Chief Samuel Alabi is a hotelier by accident. For over two decades, he has held sway at Eko Hotel & Suites, as the company’s secretary/legal adviser. Alabi, who holds board positions in several companies, is the current chairman of the entertainment and tourism segment of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry and was the president of the Hotel Employer’s Association as well as past president of the Federation of Tourism Associations of Nigeria. In this interview, Alabi speaks on trending issues in tourism and hospitality in Nigeria and the need to use domestic tourism as tool to reflate the economy.
How long have you been in the hospitality industry?
I have not been in the industry for long. I came to Eko Hotel on September 5, 1990. By this year it would be 27 years and we are still counting the days. My coming to the hotel sector was by sheer providence because, as a lawyer, I never thought of working in hotels and even when I was writing my final papers in the law school, a few metres away from the hotel, the thought of working here never crossed my mind. Even if someone had told me, I would have dismissed it as a joke.
It was during my NYSC that I was posted to work here. Technically, I became a lawyer while I was here because my call to bar was when I had resumed work. When I came in as a ‘Youth Corper,’ I thought that they were going to reject me because I looked at it as an abnormality, a lawyer in a hotel, and that it was going to be corrected. But when I came in they showed me an office and said, we have not renovated your office but give us two weeks, then I said to myself, it means they are not going to reject me. After two weeks, the office was ready and we were two corpers that were serving here, lawyers, in the same office.
When we came, the other corper was sent by the chairman of the company, but I was posted here by NYSC. When we finished they wanted to absorb just one person and they said, we have had one year to interview the two of them, and we prefer this boy, that is me, and they stood their ground and I was retained as a legal officer; by 1995 I became senior legal officer. In 1997, I became company secretary/legal adviser. So from 1997 till now, it is still the same title.
What experience did you acquire over the period?
The experience has been worthwhile. I handle the back-house. I’m not a customer-contact person I’m in charge of personnel, industrial relations, company’s secretariat services, legal services and board activities. I tell you, if I have my way, I would tell my children too to go and cut their teeth in the hotel industry. It is very peaceful, particularly if you are lucky to have an employer like I do that will use you as much as you make yourself available and as far as you can cope, and the sky is the limit. This is a place that (allows one to) grow without godfatherism.
How is the industry today compared to when you started?
In those days, it was a goldmine, hoteliers dictated to the guests. In the entire Victoria Island, you could count like two major hotels, Eko Hotels and Federal Palace Hotel, that were operating.
Then, you don’t get people that readily wanted to work in the hotel but now the competition is everywhere because most investors in the hotel industry are not aware of the details in terms of returns on investment.
They are always misguided to believe that hotel industry is a money-spinning business, so anybody that comes across money you see them turning two rooms into a hotel and doing a lot of things only for them to come in and be stuck.
You talk of personnel, we have them in abundance now. Unlike in those days when you could hardly get a graduate trying to pick up jobs at the lower rungs of the ladder. Now, it is higher in terms of money but, in terms of value, it may not be higher than before because of inflation.
It is a business for everybody now because everywhere there is hotel.
Can we then say there is a boom in hotel business?
I wouldn’t say there is a boom, as it is expanding so are those existing losing businesses because we all target same market. In the early 1990s the business was good but, following the world recession and when the civilian government came into being, we had our own share too and we are yet to get out of it.
People are looking for alternatives and hotels demand is not perfectly inelastic, it is perfectly elastic because people would always look for alternative easily when it comes to business like ours. So, the more the economy is in crisis, the more people look for alternatives.
This is why any change in the economic indices affects the hotel business.
What about the attitude of employees?
The problem with Nigerian employees is that they are not married to their jobs. The commitment is not there. If there is any major weakness I have in life, it is my emotion and my job because I have not been able to detach my job from my emotional balance.
It is so much so that if I get a letter addressed to Eko Hotel, which looks problematic, it is like a letter addressed to me in person. I may not be able to sleep. That is my major issue, my inability to detach myself from the job is my problem, but, in another way, it is also an added advantage for me to achieve my goals. I have been lucky to work with bosses that easily understand me, that I also flow with very easily. It has been very easy for me and I couldn’t have had it better in any other place. They allow me to be myself and take me for who I am, which wouldn’t have been an easy thing for me in some other corporate organisations.
Does it mean your hotel is different from others?
In Eko Hotel, nobody will instruct his subordinates only for him to back out when there are issues, no, they will stand by you even if it is problematic. They will admit that they knew about it and not abandon you in the middle of the high sea.
So this is the joy and satisfaction that I have here because they give me the backing. I am very fortunate and then they also allow me to be the Nigerian face of the hotel otherwise there is no way that I could have been the president of the Hotels Employer’s Association of Nigeria.
I broke the jinx of allowing employees to be the president of HOPSEA and they saw that an employee too could talk to other employees. My successor was the general manager of a hotel.
The same thing with FTAN, I was the only employee to become president.
The bottom line is that Eko Hotel allowed me to be their representatives in all these bodies and things that have to do with the government, which is even more than remuneration and material things.
How was your FTAN experience?
You know that I have been saying it severally that we are unfortunate to have many pretenders in FTAN, people who don’t have anything to do with tourism. We have people that are in FTAN because of what they think that they will gain. The lack of many stakeholders in FTAN is its greatest predicament.
Number two, we have a situation where you have some associations who are more powerful on the ground, because FTAN was a later creation by the federal government to be a sole face for tourism private sector.
So those associations still retain their identity and popularity and, as a matter of fact, they have more resources at their disposal than FTAN. If FTAN should grow, if FTAN should be able to attain the status expected of it, then the stakeholders must come on aboard and take their fate in their hands, instead of leaving it to consultants.
If FTAN must grow the real stakeholders must come onboard. If you play your role as a stakeholder, it is going to be very difficult for anybody to push you out or to use the platform to line their pockets.
I can say it anywhere in the world, let them go and check my account or FTAN account, I didn’t take any kobo for official duty at all. Even when they sent me to Calabar or anywhere and I donated any money, such money was my money. The hotel, air ticket, I paid for them myself. For two years, I was paying the staff salaries of FTAN secretariat because I knew what I wanted, I wanted FTAN to reclaim its lost glory and, by the grace of God, today, I am still very active in FTAN. People like you should come on board and restructure it for the betterment of Nigeria; so long as we abdicate the throne for pretenders to hijack it, we will be wasting our time.
Was there anything you could have done better as FTAN president?
Much as I tried, we were unable to bring many people on board, especially those that could have helped the situation. For instance, I tried to bring on board the road transporters, ABC Transport, Chisco and The Young Shall Grow Motors, and even the airlines, but they were caught between two associations, we tried with the car hire but (were not successful) to the level desired.
But if you talk of legacies, when I came into FTAN, if I had known that was the FTAN they wanted me to presied over, I would not have come in, because they lured me in, people from HOPESA.
In fairness to them, they meant well. People like Alhaji Wada Yunusa said they knew I could revive the federation the way I did with HOPESA, and he wanted me to bring the magic wand to FTAN.
So the FTAN that I met was comatose, I don’t want to say dead. All our furniture was taken to Ogun State, no office and nothing to work with. I had to first get an office then go to the landlord in Ogun State to carry get furniture and take them to Abuja. I employed an administrative staff and secretary and started all over again.
Today, there is no event they would hold without FTAN being invited and if it is not invited then the organiser is only joking. The issue of FTAN being dominated by hotel associations is rampant everywhere, and today we have amended the constitution and we have made it impossible for hoteliers to consistently be in power. By the next election we are holding in June, it would not be possible for any hotelier to be the president. We have arranged it in such a way that NANTA will succeed us and after NANTA, it is equally impossible for any hotelier to succeed because it was an arrangement that was put in place.
When I became president, a lot of information filtered to my ears that it was very easy to get the letterhead of FTAN to get visa for people, get ticket rebates, accommodation, donations and a lot of atrocities being committed (in the name of the body).
But I put a stop to all that, making them know that if, anyone is caught compromising the federation, he would be handed over to the police. Then some people asked me, so there is no benefit, and I replied, no, there is no benefit. So, many of them stayed away.
I restored the credibility that FTAN didn’t have because I was ready to sanitise the place and, talking about going cap-in-hand to the government, I refused to do it. I have said it at every meeting that FTAN will succeed if every stakeholder dips his hand in his pockets and funds FTAN.
In fact, we in FTAN are supposed to be the ones donating and funding the government and not the other way round because tourism is private sector-driven. So FTAN should be the ones sponsoring all that the government is doing now. Unfortunately you will hear my colleagues complaining that they are not involved in Abuja Carnival. And I say to them, do your own, because, if you have your own money, you can do anything.