would make everybody to sit up. “In this industry you must be interested in knowing what other competitors are doing, because nobody wants to be left behind in the competition,” she said.
“The patronage is quite high these days, with events taking place in the state almost on a daily basis. People come into the state for conferences, seminars, meetingss, weddings, or just visits because of the stories they have heard about the state. There is hardly a time this hotel is not filled up”.
Even as she spoke at the weekend, the hotel was fully booked for visitors who came in from outside the state for the wedding of the daughter of a well-known advertising practitioner who hails from the state. Many prospective guests found themselves being turned away.
Shola Oyeyemi, a Lagos-based tourism consultant with deep knowledge of the African hospitality landscape and a regular visitor to Akwa Ibom, says the rapid growth of the hospitality industry in the state is an indication of the positive response of investors to the economically-friendly environment that has obtained in the state in the last four years.
“Those who are investing in the hospitality sector in the state have recognised early the changing economic fortunes of the state, especially with the fast emerging strong private sector which is evident in the rate at which the government is setting up industries,” he says.
“It’s like laying the foundation on which other sectors are going to stand. Potential investors coming into the state from other parts of the country and outside the country will need to rely on a strong hospitality sector for the period it would take them to settle down finally to live and do business in the state, or even when on visits”.
With what is happening in the industry in the state, Akwa Ibom is certainly on the path to becoming a major hospitality destination in Nigeria, if not in Africa.
Ndifreke, a business/tourism analyst, wrote from Uyo