Strong Growth

Aha Hotels & Lodges is Tourvest’s accommodation division and is wholly-owned by the South African TMC. In the past five years it has grown into a significant player in the Southern African hotel industry. CEO Neil Bald has been at the forefront of that growth, and was happy to unpack some of those details over a coffee with editor Dylan Rogers in Johannesburg.

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A lot has happened since Neil Bald joined aha five years ago.

The group has grown its portfolio from 12 hotels and lodges to over 40, acquired a major competitor in the form of Three Cities Hotels, launched a new brand to the market, and grown its staff complement to over 60.

All of this adds up to the second biggest hotel management company in Southern Africa and the fourth biggest hotel group in South Africa.

“The plan when I joined was to grow it considerably and it still is,” says Bald.

So, it sounds like he is on track.

The aha brand now consists of a diverse selection of hotels and lodges spread across South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Botswana, with the plan to extend that footprint into other African countries.

“Outside of South Africa, our plan, from a hotel point of view, is to be represented in capital cities,” says Bald, whilst acknowledging that aha Hotels & Lodges still has some way to go before becoming a recognisable brand, particularly to international travellers. As a result, aha are open to operating properties under franchise agreement, if all the right boxes are ticked.

“We are seeing demand for regional operators who know the lay of the land, possibly already have representation in the area, and understand how to work with the local labour force,” says Bald of the international brands who favour this approach over trying to make it work on their own.

Besides the countries already mentioned, aha has fairly recently gone into Ethiopia with a deal for a group of properties over a few years. The first hotel is expected to be complete in the next year, with the second one due to start soon and two more on the cards in the future.

“It’s going to be a very interesting couple of years,” says Bald, whilst conceding that the Ethiopian expansion goes a little against the grain of aha’s growth strategy, which focuses largely on South Africa and its neighbouring countries.

“The plan is to grow more than one property in a destination and to ‘grow countries’,” he says. “If we do that we can start putting in country management etc.”

East Africa, though, also remains of interest to Bald and aha, and whilst the group has had a look at and considered one or two opportunities in the likes of Nigeria, Ghana and Angola, one gets the sense that West Africa is currently just not as appealing.

“We haven’t focused on growth too far from home, but rather on neighbouring countries and East Africa, where there just seems to be more opportunity than West Africa,” says Bald.

Back home, aha are still optimistic about their South African growth in the hotel space, with Bald citing Johannesburg and Cape Town as the key locations from a business travel point of view, whilst also conceding that there is currently a hole in their portfolio.

“To be recognised as a serious player, you need to have key locations, and in corporate travel you have to be in Sandton, where we currently don’t have representation,” he says. “We’ve recognised that, although it’s not that simple to get in there, but we are working on a couple of options.”

From a lodge point of view, the focus is slightly different.

“Growth outside of South Africa will more likely come from the lodge space, and we want to be in key/iconic locations,” says Bald. “So, it’s Etosha, the Serengeti, Maasai Mara and Kruger National Park. There is demand for operators in these locations.”

Five years is a nice round number and, arguably, an opportunity to reflect for Bald.

Aha Hotels & Lodges have come a long way since he joined in 2012, with the Three Cities acquisition in 2014 giving the group the kick-start it was looking for, catapulting it from 20 to 40 properties, giving it the critical mass Bald wanted, and establishing aha as a South African hotel group to be taken seriously.

Now for the next five years…