Q&A: aha – New broom

Earlier this year, aha Hotels & Lodges, part of the Tourvest group, made several changes to its executive team, chief among which was appointing a new CEO after the departure of Neil Bald. Having been active in his new role for six months, Business Traveller Africa wanted to catch up with the new man at the helm, Graeme Edmond.

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Q: What’s the background to your appointment as CEO, taking over from Neil Bald?

A: I have been with aha since July 2008 and was their first employee. It was then called African Hotels and Adventures. When Relais Africa was bought by Tourvest, Relais Africa fell away and was rebranded African Hotels and Adventures. In August 2018 I moved across to Tourvest Accommodation and Activities as the Head of Sales and Marketing overseeing Wild Horizons, Lemala, Mankwe Game Trackers, Echo Africa, Drifters and aha from a sales and marketing perspective. I have been with the business since inception but always in a sales and marketing role.

Q: Have you opened/taken on any new hotels or lodges in the past six months?

A: We have not opened any new lodges or hotels in the past six months but have a few exciting projects on the go now.

Q: The aha Hotels & Lodges portfolio is significantly smaller than it was, say, five years ago. What’s the reason for this?

A: We had a number of properties that didn’t fit our new strategy and we lost a few contracts due to various reasons, so we have cleaned up the portfolio and now have properties that fit our new strategy and properties where we are able to make a difference for us and the owner. If we cannot make a positive difference for the owner of the property we will not take the property on.

Q: What’s the preferred aha model? Properties that are owned and managed, or just managed?

A: A combination of managed and owned. Our strategy is to have ownership and/or leases in key destinations such as Umhlanga, Cape Town and possibly Johannesburg in the future, and own properties in the leisure space in key destinations. We will look for management contracts in key and secondary locations.

Q: What’s your view on the state of the SA hotel industry?

A: It is under immense pressure at the moment, particularly in the corporate and government segments. Our lodges are doing well, but these are mainly leisure-focused, and the domestic leisure market for us is growing rapidly. The negative news circulating about the crime and recent spate of attacks on tourists is further adding to cancellations and distressed numbers.

Q: Drilling down a bit further, what’s your view on the opportunities in the different market segments – ‘luxury’ versus ‘mid-market’, for example?

A: Our luxury properties, of which we don’t have a lot, are doing very well at the moment and future bookings look good. There has been a massive surge from the domestic market that no longer seem to be travelling overseas. The mid-market is under pressure because, as always, when economies slow for a number of years, the mid-market consumers have less disposable income.

Q: You’re currently in Botswana and Zambia. Would you like to be in more African countries and do you believe there is more opportunity outside South Africa?

A: There is opportunity outside of South Africa, but within our division there are other brands such as Wild Horizons and Lemala that have properties in countries outside of SA, so our focus is to remain in South and Southern Africa unless there is an exceptional deal on the table.

Q: What do you believe are the biggest talking points/topics in the SA MICE industry?

A: As a MICE destination, South Africa is currently relatively well priced and positioned. The weakness of the rand has made our lodges and hotels attractive offerings for multinational companies to bring delegates from all around the world together in one destination.

Q: How are you using technology to improve the guest/delegate experience?

A: The technology we are embracing all has to do with ease of booking our properties. We have created our portfolio to be easily bookable in multiple destinations. We have a very strong revenue management team ensuring that we abide by this and improve this during a constant changing environment.

Q: Where would you like to see aha Hotels & Lodges in 10 years’ time?

A: As one of the leading, proudly Southern African hotel and lodge companies. We don’t want hundreds of properties, but rather excellent properties in key destinations.