Q&A: New Kid on the African Block

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Marriott became the largest hotel company in Africa just a few months ago, by completing its acquisition of the 116-hotel Protea Hospitality Group. In the process, Marriott doubled its presence in the Middle East and Africa to more than 160 hotels. Vice-President of Global Sales for Middle East & Africa, Vladimir Dabbah, was recently in South Africa, and Business Traveller Africa editor Dylan Rogers took the opportunity to quiz him on the acquisition and its implications.

Q: You’ve had a GSA presence in South Africa for 17 years, but would you say the rest of Africa remains largely unknown to Marriott?
A:
Some markets yes, some markets no. Some of our folks involved in development and signing deals have a lot of great knowledge, including our President and MD for the Middle East and Africa, Alex Kyriakidis.

Q: Is this the background to the recent acquisition of Protea?
A:
Two years ago, Alex started working on a roadmap for us to grow our footprint in the Middle East and Africa by 2020. So, we started identifying the most strategic markets – where was the growth and where did customers need to see us where we had little distribution or none? Predominantly, we’re strong in the Gulf countries, in North Africa, Egypt, Jordan and a couple in the Middle East. But we had very little presence in Africa. So, we learnt by continuously visiting South Africa that Africa is really where we need to be. It is the same story across the world – everyone wants to be in Africa. There’s huge demand and undersupply in the African markets.

Q: There’s a lot of South African interest in what you’ll do with the Protea brands – Protea Hotels, African Pride and Fire & Ice! Your thoughts?
A:
I can tell you that Protea and Marriott have a very strong fit from a cultural perspective. We both believe in having strong brands that can stand on their own two feet. Protea is extremely well represented and respected in Africa, and has a presence in markets that we do not. So it was a perfect fit for us to come together. We don’t see ourselves touching any of the Protea brands. If anything, we’ll bring some of our synergies from what we do to the Protea hotels. And I’m sure we’ll take away a lot of the learnings and experience that the Protea team has, with regards to how to operate in South and sub-Saharan Africa. Further to that, Marriott is not as well known within the sub-Saharan market, which is one of the benefits of the merger.

Q: Do you see synergy between the Protea brands and those under the Marriott umbrella?
A:
There are similarities and differences. Fire & Ice! plays in the lifestyle space, and we have brands that play in that space – Renaissance, Edition, AC Hotels and Moxy (in the future). African Pride is unique in terms of the experience it offers and its locations. I’ve only stayed at two, but I can see they are independent, whilst there is still a consistency in service and staff.

Q: Do Protea and its sub-brands just become brands under the Marriott banner?
A:
Partially, yes. But, for the business traveller, what changes is the ability to offer solutions beyond sub-Saharan Africa. The minute you start travelling into areas such as North Africa, the Middle East, the Gulf and Europe, onto the US and Asia, you have a presence of over 4,000 hotels that Protea travellers have access to. In addition, you have all the Protea hotels that Marriott customers now have access to. That’s what changes, and that’s the value for both brands. 

Q: What about the Marriott African hotel development pipeline?
A:
That is currently made up of 11 African countries, covering 26 properties and six Marriott brands – all in various stages of development.

Q: What, for you, are the current African hotspots?
A:
We have a lot of development underway in North Africa. We have five hotels under development in Algeria and Morocco, and we see opportunity in both of those countries.

Q: Besides service, what do you think the modern business traveller is looking for?
A:
We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the modern business traveller, and it’s clear that everybody is vying for a piece of the ‘Generation Y’ traveller, which is going to be the predominant traveller in the next 10-15 years. We’ve spent a lot of time researching that, and what we’ve realised is that it’s about technology, connectivity, ease of doing business, work and play, style and substance, and public spaces that allow for interaction, connectivity, socialising etc. We’ve modified some of our offerings based on that, including developing the Moxy brand.