The boutique hotel concept has flourished in southern and north Africa, but in West Africa, the concept has just started catching on. And local investors are digging in.
The surge in demand for the exclusive boutique hotel experience is not only because of the growing middle class in Africa. Experts argue that a polar shift in the way international hotels do business, having decelerated their full real estate ownership strategy, has opened the market for local investors to enter a once closed international hotel sector.
But local entrepreneurs are not only co-owning hotels with the big chains, whose full ownership strategy is steadily giving way to a split ownership, as they seek to diversify their investments in the sector. The many opportunities have resulted in an expansion of the hotel industry.
The relatively new boutique hotel concept has stepped up competition in Ghana's hotel sector. Zimbabwe-born Charles Meares, general manager of the plush Villa Monticello in Ghana's capital says local boutique hotels want to stand out, by offering a specialised or themed experience, putting the focus on local cuisine, art, tradition, ecology... "Themes that big groups, with the exception of a few, would shy away from due to their high maintenance demands".
The Africa Report: Is the boutique hotel experience, as is widely believed, where to be seen away from home more than home away from home?
Charles Meares: What we are trying to capture is that type of customer who is seeking his privacy and who wants his service at hand when needed, without much intrusiveness.
Since we opened last year we've managed to gather quite a number of customers who have been open to that idea, and it has resulted in a substantial number of repeat customers.
Is Villa Monticello Ghana's first boutique hotel?
Yes, but since we opened a few boutique hotels have started opening in the past year or so, albeit on a different note, with different concepts coming up in the industry.
We are the trailblazers in the boutique hotel industry in Ghana. What we've done is bring the boutique hotel concept to a market that was traditionally large hotels.
Our rooms are individually designed and themed, and we offer services that are much more personalised than any other hotel that is in the market.
And do you work together?
At the moment, there is not much cooperation, as a result of everyone trying to break into the market and grab a share of the market. But I must admit that cooperation is needed.
Nonetheless, there is a sort of quarterly forum for general managers to gather and discuss hospitality issues. We have had a few interesting players joining and, with time, it could grow into a useful forum that could even influence policy issues in the tourism industry.
Are you affiliated to any franchise or management contract?
We are totally independent. The hotel is owned by a group of Ghanaian investors.
What about a consortium? Has the forum discussed this?
Yes, we are trying to work on that, especially within the boutique hotel market, but it is not in place at the moment. There is some sort of organization among the other hotels, but it is not particularly the case for boutique hotels.
The cost in running boutique hotels can be very high...
Yes, it is a high maintenance industry. Because obviously you are putting on the market a luxury product that has a lot of finer things, and the maintenance thereof has to be up to the standard that one is striving to protect and project.
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What clientele are you trying to attract?
It is quite a mix for us. But basically, it is the top end of the market. Being boutique hotels, we charge more than traditional hotels and we attract quite a varied range of clientele, although they are mainly from the corporate world.
What about the MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, Events) sector of the industry?
We have only recently put together a twelve capacity boardroom, but in terms of conferences, there are bigger hotels with higher capacity to handle the bigger conferences. What we are targeting are board meetings and smaller private meetings.
Do you use any central reservation system?
A central reservation system would normally come from a franchise, however, we get a few of our reservations from Internet booking sites. But most of our direct sales are through our own website.
How do you see the boutique hotel sector in Ghana and Africa as a whole?
If you look at the southern African market, there are a lot of boutique hotel brands, but this is not the case in West Africa. Nevertheless, it is a concept that is catching on fast. If I were to gauge by the short period that I have been in Ghana, I would say that the number of boutique hotels that are coming up highlights a trend. But in the final analysis the focus will be on high business standards and top quality service, the real boutique experience.
In time, consortia like the French Relais & Chateau may come in, but they have strict standards that boutique hotel entrepreneurs will need to adhere to. It is an area that Villa Monticello is currently looking into. To push ourselves onto that platform.
So Villa Monticello could join a consortium in the future?
Yes, but we are at the moment working on promoting our facility, and being a new hotel market concept in the region, a lot of training and development is going into it. I am certain that in a few years' time, we will be ready to join such consortia.