JONATHAN ODEGA is the Executive Chairman of Orchid Hotels. In this interview held with the MoneyCentral team of Charles Odum and Azarat Haruna last week, ODEGA explains how his training as an engineer drove his passion for building and owning hotels, how hospitality is driving the Nigerian economy through job creation across various segments of the value chain and how Government can better assist the sector.
The Orchid hotel brand today has locations in Lagos and Asaba (Delta State), with planned expansions to another location in Lagos, in the Ikeja G.R.A, and other cities in Nigeria.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell us a little about who you are and when the dream of Orchid actually started?
My name is Jonathan Odega the senior, I am a building engineer by training and I set up my first construction company in 1987 along the line in my cause of travelling around to do projects, I discovered that there were many lapses in the Nigerian hotels and even the International brands.
I found out that most of the brands do not address the Nigerian interests and what I mean by this is the fact that I discovered that about 95% of the users of hotels in Nigeria are Nigerians but when you go in there you will find out that most of the indigenous foods are not actually found in those hotels, for instance, something like Pap and akara you hardly find it in any of their breakfast menus and it is something some of us grew up with and love so much.
Then the pepper soup is not made with the real Nigerian spices, also things like beans, I know a lot of men love beans and you hardly find them in any of these menus so when I discovered those things, I found out that there is a gap that needs to be filled; somebody needs to come in and bring the Nigerianess into the Nigerian hotels so that our people’s interests are properly addressed.
Those were the initial things that began to ignite my interests in the hotel industry and I found out that the hotel industry is also a strategic industry.
If you want to grow tourism like they have in so many other countries, tourism is a major income earner for a lot of countries like Kenya and the rest of them. Nigeria has not developed that area, but if we want to develop it, we first of all have to prepare for it, the hospitality industry, hotels in particular must be ready, if you do not have accommodation, people cannot come in, there are big meetings they want to hold sometimes and if you do not have accommodation for them they cannot come around even internally here in the country.
I found out that there is a gap here that needs to be filled so continuing with my construction, we went from there into real estate development and of course when you get to such level where you begin to provide such facilities, you are very close to hotel development and of course we metemorphosized into hotel practitioners and that is how the Orchid brand was born.
How many years has Orchid been in the market place now?
The first Orchid brand opened in 2007 in Asaba so now we can say that we are about 14 years in the industry, the second brand opened 2010; that’s where we are now, Orchid Hotels, Lekki. This one has up to about 250 rooms. We are building the third one in Ikeja GRA, that one is coming with 230 rooms, the construction is already in progress.
How were you able to do it, what kind of qualities or habits do you think you built up overtime that led to the buildup of Orchid hotel?
Basically, spirit of excellence and the determination to do the right thing the right way, like I said, the background is building engineering and if you have to run a hotel, it is a facility and the success of it starts from the design and coming from that background, I understand that if you have to get it right, design must flow right, you have to be purposeful not that you buy two plots of land and you will build up everywhere, you do not consider the users, you do not consider parking, recreation, these are fundamental things that rub off on the success of the facility you have so coming from that background, I know that these are the requirements that must be done.
Of course the next line is that you have to construct with the right materials, all the time I hear people say that it is not about infrastructure, it is about management, that is not correct, even for the best manager, it is like doing a car race; if you have an excellent driver with a very poor vehicle, he is not going to do anything, he is going to fail and fail very woefully so if you have an infrastructure that is not working; (the AC leaks every day, the light is not working, the plumbing is in a mess, everywhere is smelling, there is no parking space) of course there is no magic that the operator is going to do to make it work.
This means that the infrastructure must be right; if the infrastructure is right other facilities, the soft part of it, it is easy, you can always train men, (to know how to smile at customers, how to produce good food at the right time, when they touch the switch light comes on, when they turn the tap, clean water gushes out at a good pressure, and then the space is well cooled and they have space to park, a place that is well-secured), that is what hotelling is all about in a nutshell.
Can you share with us how Covid-19 affected Orchid hotels?
I think that in any thing that you succeed in, God factor is there, here in Orchid, we put God as number one, in all our businesses, we put God as number one so I believe that God helped us so much and apart from that basically the Orchid brand is mainly conferencing oriented facility and here, for instance, we have over 22 halls and they are all in different sizes.
We have a lot of space so you have a lot of space for recreation, parking and all of that, you will find out that during the Covid-19 wave, one of the major things people needed to have is a big space because of the issue of social distancing and such accommodation that people can move around (there is a lot of space between them and the next person) so I think all those things helped us, the fact that we have a lot of rooms, a lot of halls, a lot of outside space, it helped so that the big IOCs, the international companies that want their workers to still be at work somehow, but before they go to work, they test them, put them in a temporary centre where they can be observed to be sure that they do not have issue before they send them to work offshore or somewhere, they needed this kind of space, so all those things helped us.
Are you saying that during the Covid-19 period, you still got patronage from some institutions?
Yes, we did very well, as a matter of fact we did a lot of business, in fact that was the period we had a very big business.
When you spoke earlier, you mentioned that you started from Asaba, then moved to Lagos. We have readers across the country; does Orchid have plans to establish hotels in other states in the federation?
Orchid intends to go round the country, especially the strategic states, and what I mean by this is the fact that every business has its own modus operandi.
It is not everybody that wants to travel to a particular area to go and do meetings for instance, like I said that we are conference oriented, so we have to look for those states that are strategic in terms of conferencing; the metropolitan states, the ones that want to do a lot of conferencing and all that, so we will start with them and we are going to go round all other strategic states
What kind of security measures do we have in Orchid that will give people comfort that they can come to Orchid and they will feel secured?
When you talk of security, one of the first rules is that the whole of your strength must not be known, so I am not going to tell you everything we have but I will just tell you on the surface, that may be enough for you to know, we have armed guards there all the time; 24 hours, we have our own intelligence, 24 hours; and we employ the use of technology to a very large extent, there is hardly anything you do here that you will not be picked.
How have you been able to manage operating costs overtime, you know, to keep the brand alive?
Again, you know there is this statement that when you pay peanuts, monkeys work for you.
So first of all, we are very conscious of our team we have a very strong team and what I mean by team are strong personnel, we do not just hire anybody and over time, our people go through training like when you walked in and you heard that the HR is holding training with our staff, you know we are always training and retraining and by the grace of God, God has blessed this organization with very good staff.
That is the strength of the organization, apart from the fact that we have sound facilities, we also have very sound personnel that know what to do at the right time and then basically, in this industry it is about Service, Service! Service!! Service!!!
We ensure that our services are on the top form we do not want until things breakdown before they are fixed, for instance, we just got four brand new massive generators (two 500kva and two 350kva) so at any point in time, we have generators that are always on stand-by (brand new) so that issues of power is not anything you negotiate here, the light will not go out beyond maximum of 1-2 minutes, so, it is about getting prepared (like the scout motto), all the time we are prepared, we have alternatives, we have plan Bs, in every department, we have two major managers that are making sure that even if one falls sick or is on leave, somebody is on top of the game so by the grace of God, we have the right personnels, we have the right infrastructure and then the right service of course delivers the game.
Can you tell us, over these 14 years, what has been the most challenging thing or event that has happened to you in business?
Well, I think one of the most challenging things we ever had was power, there was a time when for almost 3 weeks, there was no light at all and our generators were on day and night operation and that is what gave birth to the fact that we now have spare so that even if there is no light for a whole year now we are not going to be bothered because we will be switching over from this to the other by the grace of God.
We have built all that stamina but at that time, we did not have that type of stamina because we thought generator was supposed to be a stand-by power alternative but we found out that it was not the standby, but the real light source so when the generator worked for 3 weeks, day and night, and we had lots of event, of which everywhere was full, they began to overheat and they had to go down because our maintenance crew were frantic and they did not want the light to go out for too long, they did not wait for it to cool as they thought that cooling it for 1 hour would be enough for it to work and of course the gasket got burnt and we couldn’t use the generators so we had to start running around that night for solution, it was mercy; but we learnt a lot from there and ever since then we decided that it will never happen again.
What are those two things you would want the Government to intervene in when it comes to the ease of doing business especially in the hospitality space?
Number one is that they should bring down the interest rate that the banks charge, anyhow they want to do it.
I know that other countries have low interest rate while Nigeria has about the highest interest rate in this world and it is terrible because the hotel industry is very capital intensive, and you do not have any Kobo until you have finished spending all the money down to the tea-spoon, you have to build, furnish, equip, do everything to the last item and so it takes a lot of money then you now pay interest rate of 25 percent.
It kills business on arrival so if they can find a way to bring down this interest rate drastically, it will help a lot and I think they should also look at the issue of tax, they are almost killing us with taxation, the multiple taxations we talk about here, it is so much, you talk about VAT, consumption tax, corporate tax, so many and they are not small, they should at least give us a reprieve, a business that takes off and is employing so many people; here we employed about 400 people.
The fact that we pay payee and other things should make the Government see that we are solving not only economic problems, we are solving serious social problems because we employ people and when you employ people, you take them off the streets , they are not going to constitute nuisance, so we create value, we create accommodation so foreigners can come in and bring in money and then we solve financial problems because we are the biggest patronizers of the farmers, when we have events here,1000 people are coming, we are feeding them, we are not the ones growing the food, some people are growing the food and when we talk of food, food of all sorts and manners, we buy them.
So when you see the kind of contribution hotels make, it is so enormous they address everybody, practically everybody and employment system is from the highest qualified to the lowest qualified, we have a space for them here, our grass men are not medical doctors, but we have clinic here; we employ engineers, computer specialists, people in health sector, food sector, from every sector, we employ those who did not have formal training, we teach them to sweep the ground, wash plates (clean), so there is no manner of persons we do not employ.
We mop up everywhere so the Government needs to look into that and see a way they can support, give hotels special attention when it comes to interest rate and tax rebate and If they can do these two things knowing that we spend a lot of money to get our own infrastructure because there is so much infrastructure deficit in the country, we all know what is happening with electricity for instance, you do your own bore-hole, you treat your own water and a lot of security issues; you have to do a lot on your own, so, a hotel is a county on its own more or less so If the government could come in here to at least reduce the interest rate drastically, it will be easier for us to access money and we will be able to solve these problems.
Can you share with us your special delicacy at Orchid, take our readers through a dining experience and a background of the kind of chefs that you have?
You know I started by telling you some of the things that inspired my entry into this and food was a major part of it.
I grew up from a place where food delicacies mean a lot and we cook the best pepper soup, we use the natural spices (African spices) like Oziza, Uda and the rest of them to make our pepper soup, so you eat our pepper soup, it is not something you find just anywhere and of course all the natural delicacies that people want to see again on the table after they have left the village, we prepare them.
In our menu, you will find beans there, and we prepare this in different forms, the porridge form, the stew and beans form, you find your moin-moin, your akara, and all these things that are just different from all the normal continental dishes that anybody can cook.
Of cause we have an array of continental food but these other ones that Nigerians leave their home and want to see on their table, we make them so these are in addition with the normal array, of course when you talk of soup, all the natural soup, edikaikong , afang, banga, proper egusi prepared in the right way, nsala soup, ogbono soup all of them you find them all here.
In the advent of zoom and virtual meetings, has it had any impact on your business?
Of course, that has had effect on every business but you find out that the zoom meetings; any how you look at it, is the second best alternative to people, right now we are looking at ourselves eyeball to eyeball, it is not the same as zoom so, as things improve, definitely people will have to come back because they want to be interactive; when they talk, they want to see somebody and then, the zoom meeting has its own major disadvantage.
Of course, if you are in a zoom meeting with someone who is at home and the baby is crying, you put it on but you have to leave that corner to attend to the baby or go and work in the kitchen; multi-tasking it is a lot of distractions.
It is never the same with when you come here and settle down for 3-5 days, you have recreation, you are focusing, concentrating, just doing the business you came for so the zoom meeting is taking off some businesses for now but we know it is picking up again because people can find that the disadvantage of the zoom meeting is there too and there is no way you can compare it to an on-sight meeting.
Do people come to Orchid and know that they are getting value for the money they are paying or is it going to be over-priced because of all the challenges that you are trying to resolve as a business?
Like I always talk about, if you have the right people doing the right thing the right way, you do not have to be the most expensive yet you can deliver the best quality because it is about balancing.
If you have people who are coordinated and committed, they can go out of their way to get something at a cheaper price, for instance, if you stay on the street of Marina to buy tomatoes and somebody goes down to Mile 12 to buy, you are not going to buy at the same price so you can buy there cheaper and still come here to deliver a cheaper food, than someone who bought from Marina and even make more profit and still sell at a lower price to your customers and then if you have good quality staff, if they are well treated and they know that this is a workplace where people are treated like human beings, they give you commitment and commitment is everything and when they are committed, the customer gets the best of service without having to pay arms and legs.
In some places you pay arms and legs and you still do not get the services, so we are able to balance it because we have the right people in our team.
Finally, where do you see Orchid hotel in the next five years?
You can see we are doing a big expansion here (Lekki); we are just rounding up another 80 rooms. We have already started a 230 room hotel in Ikeja GRA; 37, Adekunle Fajuyi Way.
In the next five years, that would have been running by the grace of God. We think we would have penetrated other cities.