Still Thriving

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Still Thriving

Has the global economic crisis of a couple of years ago had an effect on premium travel on the African continent? No, says Richard Holmes, following a closer look at both the 5-star hospitality sector and the First and Business Class cabins landing in and taking off from Africa’s most prominent business travel destinations.

Napoleon may have believed that an army marches on its stomach, but for the thousands of corporate travellers crisscrossing the continent each day, a good night’s rest in comfortable surrounds is just as important.

HOTEL INDUSTRY

While corporate travellers are no doubt protective of their valuable travel budgets, that certainly hasn’t translated into penny-pinching when it comes to selecting a good hotel for the night. Security, location and facilities are key considerations for most travellers, with intangible benefits such as reputation and networking opportunities often sealing the deal. And if there’s a good meal on offer, then so much the better. Throw in the general lack of stock, in terms of quality hotel accommodation on offer, and you can see why it’s still a good time to be a 5-star hotel on the continent.

“South Africa is an exception, but in many large African cities there are only two or three internationally-branded hotels,” says Olivier Harnisch, Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer of the Rezidor Hotel Group. “Sometimes there isn’t even one.”

All of the reasons listed above have played a part in the healthy demand for high-level hotel accommodation on the African continent, as business travellers ensure that getting a good night’s sleep before a big meeting is the least of their worries.

“Positive global economic trends are driving increased demand for high-end travel, which continues to fuel the steady recovery of the hospitality industry,” notes Hassan Ahdab, Vice-President & Regional Director of Operations: Africa & Indian Ocean at Starwood Hotels & Resorts.

And while business is booming, so is the competition. With African economies offering enviable growth rates, international hotel brands are investing heavily on the continent, with new build properties or management agreements. So how do corporate travellers navigate this cluttered market?

Booking with ‘a recognisable brand’ is a key consideration for many business travellers to Africa, particularly first-time visitors, suggests Richard Weilers, Chief Operating Officer of Tsogo Sun, one of the largest hospitality groups on the continent.

Fellow South African group Sun International, whilst a lot smaller, is hoping for a similar approach from their loyal customers, as well as those who might only know the Sun International name. The group is also looking to promote and cash in on some of its premier properties, with early 2014 seeing the launch of the Sunlux Collection, which covers the group’s 5-star Table Bay, Lost City and Royal Livingstone properties, along with the 4-star Maslow as the overnight stay in Johannesburg. It’s clear that Sun International sees value in promoting this ‘premier’ collection over its other 20 or so properties.

Carlson Rezidor is another group to have identified more opportunity in the 5-star segment. Earlier this year, along with the launch of its new ‘Radisson Red’ brand, it also announced the unveiling of its ‘Quorvus Collection’.

“Quorvus is a collection of luxury hotels, individual hotels, where the individuality of the hotel is at the forefront,” says Harnisch. “It’s more a collection than a brand. In a country like South Africa there are really three markets where a Quorvus would fit: Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. I don’t see a Quorvus in secondary locations.”

It used to be that a comfortable bed, a good shower and a generous breakfast were all you needed to entice business travellers to your hotel. That ‘hotel trinity’ certainly still applies, but in today’s competitive hospitality environment there are a number of other touch points that are key to keeping upmarket hotels fully booked.

The assurance of security, a convenient location and fast, reliable Internet access are often cited as the three most important considerations for modern business travellers booking in the luxury segment, with food and service also playing a key role in the decision around whether to book or look elsewhere.

As it currently stands, it’s predominantly Africa’s 5-star hotel properties – more so in less-developed countries – that are able to offer this type of service, and ergo they remain the destination of choice for corporate travellers.

For unlike leisure travel, where travellers are often more flexible when it comes to where they plan to visit and how they’ll spend their time, “business travel is generally for a specific purpose,” adds Ahdab. “The choice of lodging is therefore based on a number of factors including facilities, geographic location, and convenience and comfort. Facilities like event or conference halls, meeting rooms, state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment and location are also important considerations for business travellers.”

Travellers also seek flexibility though, and while formal meeting and convention spaces are increasingly important, “we have noticed the trend for corporate guests requesting meeting facilities in hotel lounge areas, and not just in private rooms or spaces, so that they are able to conduct a full day’s schedule on the property,” adds Caroline Daniel, Preferred Hotel Group’s Account Director for Africa. “In addition to convenience, this cuts out travelling time and reduces costs.”

These days, time is money and any opportunity to save on travelling time is eagerly snapped up. Perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than in airport hotels, which trade on location and convenience.

The Holiday Inn Accra Airport is able to command an average room rate of $210 a night, while the InterContinental adjoining Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport – the busiest hub in Africa – has seen its core business of transit passengers evolve into a wide range of business travellers using the hotel as a base for both local and regional appointments.

“The interest in the rest of Africa has allowed many visitors to use our property as a base from which they travel out from,” explains Sales Manager Robyn Klemp. “The ease of getting around using the Gautrain makes it very easy to conduct business in the main business hubs of Sandton, Pretoria, Rosebank and Johannesburg.”

That also applies to business further afield – to facilitate fly-in conferences connecting with far-flung offices, the InterContinental O.R. Tambo International has upgraded one of its executive boardrooms with dual-screen video facilities, and offers a premium 20-megabit Internet connection for seamless video conferencing.

As with so many industries, it often comes down to location, location, location – not least when multinational hospitality companies are evaluating sites for luxury hotel developments.

“The macro requirement for the corporate traveller is safety and the convenience of the location to the business district of the city,” adds Weilers from Tsogo Sun. “Good Wi-Fi is also essential. Another important component to the corporate market is meeting facilities, which play an important part in attracting the meetings sector within corporate travel.”

Tsogo Sun recently put its money where its mouth is on that score, reopening the Southern Sun Maputo after a $30-million revamp that refurbished all 158 rooms and added an additional 111 rooms and suites to make it the largest hotel in Maputo. The hotel expansion also included the addition of a new 120-seat conference centre, two new meeting rooms and a brand new business centre.

With economic growth expected to top eight percent into 2015, “it makes sense to embrace the opportunities and invest in Mozambique, with its growing economy and its attractiveness to South Africans as well as international travellers,” says Weilers.

Lonrho Hotels Chief Executive Brendan Gillespie would agree.

“The number of flights coming into Maputo has increased, so there’s been much demand for doing business in the capital,” he says, with reference to the group’s Hotel Cardoso property. Lonrho also operates a property in Gaborone – the Lansmore Masa Square – which has seen a surge in demand since De Beers moved their global headquarters to the Botswana capital. As a result, “there’s a lot of banking activity coming into Gaborone,” says Gillespie.

There’s no doubt that in the upper end of the market, the bricks-and-mortar facilities are a key factor in corporate travellers’ purchasing decisions, but just as important is the service from the staff on hand. As hotels increasingly offer a similar suite of facilities, from flat-screen TVs to Wi-Fi to fine dining entertainment venues, service is proving to be a key selling point in the competitive luxury segment.

“Facilities are certainly important in a guest choosing a hotel, but perhaps location is more important… high rates are relative to the offering, and service is always the key differentiator between one hotel and another,” notes Paddy Brearley, Managing Director of Legacy Hotels and Resorts, whose Michelangelo Towers and the Michelangelo Hotel are two of the most sought-after 5-star properties in Sandton, Johannesburg.

In essence, corporate guests are looking for a seamless experience, from arrival to check-in to utilizing the world-class facilities of their room and the wider hotel.

And in Africa, where service levels can vary widely between cities and properties, it’s precisely the reliability – the predictability, if you prefer – of booking with a trusted brand that has seen international chain hotels become the first stop for many inbound business travellers. And with these international chains usually leading with 5-star properties, as opposed to mid-scale offerings, no surprise then that these hotels currently remain more popular.

“Our hotel in Accra offers identical facilities in terms of service, physical product and location to that of any 5-star hotel worldwide,” says Stephen Banks, Director of Sales & Marketing – Africa for Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts. “We have many resort hotels in North Africa – within Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco – that offer a resort-style product that differs from the corporate and business hotel that we have in Ghana, however the facilities in terms of restaurants, beach, accommodation and service are similar to our competitive set.”

Where’s the value?

No traveller, tired after a long flight across the continent, is going to complain about booking into a luxurious hotel with top-notch facilities and bespoke service. But is there value to be had?

Looked at another way, those innovations such as uncapped Internet access and flexible meeting spaces in public areas are key to ensuring the job gets done, that reports get emailed on time, and clients walk away impressed. For most business travellers, the luxury element of a 5-star property is merely a happy side effect of a hotel that satisfies the other business imperatives: location, security, connectivity and services.

“Business travellers do prioritise facilities over luxury,” adds Neelma Maru, Sales & Marketing Manager for Sankara Nairobi, a business-focused property in Westlands, the city’s commercial, retail and entertainment quarter. “Sankara balances these two really well by always ensuring that our product facilities are first class, and at the same time the guests do enjoy luxury while staying with us. The extra spend is worthwhile since a high-end property has top-notch security, a variety of food options, service at its best, high-speed Internet and location.”

Sankara is planning a revamped food and beverage offering to open in 2016, while Legacy Hotels and Resorts has similarly chosen to focus on improving existing properties this year, rather than expanding. The Labadi Beach Hotel in Ghana has seen the addition of a 500-seat conference centre, while a new gym, spa and outdoor lap pool has enhanced the leisure offering. The group is also planning a revamp of the Michelangelo Hotel’s popular Il Ritrovo lounge, to be completed in 2015.

And don’t necessarily think that a 5-star property is out of your reach or excessive in these austere post-recessionary days. Rates and value go hand in hand, so it certainly pays to weigh up all the pros and cons of a property before putting down your credit card.

“Many of our luxury properties offer rate caps, which is advantageous for corporate travel buyers researching accommodation where there are 4-star properties charging rates higher than 5-star properties in the same location. Secondly, many of our luxury hotels are well positioned in terms of location, significantly reducing transport costs and travel time,” notes Daniel. “These are important factors to consider when choosing between high and mid-level properties, and so many of our high-end properties continue to outperform mid-level alternatives.”

It’s also worth considering how your choice of destination will affect your nightly rate. Although many hotel operators are no doubt capitalizing on the skewed ratio of demand to supply in cities like Luanda, where rates are amongst the highest in the world, often that eye-watering room rate is in fact offering fair value.

“In several West and East African countries, it is often more complicated and expensive to provide what many corporate travellers deem to be basic facilities,” comments Daniel, citing free Wi-Fi, consistent hot water, fresh produce and a steady electricity supply as simple services that often result in enormous cost in cities where infrastructure is lacking.

Consider too the value proposition when all contributing factors are taken into account. Airport hotels are often expensive, but can offer hefty savings on car hire or transfer costs, as well as lost productivity for time wasted in traffic congestion. Likewise for longer stays, a more expensive but centrally-located business hotel allows you to maximize time in a city with meetings from early in the day, not only once the rush hour has eased.

Again, it’s about balancing business imperatives with traveller comfort, and many international chains are expertly walking the tightrope.

“We believe Mövenpick offers a balance between luxury and efficiency,” says Banks. “With our business hotels, the room offering and business facilities are a priority, however not at the expense of comfort and value for money.”

One of the business services in the spotlight is an upgrade to Internet services in many Mövenpick hotels, as well as a new ‘Go Healthy’ meal option “to cater for this ever growing demand, primarily from international corporate travellers”.

One of the Swiss chain’s more popular properties in recent months has been the Mövenpick Ambassador Hotel Accra, currently the only 5-star hotel in ‘downtown’ Accra.

“The hotel hosts many overseas meetings and national dignitaries. There is room for further hotels of this calibre as the occupancies in the hotel are increasing every year, especially in the peak business months,” adds Banks.

Last, but perhaps not least, are the intangible benefits of staying in a luxury property. Brands like Sheraton, Legacy, Mövenpick, Kempinski, Michelangelo and Hilton carry with them a certain cachet – they imply something about the person staying there. Having the ‘right’ address can be as powerful as the old school tie when cementing business relationships outside of the boardroom.

“Top executives still want to rub shoulders with their counterparts, so a little traditionalism and being ‘up there’ with the best does exist,” adds Brearley. “Value is perceived in not only the physical and service offering, but also in being seen in the right place and rubbing shoulders with the right type of person. Yes it’s a bit of snobbery, but some clients want that and the value chain is not always about price, but about whom you meet or could meet in the lounge over cocktails!”

The brand association extends beyond any notion of an old-school boy’s club. Sandton’s DAVINCI Hotel may be one notch down when it comes to rates, but it appeals to a younger, more connected traveller – perhaps a small business owner on their way up the ladder, who equally wants the opportunity to network in the safe, luxurious confines of their hotel

Where next for five stars?

Yet while there’s no shortage of 5-star and high-end hotels on the continent, the market is by no means saturated. As economies across Africa continue to show some of the healthiest growth rates in the world, there are a number of opportunities for expansion.

“There is large potential in sub-Saharan Africa for mid-scale and luxury properties,” says Banks. “There is room for growth in West and East Africa, particularly Nigeria, Cote D’Ivoire, Central African Republic, Kenya, and Tanzania.”

Kempinski – Europe’s oldest luxury hotel group – has a new focus on Africa, and it includes four hotels due to open in the next 12 months, with a new offering in Ghana, and the brand’s third property in Egypt.

“As countries in Africa attract more and more investment, the demand for hospitality services will continue to increase. We have been extremely successful as a brand so far in Africa, by being pioneers in luxury and targeting business travellers to destinations such as Djibouti and Chad, as well as more recently offering true 5-star luxury in traditional business destinations such as Cairo and Nairobi,” says Ulrich T Eckhardt, President: India, Middle East, and Africa for Kempinski Hotels. “We expect the same success in Accra, Kinshasa, and Kigali, where the arrival of an international 5-star brand like Kempinski is a vote of confidence for the destination and an early indicator of economic growth.”

Interestingly, Daniel’s Preferred Hotel Group is not writing off South Africa just yet, despite suggestions the country’s 5-star market is over-traded.

“We have noticed a significant increase in demand for South Africa. Many would argue that the South African market is at saturation point, but the supply and demand ratio shows balance,” says Daniel, who adds that “there is definitely room for growth in the luxury hospitality segment for many other African countries, particularly Ghana, Angola, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Uganda.”

A combination of investing in stable dependable markets and lucrative new frontiers seems to be the magic formula for most of the international hotel chains diving into Africa.

“Traditional markets like South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria are still offering good growth opportunities. However, emerging markets in East and West Africa are offering new opportunities for developers, tour operators, airlines, and the rest of the travel and hospitality industry,” notes Ahdab.

However, it’s not all plain sailing. Travel to many parts of North Africa is depressed due to simmering civil unrest, while in Nairobi security concerns have hit demand for both leisure and corporate bookings. Throw in the threat of the Ebola virus, particularly in West Africa, and you have a situation that seriously threatens the short-term viability of travel in certain parts of the African continent.

Those threats are expected to have an effect in the short-term, but African hospitality can’t remain complacent, even with impressive growth figures.

For now though, one salient fact remains: as business booms in Africa, the hospitality industry is hot on its heels. And with a buoyant hotel market across the continent, high-end offerings are becoming increasingly competitive to get you to spend your valuable dollars, naira and rands at their front desk.

Four Seasons set to open

Luxury hotel group Four Seasons will open its first urban hotel south of the Sahara later this year, with Four Seasons Hotel Westcliff Johannesburg accepting reservations from 1 December, 2014. The property, which has been closed for over a year to allow for major renovations, will open as an ‘urban resort’ conveniently located a short distance from the Johannesburg CBD. The hotel will offer 117 rooms and suites, a range of upmarket dining experiences from Michelin-starred chef Dirk Gieselmann, and a 24-hour fitness centre. The meetings and events space will accommodate up to 400 guests across 1457m2 of facilities that include a ballroom, flexible conference areas and meeting rooms. A 24-hour business centre is available, along with multi-lingual concierges.

www.fourseasons.com

Coming soon…

Due to open in early 2015, the Kempinski Hotel Gold Coast City in Accra, Ghana has a prime location in the heart of the city. The hotel is promising its rooms will be the largest in Accra, with a minimum 50m² for each of the 269 rooms, 22 suites and two presidential suites. The hotel will also offer two restaurants, a lobby lounge with outside seating, a cocktail bar and pool lounge, spacious health spa and assorted sports facilities. Conference facilities include 1700m² of meeting and banqueting facilities including the largest ballroom in the capital.
www.kempinski.com

AIRLINE INDUSTRY

While US airlines debate how to handle increasingly bitter on-board battles over Economy Class legroom, and budget carriers in Europe trim facilities and services, there’s a different trend emerging in Africa. As the continent’s resource economies boom, global airlines are turning their gaze to Africa, with a keen eye on the glut of business travellers happy to pay for the comfort of the sharp end of the plane.

It’s no secret that it’s up in Business and First Class where airlines make much of their profits. Those airy cabins and comfortable seats allow carriers to charge a premium for all that personal space. And as the trickle of investment into Africa turns into a deluge, there’s no shortage of corporate travellers with their wallets and loyalty cards at the ready.

“Africa remains a premium travel market, particularly West Africa, Angola and South Africa,” says Axel Simon, Director Southern Africa for Lufthansa German Airlines and Swiss International Air Lines, who cites oil and energy-driven markets as being particularly fond of premium travel. “Unlike certain destinations in the Far East and the USA where First Class is no longer offered, Lufthansa plans to continue the current premium class offer and, where not yet available in the West African and Southern African markets, introduce it.”

Although challenging economic conditions have prompted travellers on flights shorter than four hours to look towards the back of the plane, “we have seen a tremendous growth in demand for premium travel in Africa,” comments South African Airways spokesperson Tlali Tlali. “It is well documented that 10 of the world’s fastest growing economies are in Africa, and we serve eight of those economies.”

“We have also noticed an increase in companion travel, showing that business people are more willing to bring along spouses or partners whenever possible, and as a result there is an increase in demand in general terms,” adds Tlali.

There has always been a strong demand for Business Class travel on the African continent, agrees Joep Ellers, Airline Marketing Director for Sub-Saharan Africa at plane-maker Airbus: “As an example, in Nigeria aircraft tend to be filled up from the front to the back, with passengers keen to purchase First or Business class tickets, and only if these seats are no longer available will they travel Economy Class.

“In other markets, Business Class offerings are being scaled back. For example, Air France has removed Business Class from its domestic flights and Lufthansa is removing Business Class from its intra-European routes not flying into its hubs at Munich and Frankfurt. This is not happening in Africa.”

The positive message on the demand for premium air travel in Africa is the same from American airline Delta.

“We are seeing strong premium demand across all our services from Africa,” confirms Jimmy Eichelgruen, Director – Sales for Africa, Middle East & Indian Sub-Continent for Delta Air Lines. “Delta’s non-stop flights mean that passengers save time, rather than travelling via Europe, getting to their destination in the United States.”

And as demand grows, so airlines are prompted to invest in both their fleet and the onboard experience to hold onto market share.

A perfect example is Lufthansa. After years of lagging behind in the Business Class battle, Lufthansa is investing heavily in onboard product. The highlight is without doubt its brand-new lie-flat Business Class product that is being fitted to its long-haul fleet. Boasting a 1.98-metre bed, the cabin also features an unusual V-shaped seating layout.

“This solution enabled Lufthansa to fulfill one of the main wishes expressed by customers – to sit or lie facing the direction of travel,” explains Simon. “This seating arrangement also enabled Lufthansa to virtually double the distance between two neighbouring seats at shoulder level, which in future will give Business Class passengers greater privacy.”

Cathay Pacific’s award-winning new Business Class cabin is also now available on all flights from Johannesburg to Hong Kong, after the introduction of a Boeing 777-300ER on the daily route. With a flatbed stretching to over two metres long, the new Business Class product promises improved privacy, space and storage.

Air France is also overhauling all four cabins on its long-haul fleets. While Economy and Premium Economy are due for upgrades, the most exciting new changes will come in the airline’s stylish premium cabins.

The new Business Class cabin was created for Air France by designer Mark Collins, and follows three key principles: fully-flat beds, direct aisle access for all passengers, and enhanced privacy through curved shells surrounding each seat. The new seats also offer larger tables, 16-inch HD entertainment screens and greater work space.

The rollout is starting with the airline’s Boeing 777-200 and 777-300 aircraft initially, and the first African destinations to get a peek at all four new-look cabins will be Malabo and Douala in March 2015.

It all comes down to innovation, and as competition remains fierce, airlines are looking to product and service offerings to set themselves apart.

“We are investing £300-million ($487-million) into the customer experience, including the seat and cabin components of our forthcoming 787s, the fleet-wide Wi-Fi rollout and improvements to in-flight entertainment, a seat refurbishment programme for our A340 fleet, a new Clubhouse at Los Angeles, and improvements to our food and beverage services and amenity items,” says Liezl Gericke, Head of Marketing and Sales for Virgin Atlantic Airways in Johannesburg.

But it’s not only about who has the largest chequebook. Simple changes at little cost can have a major impact on the passenger experience. Take the Virgin Atlantic ‘Snoozezone’, for instance.

This is “available on all evening flights of eight hours or under, departing from an airport which has a Clubhouse where passengers can enjoy an evening meal,” explains Gericke. “After take-off, passengers are offered a drink, then the lights are dimmed in their cabin so they can enjoy the maximum amount of sleeping time in their Upper Class suite.”

It’s a subtle change of mindset that allows passengers flying from London to Nigeria, for instance, to cram in as much sleep as possible before landing in frenetic Lagos.

Delta Air Lines offers a similar ‘Dine & Rest’ service, allowing passengers in the Business Elite cabin to choose between a full dinner service and a flexible option to maximize sleep. All of Delta’s wide-body aircraft serving Africa also feature forward-facing fully-flat seats in the BusinessElite cabin.

But onboard offerings are only half the battle – customer experience on the ground is becoming just as important, and that often begins the moment you leave your hotel or office, as an increasing number of airlines are throwing in complimentary transfers for passengers in the premium cabins.

Virgin Atlantic has long offered complimentary limousine – or ‘Limobike’, in London – transfers for Upper Class passengers, and drive-through check-in is offered at both Lagos and Johannesburg. Etihad Airways announced in August that it would also now provide free transfers for First and Business Class passengers on both arrival and departure into Johannesburg.

 

We “are confident that this will enhance the travel experience of our premium passengers, who will benefit from the added convenience of not having to pay car parking fees for extended periods of time, or take public transport when travelling to and from the airport,” said Xenia Adamou, Etihad Airways General Manager, South Africa. The complimentary transfers must be booked 24 hours in advance, and are valid for journeys of up to 100 kilometres from the airport.

Meet me in the lounge

At the airport, lounge access has also been a major selling point of shelling out for a Business or First Class ticket, and airlines continue to up the ante when it comes to luxury on the ground.

Most recently, in August, Hamad International Airport, Qatar’s new state-of-the-art gateway to the world, unveiled its new Al Mourjan Business Lounge for Qatar Airways’ premium passengers. It is one of the largest lounges in the world, with 10,000 square metres of bespoke design features. Spread out over two levels, Al Mourjan can accommodate up to 1,000 visitors at a time.

There are plenty of options available to help passengers rejuvenate before their flight, from the private quiet rooms and relaxing family spaces, to the games rooms for children offering PlayStation pods and an F1 driving simulator. Added to this, Al Mourjan also offers prayer rooms, restrooms, a smoking area, a nursery and shower rooms with complimentary amenities.

There’s also a dedicated business centre offering a conference area, personal Internet workstations, printers and scanners. Multi-purpose executive seating is also available throughout the lounge, with a private Flight Information Display System monitor and reading light, as well as personal power and data outlets.

The Al Mourjan Business Lounge is open to Qatar Airways and oneworld First and Business Class passengers, until the Al Safwa First Class Lounge opens as part of HIA’s phased development.

British Airways has a network of 60 dedicated British Airways lounges, and 90 partner lounges, worldwide, and earlier this year unveiled its impressive new £1-million ($1.6-million) lounge at Cape Town International Airport.

Passengers flying home from London have access to the award-winning Galleries complex, while First Class passengers can enjoy the immaculate Concorde Room. With a full-service Concorde Bar and restaurant, the lounge even offers a dedicated desk from concierge service Quintessentially; a complimentary service for First Class customers that is available for 14 days either side of the journey.

Virgin’s Clubhouse facilities in London have also set the bar high with observation decks, sky lounges, libraries and music rooms. In Africa, the airline offers a Clubhouse lounge in Johannesburg, and the use of the ASL Business Class Lounge in Lagos.

In a move that will be welcomed by long-suffering travellers to Nairobi, Kenya Airways is finally revamping its offering at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. A dedicated check-in area for premium travellers and two new departure lounges are expected to open in October at the new terminal 1A. The lounges, dubbed Pride and Simba, will be open to passengers flying on Kenya Airways and the airline’s SkyTeam partners.

“The development of a world-class terminal by our partners Kenya Airports Authority has in turn seen the development of some of the most advanced and comfortable airport lounges for Kenya Airways guests,” Kenya Airways’ Group Managing Director and CEO Dr. Titus Naikuni said. “Both Simba and Pride Lounges will offer utmost luxury and comfort for our guests and will feature a melting pot of African cultures, as we further seek to enhance customer experience at our Nairobi hub.”

While Delta Air Lines doesn’t operate its own lounges in Africa, the airline announced earlier this year that all Delta BusinessElite passengers and Elite card members could now access the new Sanbra Priority Lounge at Accra’s Kotoka International Airport. 

The Sanbra Priority Lounge is positioned next to Delta’s airport gates #3 and #4, and is a welcome space to relax prior to flights to New York-JFK or Liberia. The lounge can seat over 100 travellers and offers free Wi-Fi, complimentary snacks and a wide variety of soft and alcoholic drinks.

Connecting

From lounges to seats, it’s certainly becoming harder for airlines to stand out from the crowd. In our hyper-connected world, in-flight Internet access is another point of difference for many airlines, with a number of global carriers offering connectivity to the Internet and/or mobile networks during flight.

TAAG Angola Airlines offers Thales TopConnect technology on its new Boeing 777-300ER fleet, while Qatar Airways offers Internet access on all Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, as deployed on its South African routes.

“Delta is rolling Wi-Fi out across the international fleet, with all wide-body aircraft due to be equipped by the end of 2015,” explains Eichelgruen. “Following implementation on our domestic fleet, the international programme started with our 747s and is now being extended first to our other wide-body jets such as Boeing 767-300/400 aircraft.”

Kenya Airways also offers in-flight access on its Boeing 777, but this is rarely seen on routes into Africa. Virgin Atlantic will introduce in-flight Wi-Fi access on its new Boeing 787 aircraft, and the technology will be rolled out across the fleet over the next few years.

At the other end of the scale is Lufthansa, which flies to 13 destinations in Africa and has the largest Internet-enabled long-haul fleet in the world. Its ‘Flynet’ in-flight broadband service is offered on many African routes, depending on aircraft rotation. A 24-hour access pass costs a reasonable €19.95 ($25), and the airline even allows travellers to use Miles&More credits. A 24-hour pass will cost 7,000 miles.

The battle for First

But by and large, it’s the spacious First Class cabin that appears to be the new battleground for airlines.

Although in many parts of the world carriers are dropping First to free up space for in-demand Business and Premium Economy seats, on flights to Africa there’s no shortage of travellers happy to shell out for the largest seats – or suites – on the plane.

For British Airways, which offers 91 flights a week to 14 destinations in 12 African countries, First remains a flagship cabin. With a £100-million ($160-million) budget, British Airways has retro-fitted its stylish new First cabin to over half its fleet of Boeing 747 and 777 long-haul aircraft, and will be installing it on the 12 A380 superjumbos it has on order.

“Key to the premium experience is the understanding that people have different needs, and responding to these. 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 a la carte snack. There is also a bistro selection if you fancy something a bit lighter,” says Edward Frost, British Airways Regional Commercial Manager South and East Africa. “We are the only carrier to offer a direct First Class service to London from South Africa and have no plans to change this. For us, First is a differentiator.”

And while its First Class doesn’t have the private suites and on-board wizardry of Middle Eastern competitors, it offers a particularly British attention to detail, from the hand-stitched leather seats to the Gladstone-style Anya Hindmarch amenity kits.

Where British Airways is certainly setting itself apart is in the field that is fast becoming the new point of difference for premium cabins: onboard cuisine.

The airline used Heston Blumenthal to help craft the ‘Height Cuisine’ menu offered in First, and while the extensive menu is built around classic British dishes, the airline hasn’t been afraid to innovate. To infuse a sense of globetrotting fun into the menu, it recently launched a pulled pork sandwich, fish and chips, and a new ‘Flying Gourmet Burger’ onboard.

“Burgers are the ultimate tasty, satisfying treat and comfort food we crave when flying,” says Mark Tazzioli, British Airways’ chef, who says it took 10 months for his team to develop the Flying Burger. “Pulled pork is incredibly fashionable right now, following the emergence of gourmet food trucks, craft butchers and rustic restaurants. As taste buds are affected at altitude, we have created a special rub, which has scored highly in taste-tests.”

A further trend amongst global airlines is the use of famous chefs to create their First and Business menus from month to month. South African Airways has turned to celebrity chefs Benny Masekwameng, Executive Chef of Tsogo Sun Hotels, and Reuben Riffel to create signature dishes for international and regional long-haul flights. In Germany, Lufthansa focuses on top-rated chefs that bring a local flair to the menu, SWISS highlights regional cuisine from selected cantons, while Air France has the likes of Joe?l Robuchon and Guy Martin lined up.

Air France takes its new cuisine offering seriously, with caviar, champagne and foie gras upping the culinary ante. Tableware from acclaimed French designer Jean-Marie Massaud will also be available onboard from December 2014.

It’s part of a major revamp of Air France’s First Class product, which will see four exclusive suites installed on the airline’s long-haul Boeing 777-300 fleet. Plush curtains screen each suite from the aisle, allowing for perfect privacy and luxury onboard. The seat converts to a fully-flat bed over two metres long, with crew members laying out a mattress, pillow and Sofitel My Bed® duvet for comfort. Other selling points include a 24-inch screen and private wardrobe.

But perhaps few have embraced the possibilities of First Class as eagerly as the Middle Eastern carriers.

With the launch of the revamped First Class on board its A380 fleet, Emirates set the bar high with private suites, personalized mini-bars and – a first for a commercial airline – an on-board Shower Spa.

Announcing its own A380 and Dreamliner cabins earlier this year, Abu Dhabi-based airline Etihad Airways went one step further. The airline has dedicated the entire top deck of its A380s to premium cabins that will include ‘First Apartments’: fully-private suites with a separate reclining lounge seat and full-length bed.  On its A380 and 787 aircraft, Etihad Airways will also launch its new Business Studios product, with 20% more personal space than the airline’s current Business Class seat. On the superjumbo, premium guests will also have access to a serviced lounge and bar area.

However, it was Etihad’s ‘The Residence’ – one step above First Class – that had the aviation industry talking earlier this year. Billed as offering private jet-style opulence on a scheduled flight – and at, presumably, a lower price – each cabin features a living room, separate double bedroom and en-suite shower room. Guests in The Residence will also have a personal butler, trained at the Savoy Butler Academy in London.

Although it offers a luxurious Business and First Class product, Doha-based Qatar Airways has been more muted in its expressions of on-board luxury. However, the airline continues to make its presence felt across Africa with new routes and steady product innovation.

From November, the airline will operate a new non-stop five-times-weekly service between Doha and Cape Town, offering 22 seats in Business Class.

“Cape Town has long been one of the most popular destinations with passengers throughout our worldwide network, and with the new services we are now able to provide our customers with quicker and more convenient connections,” commented Qatar Airways Group Chief Executive Officer, His Excellency Mr. Akbar Al Baker.

Qatar Airways is also seeing prospects in the East African nation of Eritrea, and will launch scheduled flights to the capital city of Asmara from 4 December. Located on the Red Sea, Eritrea’s economy is growing fast off the back of natural resources that include copper, gold, granite, marble, and potassium. The twice-weekly flights will operate from Doha to Asmara and will be served by an Airbus A320 featuring 12 seats in Business Class.

It is perhaps an important bellwether of premium travel in Africa. If a fast-growing global airline such as Qatar Airways can find value in dedicating valuable aircraft to serving niche destinations such as Eritrea, then Africa must surely hold enormous potential for airlines across the globe.

Chinese carriers have yet to fully tap into Africa, despite that country’s massive investment on the continent, and there is still plenty of scope for European and North American airlines to capitalize on lucrative routes to energy-driven economies. As the BRICS and MINT economic groups gather pace, perhaps we shall see the likes of Aeromexico, Garuda or Air India claiming their share of the continent’s rich airline potential. But regardless of which airline you end up flying with, there’s certainly no shortage of great product waiting for you up at the sharp end of the aircraft.

Are African carriers keeping up?

With Middle Eastern and European carriers dominating the premium travel segment, where does that leave our homegrown African airlines? While the four main African carriers – South African Airways, Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines and EgyptAir –lack many of the bells and whistles associated with world-class premium cabins, African carriers aren’t left entirely in the dust.

“Certainly there are plenty of airlines in Africa whose passengers are looking for no frills, cheap travel across the vast distances of the continent. However, there are a number of African airlines, both on short-haul or long-haul, with cabin products‎ competitive with those found onboard in other parts of the world,” says Claire Nurcombe, Aircraft Interiors Marketing Manager at plane-maker Airbus.

“If anything, airlines are improving their Business Class offering and onboard product to stay ahead in this market,” agrees Ellers. “One prime example is South African Airways, which is introducing a four seats abreast Business Class configuration on its new short-haul aircraft, compared to five seats abreast offered on the existing fleet.”

South African Airways offered lie-flat beds on long-haul routes long before many European or American carriers, and its new A320 fleet will offer world-class technology, including LED handrail lighting and tablet/iPad holders in seats.

“All SAA flights operated to Lagos, Nigeria now operate with the long-haul Airbus aircraft offering lie-flat seats in Business Class,” says spokesperson Tlali Tlali, adding that the fleet of new A320 aircraft “will replace all the Boeing 737-800 aircraft and increase the fleet to support SAA route expansion plans into Africa.”

Other regional carriers are also investing in new product, and both Air Mauritius and Ethiopian Airlines have state-of-the-art Airbus A350 aircraft on order, which will feature the latest in-flight entertainment and seating technology.

Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines already offer the next-generation Boeing 787 Dreamliner on African routes, with Kenya Airways deploying the ‘Dreamliner’ daily from Nairobi to Johannesburg. With just 30 lie-flat seats in the Premier cabin onboard, laid out in a 2-2-2 configuration, it’s an enviable Business Class proposition.

And it’s not just the big African players who are proud of what they can offer their Business Class passengers.

“Air Namibia’s routes from Johannesburg and Cape Town to Windhoek offer a unique and strong Business Class product, which is very popular with corporate clients and frequent travellers, as well as the connection from Windhoek to Luanda, which has a strong Business Class demand,” says Michéll Fourie, Country Manager Zambia and Sales & Marketing Manager South Africa for Air Namibia.

“Our Business Class product offers 160 degrees reclining seats with ample legroom with an amazing pitch of 137 centimetres, and a seat width of 53 centimetres, offering our clients ample space to move around the cabin in complete comfort. Our configuration is 2-2 in Business Class and offers a top class selection in meals and refreshments – all with a truly Namibian smile!”

Now that’s something you won’t find in all premium cabins!

“In any region you find airlines pushing the envelope of their passenger expectations – Africa is no different and offers great opportunities for airlines to differentiate themselves through their cabin products,” adds Nurcombe.

Let’s hope that means that African corporate travellers can look forward to even more innovation and comfort when flying a local carrier in the near future.

Virgin drops Cape Town

Virgin Atlantic will not be renewing its seasonal Cape Town-London flights after the last flight departs on 27 April, 2015. The airline, like many European carriers, has traditionally operated flights during the summer months.

The final flight from London to Cape Town will be on April 26, 2015 and the final flight from Cape Town to London on April 27, 2015. The airline’s daily service from London to Johannesburg remains unaffected.

The schedule change comes as the airline implements a two-year plan to return to profitability, largely by focusing its efforts and aircraft on lucrative trans-Atlantic routes.

So, if you’re a Cape Town resident who wants to experience some of the bells and whistles that Virgin Atlantic offers its premium passengers, you will have to make your way north to Johannesburg first, from late April/early May next year.

What’s a Limobike?

Limobike has been operating since November 1995. It was set up by Richard Branson to look after the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class passengers who were fed up with sitting in traffic on their way to and from the airport. According to Limobike, “soon people were asking us about commuting, trips to business meetings across London, and a thousand other scenarios to save time. Now, while still doing the airport runs, we are busy helping people move around London efficiently, safely and without stress.” Virgin uses Yamaha FJR1300s (with ABS) which have been fitted with a rear seat back to give passengers total confidence while on the move. They have been fitted with an Autocom intercom and phone, so you can talk to the rider in transit and even make and receive phone calls. The bikes are serviced and apparently maintained “to the highest degree.”