Uganda is ambitiously fast tracking her tourism potential to make a quick buck from foreign and local tourists eager to discover the East African country. In this optimistic quest for tourism glory, the country will need partners who understand and are willing to push the agenda.
Some of the most crucial partners that are central in realizing this target are the hoteliers running a successful hospitality industry operating at an international level. Without a proper and a top notch hospitality players tourism adventures will only hit a dead end.
In this interview, Jean – Philippe Bittencourt, the General Manager of Sheraton Kampala Hotel explains to Baz Waiswa, the editor, Earthfinds, the role the five star hotel is playing in advancing the country’s tourism agenda, what the hospitality industry must do and the potential of Uganda’s tourism.
You joined Sheraton Kampala Hotel in January, describe you experience working at the hotel in the last five months?
We are meeting people, entities and getting more familiar with the strategies of the country in terms of tourism even though because of elections things are a little bit on standby. Now that elections are over, I hope that things that must be done to promote tourism will be done.
We all agree that Uganda needs a lot of exposure, promotion and presence at key events like international exhibitions. We need to create an image for Uganda that differentiates it from neighboring countries and that represents an added value, a different experience that the tourists are looking for.
This focus should be directed in the area of events. Events help filling up that gap. Kampala should be able to host international events. These events are fixed sometimes a year earlier therefore we should have a package that is attractive for the organizer to come to this destination.
A lot of things must be done in between us in the hotel business. We are working tightly together because when we are talking about big events, conventions, everybody benefits.
Infrastructure is a big challenge, especially the roads; access to Entebbe - Kampala is a need that must be resolved as soon as possible. When I hear about 2018, I think it is too long and we in the hotel hear people complain about that road. They also complain about the traffic in town but mainly the road to the airport because losing a flight is a challenge for the traveler especially for people with tight agendas.
Training is another area we need professionals. We need specialized institutions to train people to work in all the hotels opening up in the country. Today it is the hotels full filling this role. It’s time to have a reliable institution with good back up probably a partnership with an international educational institute that can give support and prepare the trainers.
A hotel employees people in different areas from finance to kitchen, waiters, chambermaids, human resources, IT among others. We need specialized people who can understand the complexity of a hotel.
What sort of experience do you bring to Sheraton Kampala Hotel considering that the hotel industry is still young and yearning to learn a thing or two from the industry ‘big boys’?
I have more than 30 years of experience gained while working for different international brands. I work for Sheraton today but I have worked with other international brands so I have good knowledge of different approaches to benefit a hotel.
I have worked in different continents so I am familiar with different cultures and I have capacity to easily adapt and understand new environments. I have opened new hotels, refurbished hotels. One of my missions here is to carry out the renovation project of Sheraton Kampala Hotel. It requires a good understanding of how to manage projects.
One of my key factors is that I am very human oriented, I tend to understand and mingle with people easily, socialize and become familiar with the environment easily. Uganda has good people. When you come to Uganda, you immediately feel that you want to stay here for long. So I hope I can bring something for the long term, not only to Sheraton but to Uganda.
What has been your experience working with hoteliers in Uganda especially those outside Sheraton?
Well there are very good competitors not only hotels but there are plenty of restaurants opening especially in Kampala with well-trained people. That is interesting to see. I have been meeting different either hotel owners or managers because I am part of Uganda Hotel Owners Association.
I am the chairman of Kampala Chapter so I have been talking with authorities like Uganda Tourism Board or the ministry of tourism about these action plans and strategies on how to make sure the tourism figures increase.
There are four priority areas that must be taken care of as everybody agreed. These are promotion and market, taxes (especially airport tax which is too high at $100), training staff and of course infrastructure. Apart from airport tax, the amount of tax hotel owners pay is high but we have requested the authorities to look into it.
Uganda is positioning itself as a key tourism destination to the world, as a five star hotel and stakeholder in the tourism sector how are you planning to aid this effort?
We try to respond positively to any initiative as suggested by the tourism board. We participate with them in different international trade shows. We have an agenda as Starwood, we try to visit neighboring countries especially Kenya where we get very many clients coming from there. We also look for new markets - we are looking at China.
We have been participating in those big international trade shows with a focus on tourism like ITB Berlin Tourism Expo. We try to be present at different channels where we can create visibility. We believe in online business so we try to be reactive and present on social media. We try to make things lively by responding.
From your experience as a hotel manager what do travelers/tourists look for in a hotel before they make their booking decision?
The world we are living in is a turbulent world especially when it comes to safety and security. So that became extremely important in any type of hotel. Hotels with an international brand are a target so at Sheraton we became much more conscious of that.
We have invested a lot of money in ensuring that there is reinforcement, training, and all sorts of process and procedure to make sure the guests feel secure when they are here.
People are looking and demanding for technology. You might be on holiday but you want to keep in touch with your emails, friends, family or office. Today it is very difficult to detach yourself from a professional life and personal life even when you are in a moment of leisure.
Then of course the comfort - from the type of room, the facilities you find in a hotel room. The guest room is not only a place to sleep but where people can get entertainment. Some people work in their rooms. Some spend a lot of time in the rooms watching movies. All these must be there.
The hotel must provide a good experience in terms of food and beverages. People like to discover different fusion of cuisines. When they come to Uganda, they want Ugandan food, then another day they want to try Italian food, so we must have all these different options.
When we talk about food it must be health. People are conscious about their health, their shape, so you need to have these health menus. Then there is food restrictions, people have allergies for certain products.
Some religions don’t eat certain foods so when making a menu you should be in consideration of all these issues. Like at the moment, we are in Ramadan, we must have an iftar, which is the break of fast, it is much appreciated by our Muslim clients. We have a specific place for prayers so they know we care about them. We are also looking at our clients from China, South Korea. We need to customize some of our services.
Tourists when want to see nice people, beautiful girls or guys well dressed. They want nice music, good selection of wines and beers.
One of the challenges hotels in Uganda face is a lack of experienced workforce. What has been your observation regarding this trend and what is Sheraton doing to build capacity for local hotel employees?
Uganda have very good people here but they need right institutions to prepare them. Kenya kick started their tourism industry so many years ago, it was the first destination in this region for tourism, today you have new markets, new options, Tanzania and Rwanda.
The people here in Uganda are naturally welcoming, they have a beautiful smile, they just need to learn through training and practice. Exposure is very important, so I strongly recommend to young people here, if they have a chance to go out of the country to do so.
They will come back with a different background and perception. If someone has not seen anything other than what he or she is used too then it is difficult to know what an international traveler expects. Everyone has different expectations
The hotel business requires a certain set of standards, what can upcoming hotels do to stay afloat, what can they learn from Sheraton?
They must invest in professionals who can run the business. It is important to have professionals that know what the business is about. Sometimes the problem with independent hotels is that the owner is from real estate background, his perception of a hotel is of a client, he needs a professional to run the business.
Sheraton is known as a high-end hotel occasioned mostly by foreigners, how would you describe the archetypical Sheraton Kampala client?
Our customers are international travelers, people who are doing business or leisure, they are well connected, so they know what they want. They are demanding, demanding of all those services that are now a necessity today. If internet was not working, they would get mad and crazy with us because to them it is like water, they don’t take it for granted. Wherever they go they find it.
And lastly, why should someone visiting Uganda for the first time stay at Sheraton? Warm regards,
We are an international brand. Almost 80 years of existence. Then the security of the site, we are considered to be one of the safest place in town and the service that we provide, our facilities and everything that a customer will find here, says Sheraton is the best property in town.
We have our 50th anniversary in 2017, so we are trying to work on the agenda of celebration. 2017 will be a great year for us. We are moving on with the project of renovating the building, the rooms, invest in infrastructures which are necessary.
We are making sure that we are part of big local events like the Kampala Restaurant Week. We are also trying to be innovative and bring new offers. We are proud being part of this history, being in Kampalanfor so many years. We are honored to be the first international hotel in Uganda.
We should be prepared for competition, they are very many hotels and restaurants coming up but we have a loyal clientele that feels comfortable here because they are well known and recognized. They feel like they are home.
A lot of guests don’t come here for just one night, sometimes they stay for weeks, months, so they have their own preferred rooms, chambermaids, and waiters to take care of their needs. This kind of tailor made service is important.
I have met guests who have come here since 1992, it’s amazing to hear that. Other hotels have opened but they prefer to come here. Some people have their important events here. There are marrying here, they got married here and their children are getting married here.
I met a client who wanted to celebrate their 40th anniversary in the same room they had their honeymoon. People are attached to this hotel because it part of their history. So we must preserve that.