In July 2016, international hotel chain Radisson Blu made its debut in the Rwandan market not only to offer hotel services, but also manage the Kigali Convention Centre. The stakes were high from the start as the hotel’s launch was on the eve of the 27th African Union Summit.
Six months to the launch, a man who had executed a similar task moved to Rwanda, with his tasks including setting up the facility, hiring and training staff and running the facility. Denis Dernault’s fitness to the role was among other things due to his experience of over 30 years in the hospitality industry.
Over three years from since they entered the Rwandan market, The New Times Collins Mwai, caught up with French hotelier to review the last three years of the facility and lessons therein for the local sector.
What do you think made you the right person for the job when this facility was launched?
This was my fifth opening from scratch. In my career, I was involved in the opening of an international hotel brand in Algeria which was serving the same purpose as this one; hosting the African Union Summit of 1999. So in 2016, that was my second AU Summit.
In Addis Ababa, we ran a hotel that was one of the largest outside catering facilities on the continent, doing 4,000 to 5,000 orders.
The stakes were high and experience was limited when you started out, were you as calm?
I will say that I have the soul of a pioneer, I like to do things for the first time, start up new facilities and so on. At the time, looking at the magnitude of the project and vision by government, it was a very attractive project to join.
The experience was somewhat tense and challenging, the very first event we had was the African Union Summit. There is no way that this could not be successful.
An aerial view of Radisson Blu Kigali (L) and Kigali Convention Centre (R).
We had to make sure that our staff was qualified. The expectations were quite high.
Today, three and a half years after the launch, it interesting to see how we have developed people into the various aspects of the business. Not only as junior staff but as management staff as well.
We are pleased that for instance, we have people working in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Europe who started their careers here and have been able to export themselves.
What is the typical day of a General Manager of a hotel of this calibre?
My day starts quite early. I am in office between 6 and 6:30 in the morning. I have between an hour and an hour and half to do my administrative tasks and review our numbers.
I also visit one part of the property every day in detail. Following that, I visit places where we have business agenda for the day. I then meet my management team to review our challenges and what is ahead for us.
Afterwards, I will probably have a meeting or appointment for instance with a supplier or guest and will later look through the VIP arrival of the day to ensure I do not miss anyone I should welcome.
During the day, I am very much on the ground, rarely in the office unless early in the morning or after 6 PM. I try to be with the team all da.
Other times, I am inviting potential customers to make deals, other times listening to complaints. There is a component of administration and operation. Probably about 80 per cent of operation and 20 per cent administration.
What’s a good day like and what a tough day like?
A good day is when everything goes as planned. Challenging days is for instance when a client decides to change everything for an event the previous day or a supplier has not delivered what was expected and you have to review the menus and re-plan with the guests.
Generally, every day there is something unexpected, so you should have the character to absorb and pass on to your team.
Most of the tasks are also done through delegation, it helps everyone bloom.
How did you end up in this business?
It was by chance that I joined. When I finished high school, I visited a top hotel and immediately knew that this is the business I wanted to be in.
I was somewhat a disaster for my parents because my grades were good and they thought I would become a doctor or scientist. When I said I wanted to join the hospitality sector, they must have thought something was wrong with me.
A couple of years down the road, they are quite proud of what I was doing, it took them time to understand.
Even here, until recently, hospitality business was not a career from most people’s viewpoint, people have not seen it as an area that they can develop their skills to the highest possible levels.
There is a mindset change in progress and we are having more and more people developing the passion and commitment for it.
You have over 30 years’ experience in the industry, what has changed and continues to change in the trade and what remains the same?
Comparing when I started my career and now, there is way more technology and data intelligence. At the click of a button, you can make informed decisions on which way to move forward.
That is really interesting because previously, to make a decision, you would have to peruse through volumes of manual data to understand patterns. Now we also have social media which has become part of our duty that we need to look at and think about.
However some things have never changed, you need to make sure that your guests are happy and need to give your staff the motivation to achieve the first objective. Those two will never change, not even with the technology trends.
Speaking of staff, you joined the market at a time when the pool of skilled professionals was quite small and had to train entrants. What’s in the training that you would say gives them an edge?
For us, we approach it with the mindset that we need to find the right character. Even when you make a mistake with a guest but have been courteous all through, they are likely to let it pass.
If you have had an attitude and make the same mistake, it’s unlikely to go through. Our approach is always to find the right person, one who can communicate and is at ease with people.
In all departments we have on the job training that all our employees go through before they can handle guests. We have specific training in all departments which has been important in building skills.
If a new brand of your size enters the market today, are we not likely to witness the labour mobility that the local hospitality sector is known for?
On our level, we have between 60 to 70 trainees in internship and we are working to ensure that they are molded with basic skills of the business. The second is that when we are looking to fill vacancies, we are going to tap into those we have trained, we know them and know their skillsets.
On a national level, we have been advocating to ensure that there are national institutions that can provide the basic skills. If we look at the Convention Centre at the end of 2019, the occupancy was at 42 per cent, which means that there is a huge gap to be able to grow.
There are prospective companies coming in to see opportunities they can fit in, we need to be ready. When the facilities we have are operating at full capacities we will need much more skills.
I am happy that we have employees who are graduating to superior roles or move to other facilities.
Across the hospitality business, there was a time when as much as 60 per cent of supplies were imported leading to high revenue leakages, how are you fairing yourselves?
When we began, at least 60 per cent of our food products being imported. Now it is around 10 per cent.
We are very happy that in terms of quality, the products and the market has evolved and that investors have stepped up. They have been able to meet our standards.
For instance, when we have large audiovisual production, much of it is sourced externally. We are constantly telling players that they need to invest more. The investment can be recovered in a reasonable amount of time.
When we have local suppliers, we can deal on different levels with them regardless of the event taking place. That is the only bit that is remaining in local sourcing.
How did you increase local sourcing?
We had a couple of meetings with our chef and the government bodies involved. We walked them through what we would want and in what quantities and over time they were able to improve towards the objectives.
We have been able to meet this in recent years. There has been an improvement considering that there were also about 3 more major hotels that entered the market with similarly high demands.
How do you ensure there are no middlemen profiting from the efforts of producers?
We have a committee that looks at our suppliers especially whenever a large supply is involved. This committee goes to visit the supplier. From the visit of the facility, we can understand if they are actual producers or middlemen.
We also have a programme that ensures that we work with local communities to benefit as they are the ones who are doing the heavy lifting. Over the years, we have been able to identify gaps and ensure that the community get a fair share of the revenue.
We also try to work with small cooperative wherever possible.Follow https://twitter.com/ByCollinsMwai