Highs and Lows

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The world is a different place since the 2008 global economic downturn, and whilst the impact of that seismic event has softened, the travel industry faces new challenges, with both the 5-star hotel market and the airline industry’s premium travel market on the receiving end of corporate travel policies that have changed irrevocably. Richard Holmes investigates.

For the past few years it’s been easy to get excited about premium business travel in Africa. With the hangover from the 2008 crash fading from view, and African economies showing strong growth off the back of demand for commodities, corporate travel on the continent was booming. Hotel groups were pouring investment into African cities, and global airlines clamoured to open new routes.

Fast-forward to 2015 and the corporate travel industry on the continent, particularly in the premium cabins and luxury hotel space, is cooling off. Demand is down, budgets are tight and value is the name of the game.

Airlines, in particular, have been hard hit by softening demand for corporate travel in Africa, especially when it comes to passengers digging deep into their travel budgets for pricey premium cabins.

“All air travel is a function of GDP growth, so where you see GDPs growing, that’s where you’re going to see air travel growing,” explains Addison Schonland, partner at US-based aviation consultancy firm AirInsight. “There is also an obvious correlation between premium travel and the economy. When you’re looking at premium traffic, you want to look at the economies that justify premium travel: the likes of Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa.”

However, those economies have been showing sluggish growth of late. Nigeria’s economic boom has slowed due to the tumbling oil price, driving up inflation and cutting government revenues. South Africa’s economy is set to grow by a meagre two percent in 2015, while Kenya’s economy is stagnant thanks to security concerns and a fall in its lucrative tourism market.

“On the whole, premium travel in Africa is not doing as well as we would have expected,” says Raphael Kuuchi, Nairobi-based Vice-President for Africa at the International Air Transport Association (IATA). “We had anticipated premium travel would have increased significantly because of the influx of foreign direct investment and international events on the continent, but generally it could do better.”

Obviously, the airlines are directly in the firing line.

“Demand to, from and within Africa has declined for business travel, without a doubt. We see almost a double-digit contraction year-on-year,” reports Tlali Tlali, spokesperson for South African Airways, an airline battling costs and debt in an effort to return to profitability.

For while the falling oil price may have slashed the fuel bill for airlines, the downturn in the resources industry has had particularly severe knock-on effects for premium bookings.

“Over the past year we have seen a shift in corporate travel to and from Africa.  Cost-cutting measures have become more important than before,” notes Andre Schulz, General Manager South Africa for Lufthansa German Airlines. “Corporate travel to and from the oil and energy markets like Nigeria, Angola and Ghana has been affected by the falling oil prices. Drilling operations have been reduced, resulting in less travel by expatriates. Currency fluctuations and economies have also had a negative effect on business.”

“Much of the demand for intra-African premium travel is driven by the corporate sector, and many corporate entities are suffering because of the falling commodity prices,” says Kuuchi.

“In addition, the stronger US dollar has meant that South African companies are cutting back on travel to the United States or are downgrading the class of service for their travellers,” adds Jimmy Eichelgruen, Director of Sales for Africa, Middle East and India at Delta Air Lines.

Delta flies from dozens of North American destinations, with direct flights from its Atlanta and New York hubs to four cities in West and South Africa, and Eichelgruen says the airline’s extensive US network has helped it weather the storm: “This convenience means that although overall demand has softened, we are still seeing demand for premium travel from business customers flying between Africa and the US.”

Bookings for the sharp end of the plane may be facing some turbulence, but it hasn’t stopped global and African airlines pouring enormous energy and investment into ensuring their premium cabins remain competitive. And the reason for that comes down to one simple word: yield.

For while the economy cabin may take up the largest space on the plane, it accounts for the lowest return on investment. Far and away the biggest chunk of profits on any flight come straight from the spacious seats of first and business, and airlines are continuously growing their premium cabins to balance supply and demand.

“Premium traffic is what drives the overall profitability of airlines. No carrier can survive on economy class alone,” says Tlali emphatically. “All airlines are investing in their premium offering in order to retain the preference of corporate travellers who bring airlines the highest yields, but are also the most discerning travellers.”

“If you can sell out your premium seats it almost doesn’t matter what your load factor is in the back of the plane,” adds Schonland. “Business class is how a flight makes money. Of course every dollar counts, but you don’t focus your product there. You focus it where you’re going to get the best return.”

As margins get tighter and competition tougher, premium cabins are becoming the new battleground for carriers, agrees Kuuchi. “The better the product the more you can charge. Economy is always going to be an economy product, but with business class you can charge a much higher premium.”

A similar principle applies in the first class cabin, and although budget-conscious corporate travellers increasingly shy away from the perceived excess of flying first class, airlines continue to develop previously unthinkable levels of sky-high luxury.

But there’s a second, less tangible reason airlines put so much effort into their ultra-premium cabins: reputation.

While only a handful of travellers get to experience the rarefied air of first class, the hype around these trend-setting luxuries create a ‘halo effect’, says Schonland: “Take an airline like Etihad with ‘The Residence’… when you know a particular airplane has this amazing product on board, you know there’s going to be a knock-on effect for the product and service on the rest of the plane.”

The Residence from Etihad Airways is certainly an excellent example. Installed onboard the Abu Dhabi-based carrier’s A380 fleet, these private apartments come complete with butler, bedroom and private bathroom. Dubai-based Emirates has also used the A380 to great effect, with mini-suites in first offering passengers the world’s first onboard showers.

British Airways is also revamping its top-tier cabin, with a new-look first product set to debut when the airline welcomes its first Boeing 787-9 this month. The new, longer version of the next-gen Dreamliner debuts on 25 October on flights from London to Delhi, with US and Asian routes to follow.

It’s a complete makeover of the cabin that revolutionised long-haul luxury travel in 1996 by introducing fully-flat beds and semi-private suites. The new suites are wider and the 6.6-foot bed more comfortable. Mood lighting changes throughout the flight to reflect the time of day, and customers have their own double windows with an electronic blind. There’s also a personal wardrobe, complete with shoe compartment. As well as the main table, a side table has been introduced to the arm of the suite for people who want to continue working while they eat. The main table can also be folded in half to become a writing desk, complete with leather trim. The in-flight entertainment screen has more than doubled in size to 15 inches, with each suite also offering a USB charging point and RCA jack, so customers can view content from their personal MP3 players on the main screen. The attention to detail extends to the amenity bags, with the iconic Gladstone-style Anya Hindmarch washbags filled with luxurious products from skincare specialists REN. The trademark first pyjamas remain a staple offering and a turndown service provides an Egyptian-cotton mattress, duvet and pillow.

“Key to the premium experience is the understanding that people have different needs and responding to these,” says Edward Frost, British Airways’ Commercial Manager in South and East Africa. “You can adapt your suite to sleep, work, relax or have dinner with a colleague. Similarly you can eat when you want and you have a choice of a formal meal service or an informal al la carte snack. There is also a bistro selection if you fancy something a bit lighter.”

First is a key differentiator for BA on its South African routes, as it is the only carrier to offer a direct first class service from Johannesburg to London. The new first cabin will be onboard the Cape Town services from this month.

Similarly, Virgin Atlantic has used the arrival of new aircraft to rethink its premium product.

“We have refreshed our popular Upper Class suites on the new 787-900 Dreamliners,” which will serve the Johannesburg-London route from 26 October, explains Darrin Thomas, Marketing Manager South Africa for Virgin Atlantic Airways.

Along with a stylish new look and increased privacy, “the onboard bar has been redesigned to make it even more of a social space, where you can dine with colleagues or experience new services like wine tasting,” says Thomas.

While the halo of the premium cabins casts a welcome glow across the carrier as a whole, the airline industry is divided as to the future of first. Airlines such as Qantas are reducing the number of first class seats in the fleet, while many airlines stick to a two or three-class configuration.

It was interesting to see Qatar Airways introduce its Airbus A350 XWB-900 aircraft in January, starting with its Doha-Frankfurt route. The A350 XWB is a faster, more efficient aircraft as a result of its tapered wing, yet despite these improvements there is no first class cabin on Qatar’s new A350s. Only the airline’s A380s will have a first class cabin going forward. CEO Akbar Al Baker suggested that a brand new business class product will be installed in 2016. According to Al Baker, the Super Business Class will be obsolete from 2016.

“The airline is developing a new seat for which it will have proprietary rights, and this will be a product that will be unrivalled in our industry,” he said. “And when you introduce that product into the aeroplane, I really don’t think you need a first class cabin.”

“It might have a place going forward, but right now I don’t see a clamour for first class,” says Kuuchi. “Corporates flying in the premium cabins are conscious of their costs, and though they might want the product, they won’t be prepared to pay for it.”

While the yields in first are certainly attractive, “what no airline will tell you is exactly how many travellers pay cash for a seat in first, compared to those who use miles to upgrade from business,” suggests Schonland. “There are always going to be people with the money for first, but it’s a niche. Also, today’s business class is what first class used to be like.”

Corrin Higgs, Cabin Interiors Marketing Manager for European plane-maker Airbus, agrees: “Whereas some years ago a business traveller wishing to guarantee good sleep during a flight would have needed to travel in first class, today he can get that with most business class seats. This partly explains the fall in the number of airlines offering a first class product.”

First and business class may be galloping away into the luxurious sunset, but economy class has, largely, been left coughing in the dust. Forget the slightly larger TV screens and the occasional in-flight ice cream, and the economy experience remains little changed.

This ‘comfort canyon’, as the industry calls it, is also a yield canyon for airlines. A cabin class in-between economy and business would allow airlines to offer a little more comfort while increasing the profit from each seat.

Say hello, then, to premium economy: currently 27 carriers worldwide offer this ‘goldilocks cabin’ between economy and business, a figure that’s set to grow.

“Premium economy is becoming the new business class,” says Schonland, who says for corporate travellers perks such as in-seat power and priority boarding are just as important as the extra space on offer.

As part of a €1.5-billion ($2.3b) investment in new product, Lufthansa last year joined the ranks of airlines offering a long-haul premium economy.

“Booking levels to date have significantly exceeded our expectations,” adds Schulz, who says the cabin is particularly appealing to “the cost-conscious business traveller”.

British Airways launched its premium economy product – World Traveller Plus – more than a decade ago. While the improved comfort and service are appealing, a major driver of bookings is the additional space, allowing business travellers –particularly entrepreneurs and medium-sized enterprises ­– to make productive use of their time in the air.

“These are customers whose travel budget doesn’t allow them to travel in Club World, but who want to make the most of their business trip, arriving reasonably rested, being able to tweak a presentation or jot down some notes. For them, World Traveller Plus proves a perfect fit,” says Frost.

Delta, along with SkyTeam partner KLM, have taken a different approach to premium economy. By simply adding a few bells and whistles to the first few rows of economy they have created a ‘cabin within a cabin’, with Delta’s Comfort+ product offering additional legroom, better recline and perks such as priority boarding.

“There is a very high demand for Comfort+ on our Johannesburg-Atlanta route,” says Eichelgruen, adding that strong demand has also seen the airline install an additional 19 Comfort+ seats on its Dakar-New York services.

Global airlines certainly see a bright future for premium economy, but within Africa the cabin is only offered by a handful of foreign long-haul carriers.

Most airlines competing in the African market feature a two or three-class configuration and the concept of premium economy is yet to catch on, says Kuuchi: “In Africa we have two categories of traveller: there is the traveller who will always travel economy regardless of the quality of product, and then you have travellers who will fly business, irrespective of the offering or price.”

“At South African Airways, we aren’t convinced that premium economy is the new cabin to offer,” adds Tlali, noting that neither Emirates nor Etihad Airways, their codeshare partners in the Middle East, are introducing the ‘goldilocks cabin’.

New services tempt travellers

If the jury’s still out on premium economy in Africa, there’s no doubt that business class is here to stay. And despite, or perhaps because of, the softening demand, global carriers serving African destinations are proactively improving their premium offering to corporate-focused destinations across the continent.

In September Air France launched their new long-haul cabins – including a revamped business and premium economy offering – on their Boeing 777-200 services to Bangui in the Central African Republic, the fourth destination in Africa after Douala, Malabo and Yaoundé.

Sister-airline KLM has also begun offering its all-new World Business Class product on selected African flights, and the impressive new lie-flat cabin should be retrofitted across the airline’s fleet of Boeing 777-200 aircraft by the end of 2015.

US airlines have, on the whole, lagged behind European and Asian carriers in pushing the business class boundaries. However, in March this year Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines rebranded its premium product to Delta One, which now sets the bar for business class travel in the United States. Business travellers can enjoy Westin Heavenly In-flight Bedding on fully-flat beds, alongside meals and wines curated by acclaimed chefs and sommeliers.

There is certainly no shortage of trend-setting premium product available on selected routes into Africa, but between under-serviced intra-African destinations the quality of product and service on board can be dismal. For African corporate travellers, premium class innovation is a double-edged sword.

“On flights within Africa where there is no other competing product there’s no incentive for airlines to invest and products do not get improved,” says Kuuchi. “However, airlines operating on inter-continental routes are competing with global carriers that are often offering a superior product, so if they want a slice of that business they are forced to improve their cabins.”

An excellent example of this is Ethiopian Airlines, which recently spent $4-million installing fully-flat seats on its long-haul fleet of Boeing 777 aircraft. With the airline’s focus on carrying traffic – particularly from China – through its Addis Ababa hub to African destinations, a competitive premium product is essential.

Plenty of room at the inn

Airlines aren’t the only ones feeling the squeeze of sluggish economic growth and corporate travellers keeping a close eye on their travel budgets.

While the hotel industry is certainly buoyant, the upper-end of the market is seeing some resistance from travellers unwilling to pay top-dollar for luxury properties in Africa’s most popular business destinations.

Filling the rooms isn’t the problem though. The same goes for airlines, which wouldn’t struggle to book up a 747 with willing travellers. The trick comes in filling those rooms and seats at the right price.

“While occupancies across markets and across our brands have shown a positive trend, rates have been under pressure in some markets, especially those that have seen an increase in supply,” says Hassan Ahdab, Vice-President, Regional Director Africa & Indian Ocean Operations for Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which operates 35 hotels in 14 countries across Africa.

Aside from supply concerns, sluggish economies have also eaten into demand.

“There’s clearly pressure on prices, particularly from the oil companies who are feeling the pinch,” says Trevor Ward, Managing Director of industry consultancy firm W Hospitality Group. “In Nigeria, the biggest impact on prices at the upper end of the market is the devaluation of the naira… whilst prices in the local currency are holding up, with small increases, the dollar equivalent is down 15-20% on 2014.”

“Corporate travel is under pressure where pricing is concerned,” adds Danny Bryer, Director of Sales, Marketing and Revenue Management for Protea Hotels – a brand within the Marriott International group – who says total spend trumps the star rating when it comes to booking within agreed travel policies.

“Rate caps are far more evident than ever before, regardless of whether hotels are three, four or 5-star,” says Caroline Daniel, Regional Director of Africa for Preferred Hotels & Resorts, who adds that the volatility of the rand “has had a significant impact on corporate travellers becoming far more rate-conscious than ever before when travelling into Africa.”

“Irrespective of grading, corporate travellers will put price points as to what they are prepared to pay for a room,” explains Bryer. “What that means for hoteliers is that if you’re in the 5-star luxury market, you need to decide whether you want to play in that market.”

For corporate travellers it means an improved ability to control price, to stipulate what you’re prepared to pay for a room and let corporate-hungry properties come looking for your business.

“Business travellers are really governed by their travel policies, either according to a rate value or a star rating,” says Erica Barrett, Chief Executive Officer of tour operator Dreams. “If we are able to offer the same, or similar, price points with value-added inclusions, then we find that luxury categories become irrelevant.”

In the South African context, government and parastatal business is a key source of bookings for many hotel groups, but price caps on reservations for the past two years have put enormous pressure on hotels’ ability to raise their room rates.

“Corporate travel has not had an impact in terms of lack of occupancy, but rather the lack of growth in room rate,” says Bryer, who says hospitality groups are forced to become more flexible in setting their rates. “There’s definitely a price realignment when you want to go and fetch your corporate business. However, we also take into context the lifelong value of customer and how large corporate accounts can add value over time.”

Stagnant room rates aren’t the only concern for major hotel groups operating in Africa. While corporate travellers continue to show price sensitivity, a further trend impacting the bottom line of hotel operators is a gradual shrinking in the average duration of business travel.

“There has definitely been a deterioration in the average length of stay,” says Bryer. “Previously the average business traveller would stay in a city for 2.2 days. That is now down to 1.8 days.”

For properties in the Preferred Hotels & Resorts portfolio, “the average length of stay used to be four to five nights, whilst currently it is averaging at 3.5 room nights per stay,” adds Daniel. “The other trends that we can see for short stays are that two regional trips are being rolled into one. For example, a corporate traveller will go to Dar es Salaam via Johannesburg, then on to Nairobi for business and then return to Johannesburg, which maximises the use of time during their visit and reduces the cost of air travel.”

From that perspective, “stays are actually getting slightly longer, as the business traveller who would have done two to three trips a year will now stay longer and do one trip,” adds Barrett.

Despite rate sensitivity, corporate travel remains a strong driver of bookings for the luxury properties operated by Sun International, says Jennifer Beattie, Sales Manager: Africa for the group: “The regular corporate traveller is governed by company travel policies and procurement departments, who lay strict guidelines in terms of costs savings,” adding that top executives are still booking high-end suite accommodation.

“The trend currently is that top-tier executives are booked into superior room types, as opposed to entry-level rooms that middle and executive management make use of,” notes Daniel. “There is also more of a demand for added value services such as complimentary airport shuttles, before the star rating of a hotel is taken into account.”

In West Africa, “demand for suites in hotels remains high,” adds Ward, who says many so-called ‘hardship’ destinations justify a reservation in “the more expensive, typically branded hotels. They are seen as havens and worth paying the extra for personal security, comfort and food safety.”

To retain business and encourage corporate travellers to consider a higher room rate, hotels have to work harder than ever at offering value beyond the clean sheets and buffet breakfast.

Show me the value

“It is a bit of a buyer’s market, but I believe it is more a value-driven market. If the customer sees the value, the hotel will secure the booking,” says Barrett. “Hotels are having to reinvent themselves irrespective of how many competitors have entered the market.”

A welcome innovation at The Maslow Hotel, Sun International’s corporate-focused property in Johannesburg, is the Wayfarer Lounge that can accommodate guests requiring an early check-in or late check-out. The lounge boasts shower facilities, unlimited wi-fi, refreshments and a complimentary shuttle service.

“We also offer a packed ‘power lunch’ that can be pre-ordered and collected at our concierge in the morning, before the corporate guest departs the hotel for meetings,” says Beattie.

“Corporate travellers are changing in dynamic, as generation X and Y start to travel across borders,” adds Bryer, flagging the group’s popular Protea Hotel Fire & Ice! brand as the perfect foil for this new generation of traveller. “The most important issues these days are connectivity and the social space. What’s changing is that guests are now spending time in the hotel’s social space, not their bedrooms.”

In essence, hotels need to be evolving to serve a new breed of corporate traveller. A traveller that is “multi-national and cross-generational, mobile and jet-setting… demanding more personalised service at every turn,” says Ahdab. “Their approach to luxury is decidedly less formal, entirely more personal, and defined more by their interests and mindset than their geography and demographic.” 

As the market becomes increasingly fragmented and competitive, so hotels are forced to become more innovative in offering unique value propositions to attract and retain business. 

“What we try and do is reduce costs for corporate travellers. We offer complimentary shuttle services, complimentary wi-fi and so on,” explains Bryer.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts is using technology to combine both timesaving and innovation. Selected properties in the group offer SPG keyless, allowing guests to bypass the front desk and utilise their smartphone as their room keycard.

Four Seasons is another group using technology to make its offering more attractive, and June saw the group launch an app it hopes will help it keep pace with the changing demands of its clientele.

“Its capabilities are unique in our industry and truly revolutionise personal travel,” says David Barillot, Director of Sales and Marketing at Four Seasons Hotel Westcliff in Johannesburg. “Behind the app there are Four Seasons people who ensure the expected high touch service we are known for.”

Those capabilities include enabling guests to check in, check out, order room service, request a car from the valet or turndown service from housekeeping, request toiletries, make dinner reservations and book tickets to a show, whilst a ‘Four Seasons Recommends’ portion lists cultural events, shopping streets, and neighbourhoods to visit, curated by the hotel’s concierge and front office staffers.

Four Seasons is not first to market with a hotel app, but it believes it has raised the bar.

“I think we’re going out with the best app right now,” Marco Trecroce, Chief Information Officer and Head of IT, said during a round-table preview at corporate headquarters in Toronto in May.

The ap is impressive in design, with high-gloss images of its 94 properties across 39 countries, and unlike some hotel chains, it’s available to all users, not just those in the loyalty programme.

“Our service concepts evolve continually to always remain relevant to today’s travellers,” says Barillot. 

The Maslow Hotel also takes care of the finer details – pre-loaded cards for the Gautrain high-speed rail system can be bought at the hotel, to save guests the time and hassle of standing in station queues.

While hotel operators innovate to balance price-sensitive demand with ever-more-demanding clientele, there’s certainly no shortage of investment into Africa’s hospitality industry.

That investment is across the star range, but it is perhaps encouraging that those groups that sit only in the 5-star luxury space – such as the likes of Kempinski and Four Seasons – still view the African continent as a viable investment destination.

“The group’s core business is luxury hotel management,” says Mike Haemmerli, Senior Vice-President Development for Kempinski Hotels. “Kempinski is interested in expanding in Africa to fulfil a continued need for high quality and high-end hotel services in the market, as a result of the continuous local economic growth and business development.”

Kempinski will open new properties in Cairo (Egypt) and Accra (Ghana) this year, and Haemmerli believes the continent is ripe for luxury travel growth.

“Africa is growing rapidly in terms of population, although it has not yet reached its potential in terms of luxury travel – in terms of either demand or supply,” he says. “The marketing of most African countries and destinations is not uniform or sophisticated, and could certainly improve the attractiveness and awareness of destinations for leisure and business.”

Four Seasons takes a similar view.

“Brands like Four Seasons Hotels, which are exclusively focused on the needs of affluent global consumers are mostly not present in sub-Saharan Africa,” says Barillot. “In this tier of the market we are trailblazing in a way…..and since history repeats itself…. we are probably not the last. In the sub-Saharan region there are a good dozen city and resort locations that could successfully host Four Seasons properties, which we could operate on their behalf.”  

“Nigeria remains the hotel hotspot on the continent”

The lucrative oil and gas industries of West Africa may be in the doldrums thanks to falling commodity prices, but Nigeria remains the hotel hotspot on the continent.

“There has been a lot of investment in Nigeria and there’s more planned,” says Pietro Calicchio, Hospitality Industry Leader at consulting firm PwC Southern Africa, whose Hospitality Outlook 2015-2019 predicts the West African powerhouse will be the fastest-growing hotel market over the next five years. “A lot of the travel is still business-oriented, and those business travellers aren’t looking for budget accommodation. Much of the investment that’s going in is mid-market and luxury brands.”

According to W Hospitality Group’s annual ‘African Hotel Development Pipeline’ report of branded hotel development in Africa, Lagos is certainly the epicentre of new hotel development, with over 3,600 new hotel rooms in the planning or construction stages. Cairo, Abuja and Marrakech are also seeing considerable demand for new hotel offerings.

However, beyond these cities the vast majority of new capacity isn’t in North Africa at all. Of the almost 50,000 rooms planned, 31,000 of those are in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Whilst it is fantastic to see so much investor enthusiasm, one must bear in mind the practical challenges of developing hotels in Africa,” notes Ward. “For example, of the 11 hotel deals signed in Abuja, only two, the Fraser Suites and the Hilton Garden Inn, are actively under construction. Patience and a long-term view are needed.”

A long-term view is what hoteliers in East Africa are taking. Tourist arrivals may be down in the region, but operators with patience and ambition are certainly gearing up for growth. Dusit International opened the 5-star dusitD2 Nairobi in March this year, its first hotel in sub-Saharan Africa. Serena Hotels is also betting heavily on the region bouncing back, with the group investing $20-million to breathe new life into its properties in Kampala, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

In southern Africa the most interesting new development is the substantial investment in the region by the Minor Hotel Group and Minor International (MINT). Sun International has sold a substantial portion of its hotel holdings to the Bangkok-based hospitality group, which has over 16,000 rooms across Asia-Pacific, South America, Europe and Africa.

“Sun International continues to manage the casino operations situated at each of these African assets and MINT has assumed day-to-day management responsibility for the hotel operations,” explains Beattie.

“Minor Hotel Group is strategically expanding its hospitality business into many regions and Africa is a key focus where we have seen substantial growth potential,” adds Dillip Rajakarier, Chief Executive Officer of Minor Hotel Group.

Of the various brands in the Minor Hotel Group stable, it’s the 4-star AVANI marque that is of most interest to business travellers. Five southern African hotels from Gaborone to Maseru to Windhoek that were previously under the Sun International umbrella have now been rebranded, with AVANI promoting its bespoke services such as ‘Sleep Satisfaction’ and ‘Honest Food’ in a bid to woo price-conscious corporate travellers.

With thousands of rooms in the development pipeline, and new properties popping up across Africa, there is some concern in the industry about supply exceeding demand.

That fear is unfounded, says Ahdab: “Africa is still an under-hoteled market with under-capacity in many cities. We believe that as cities evolve and grow and the middle class continues to rise, demand for quality lodging will only grow.”

Luxury on the ground

On the ground, airlines are also looking to set themselves apart, and improve the premium travel experience for its corporate travellers.

British Airways unveiled a sleek new international departures lounge at Cape Town International Airport last year, while Kenya Airways unveiled two new lounge facilities – Pride and Simba – at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi.

Etihad Airways officially re-opened its newly-refurbished first and business class lounge at Abu Dhabi Airport’s Terminal 1. Open 24 hours a day, the upgraded facility includes comfortable armchairs, a dedicated dining area, state-of-the-art business amenities, complimentary wi-fi, USB power outlets, and bathrooms with shower facilities. The Six Senses Spa at the lounge has been completely refurbished and lounge guests can enjoy a refreshing complimentary 15-minute spa session, with a range of other treatments available by appointment. The Terminal 1 Premium Lounge is open to Etihad Airways first and business class guests, qualifying Platinum Etihad Guest members, and the equivalent tier loyalty programme members of Etihad Airways Partner airlines flying from Abu Dhabi.

South African Airways has also begun rolling out its new VIA lounge concept. Styled along similar lines to its sleek new A320 fleet, the first new VIA lounge was scheduled – at the time of going to press – to open in the domestic departures terminal of Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport on 29 September, with a second scheduled to open at Wonderboom Airport in Tshwane before the end of the year.

 No more ‘chicken or beef’

In-flight dining is becoming an increasingly important point of difference for airlines, with Michelin-starred chefs and celebrity sommeliers employed to add a touch of glamour to dining at 35,000 feet.

“We have always had a focus on offering exquisite onboard cuisine,” says Danica Helfrich, Head of SWISS South Africa. The airline’s award-winning ‘Taste of Switzerland’ in-flight culinary programme offers authentic Swiss cuisine, with bespoke menus created by celebrity chefs from the country’s most acclaimed restaurants.

Similarly, British Airways offers classic British dishes in its first and Club World cabins, while Delta adds a typically American flavour to on-board dining: close on three million of its signature ice cream sundaes are served on board each year.

Virgin Atlantic Airways engaged celebrity chef Lorraine Pascal to design a range of healthy onboard meals, and recently tweaked its premium product by introducing the ‘Wander Wall’, “where premium passengers can take a stroll to grab a snack or drink, and mingle with cabin crew,” says Darrin Thomas, Marketing Manager South Africa for Virgin Atlantic Airways.

As part of the revamp of its World Business Class, Amsterdam-based KLM has reimagined its in-flight service up at the sharp end. Striking crockery created for the airline by Dutch designer Marcel Wanders sets the scene for three-course dinners of classical European cuisine. Another welcome innovation is the ‘QuickBite’ menu option, which provides a lighter meal served immediately after take-off.