As African economies continue to grow, so have opportunities in the hotel sector. Local hotel entrepreneurs have begun moving into an area that has traditionally been dominated by international chains.
One such entrepreneur is Mossadeck Bally, president and founder of the Azalaï Hotels group.
The group manages a string of hotels in four west African countries, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau and Benin and plans to consolidate its presence in French-speaking West Africa before moving into the wider ECOWAS region. But running a business in a somewhat volatile Sahel region has had its toll.
Recent upheavals in northern Mali affected international arrivals to the country, leading to mass cancelation of hotel reservations. Two of the group's hotels halted operations "temporarily", its flagship hotel, the five star Azalaï Hotel Salam stayed open to welcome guests who had not cancelled their bookings.
Despite the shortfall, Bally insists that the "events in Mali have not changed the spirit of Azalaï in its conquering vision as an African company".
But whilst one of its strategies is a "controlled development that follows a regional logic", Bally stresses that governments need to grasp the great opportunities the travel and tourism industry offer by developing the right infrastructure and policies to encourage more investments in the sector.
The Africa Report: What are the strengths of your group, compared with other international chains?
Mossadeck Bally: Our strategic option is to welcome our customers into an environment that combines tradition, comfort and modernity, a warm atmosphere that is unique to our hotels, backed by quality and exceptional service.
These are factors that continue to attract well-informed African and international guests. We have demonstrated our ability to compete with international chains in all countries where we operate.
Large international groups offer standardised, uniform products, whether in Tokyo, New York or Cape Town. But far removed from standardisation, our hotels, which are decorated in a Sahel-Sudan style, have souls that speak to our guests, and connect them with the land that welcomes them.
How do you cope with training facilities for your employees?
The Azalaï Group is run by highly qualified African professionals, often with wide experience from other international hotel chains. These professionals are often attracted by a human-sized company with true human values and relationships.
We have an integrated training centre, the Azalaï academy, which sees to the development and training of our employees. Our excellent quality of service earned us an ISO 9001 (2008 version) certification (ISO 9001 is the internationally recognised standard for the quality management of business).
Azalaï hotel group operates in French speaking West African countries. Do you plan to move into the English speaking market?
Our development plan is to establish ourselves in the WAEMU [West African Economic and Monetary Union - Union économique et monétaire ouest-africaine] countries first, and then later cover the ECOWAS region, which includes several English-speaking countries like Ghana and Nigeria: two countries that we find particularly interesting.
Several international brands are investing more in Africa. Does The Azalaï group envisage investing beyond the sub-region?
Our goal is to have a controlled development, which is why our expansion plan follows a regional logic. First UEMOA and then ECOWAS etc. But we are open to opportunities and ready to seize those present, even if they are not included in our set objectives.
Like the major international chains, do you have plans to start your own franchise & management contracts?
We are available to consider management offers but we do not offer franchise agreements, at least for the time being.
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What are some of the challenges encountered by a regional group?
African governments need to take note of the important role tourism plays in the development of a country and support us, by building not only the infrastructure – roads, airports – but also the necessary schools to train staff.
They need to introduce incentives. In addition, our business requires huge investments that cannot be achieved without the contribution of the state ... investment code, exemptions.
Have the recent political events in Mali, where your flagship hotel is situated, affected or changed your vision to invest in Africa?
The events in Mali have not changed the spirit of Azalaï in its conquering vision as an "African company".
As an independent African hotelier, why do you think Africa (with the exception of South Africa) lacks its own management franchises?
Before a brand gets to that level, there are a number of steps that need to be taken. Most African brands have not yet reached that level.