From tourists to business travelers to filmmakers, Equatorial Guinea’s appeal as a destination is on the rise. Hendrick Calles, Managing Director of Hilton Malabo, discusses the significance and impact of having such a major international brand betting on the country’s future, and other factors, will have on the development of Equatorial Guinea’s tourism sector.
Some people are saying that Equatorial Guinea’s progress is being generated by oil; others believe it is thanks to the President’s commitment to make it happen, as there are countries with oil and no development. Could you share your opinion on this, and what the President’s reelection symbolizes for the country’s future?
Other neighboring countries that also have natural resources, such as oil and natural gas, in the last few years have not invested in infrastructure, roads, universities, or leisure facilities, like Malabo National Park. These countries are now suffering from the oil prices downfall much more than Equatorial Guinea.
The United Arab Emirates began to do this early in the 90s and that’s why they are today an entertainment and leisure hub in the Middle East and they almost don’t have to rely on their oil activity. They are a financial hub, an entertainment hub, whatever you want to call it. It took them 20 years before they could reap the benefits, whereas we hope it doesn’t take that long for us. We receive new investors every day, and we are open to all kinds of foreign investors. We as a Hilton hotel welcome them in every day.
Let’s also consider how hard the different ministers, their delegates and secretaries work on attracting these investments so the country can diversify. Political stability helps this sort of thing. Now, we still need a couple of years so foreign investors can be sure there will be adherence to the rules.
In the last few years several countries experiencing major economic growth worldwide have been located in sub-Saharan Africa. What elements do you think determine these very promising times for the region?
As an international group, we seek first of all for a steady economy, peace in the country, and also we look for a country that honors professional ethical practices. Since we first got to Equatorial Guinea we have found that, and we seek that in other countries as well: to know that our integrity and ethic codes will be valued wherever we go. Our guests’ integrity shall never be compromised. In the world we live in, being in Paris or Belgium, some unpleasant things could happen, but still this is an emerging continent. We can look at cities like Luanda or Freetown in Sierra Leona, that not too long ago were Ebola virus zones and that are now open to businesses and welcoming international groups. Therefore, I think Africa is the continent of the future and we can already feel it in the present. For me, the secret lies in the trust in the main national characters and also the reciprocal trust between the international investors.
What message would you send to investors who have their eyes on the tourism sector?
Equatorial Guinea is a place full of well-hidden secrets within its natural resources, national parks and other wonders. For example, in Ureka we have natural falls that pour into volcanic sand and are astonishing. This is a unique landscape you cannot find in many places. However, if its access is difficult, all its potential becomes diminished. And countries like Mauritius, Angola and Gabon are also very keen to open up to tourism.
The expedition of travel visas is something we are pushing for; we want to make it coordinated and composed. Today, tourism is a matter of impulses and masses, so sometimes crazy decisions are taken like flying to Paris or Rome for the weekend, so instead of taking a three-hour flight to the Canary Islands why not choose Malabo? Without a travel visa is not possible, if it is then there’s at least a way to obtain it. Even for business this becomes a major obstacle, but this matter is being considered, I believe.
What are the chances of Equatorial Guinea becoming one of the top destinations in Africa?
I believe we hold all the cards. The most important thing is that the country is connected via its air borders. We receive four international companies more than five times a week from different European points. That makes the country well communicated with Europe and Africa through its air links.
Regarding hospitality infrastructure, there are a few international franchisees present; three of them are five-star hotels on an island. On the continental side there’s a gorgeous 450-room hotel. No other country in the region can boast of such an offer.
We also have four-lane highways with automated tolls. Nowadays doing business should be easy.
How does the Hilton Malabo make the tourism sector in Equatorial Guinea more competitive?
The presence of an international brand such as ours that ensures its guest receive the same standard of hospitality, whether it’s the Hilton in Tokyo, Paris, Madrid or, of course Malabo, guarantees trust for the international traveler. It is about clients knowing that wherever they go they will find their Hilton burger, or Hilton breakfast to begin the day the same way they would do in any other capital. We contribute by providing a quality service and also by providing a place where anyone who wants to pursue a lasting career can find it. You only need a great attitude and the will to serve others. A plumber, an accountant, a chef has a place, but also an engineer, someone who studied hospitality, and someone from human studies as well. We offer many different vacancies. For instance, for someone who enjoys biology and flowers we offer beautiful gardens to take care of. Anyone who is passionate about his job has great opportunities to find his place in our hotel. We look for young people between 15 and 20 years old, the millennials, and we teach them about the hospitality industry. We help them understand you do not only have to become an office person but that you can also do what you really love. They discover that there’s no shame in serving others, but that it’s a form of art.
Do you have training programs?
We have different sectors of capacity building and training. We first focus on hiring the right people in the right numbers. I can’t for example, claim to prioritize national employment if 30% of my staff is foreign.
Once you have equal opportunities from the recruiting process, they afterwards enter training programs to improve their development and aptitudes. We visit the youngsters here in Malabo, we identify their talents and feed their curiosity to make them come to us from a month to a year of paid internships. Then we recruit, we offer equal opportunities and we give the programs. That’s regarding our national talent development.
Then, for people already inside the hotel, we have the Hilton University Worldwide, which is an offline platform: there they can find over 10,000 courses, from finances to the art of serving a table. Any member of the Hilton team can access to it and train themselves. We also have training areas with computers, 24 hours a day. We also send our talents to our headquarters in South Africa to do what we call a task force and are put to test. For instance, we send them to our commercial department in South Africa to see how they operate, learn from them, acquire knowledge, come back here and implement what they learn. We do this two or three times a year. We send our chief of human resources to the Human Resources Conference in Cairo. Our commercial director is also soon leaving for South Africa to spend four days focusing on commercial skills, guest treatment, acquiring information as to how to orientate products and offers; all of it is an art and we must offer the possibility to our national team members to develop and grow.
Both shareholders and the Hilton Group think that we must continue to invest in these people. In the future we want an Equatoguinean or an African to be the head of a Hilton hotel in Africa. It’s unthinkable that today most chains have foreign people as directors, instead of locals.
In what way is Hilton Hotels helping to communicate what’s been taking place inside the country to the international audience?
Promotion begins with visiting the consulates in the different origin sites to obtain visas, following the arrival to the airport, passing through the hotels, and of course a trip to Bioko’s island. On each step we’re helping them in the process of exploring the country and its singularities. It is true that natural beauties and government built structures are there and will remain, but the art of showing and captivating these young people into the world of hostelry so that they can make visitors feel at home, it’s the value added by Hilton. When we got here the amount of young people interested in this activity was lower than today’s; they appreciate it and want to make a career out of it. To me that’s the mentality switch that matters, that guests tell us “how wonderful it is coming back to your hotel”. It really helps a lot.
Convention tourism in Equatorial Guinea is also very important. How does Hilton perform in this area?
We always try to provide an offer according to the needs of certain type of clients. There are international organizations, some more African than others like Africa’s Central Bank, or others like the United Nations Development Programme that have either a headquarters or some precedence here and tend to bring conferences and events. They’re business clients with particular needs like fast internet connection or comfortable meeting rooms appropriate for successful meetings, and also everything must be done quickly. We have the infrastructure and the staff to offer these kinds of services. We understand better than no one that when it comes to business, considering its location and experience, Hilton Malabo is the right place to go.
Equatorial Guinea is currently a film set for foreign countries, especially Spanish producers. Why do you think film producer companies are choosing the country to shoot their films?
I believe there are many aspects. To begin with we have spectacular natural landscapes, so you don’t need to add huge special effects or manipulations when you have natural backdrops like the ones you find here. One can still find pure and preserved natural environments here, which is rare in the rest of the world. Currently there’s an accelerated contamination in many touristic areas, which is also consequence of the touristic activity.
For example, when one group from Spain visited with the intention of making a film, we had the chance to meet some of the actors and production crew. They all agreed that it’s a great advantage being able to fly six hours, no stops, and shoot in this equatorial paradise with jungles, sea and amazing fauna. You would normally have to go to Latin America or Asia to find places like that, but it turns out six hours from Spain, flying direct, you can do it, and you also count on the language which is the same. It makes a lot of sense, logistically speaking. I also believe there’s a cultural past that links both countries. Therefore, what could be better than making people discover Equatorial Guinea through these movies?