Olivier Harnisch on Rezidor’s African dream

August 25th, 2014 by Susan Reynard | Categories: beverages, food, hotels, industry, people, restaurants, technology, tourism, training

Olivier Harnisch (pictured above), executive vice president and chief operating officer of Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, was in Southern Africa last week. He is based in Brussels, Belgium and was out to assess progress on the group’s hotels in South Africa and Mozambique, including the two new hotels in Cape Town (new build in Newlands due to open 1 October 2014 and rebranded Le Vendome in Sea Point due to open mid-2015) as well as spend time with the team.

Rezidor has ambitious plans for Africa, with 24 hotels and 5 800 rooms currently in operation across the continent as “upper upscale” Radisson Blu and “mid-market” Park Inn brands and more than 30 hotels and 6 300 rooms in the pipeline. The group opened its first hotel in Africa in 2000, the Radisson Blu Waterfront Hotel in Cape Town, and has a regional office in that city.

In April, the group’s president and CEO Wolfgang Neumann said: “Africa is an important growth region for Carlson Rezidor. We believe in the great potential of this continent and are committed to becoming a key player in the travel and tourism sector. Our development strategy is built on asset-light, profitable and sustainable growth with a strong focus on emerging markets.

“Africa offers excellent opportunities due to its huge natural resources and workforces, improved infrastructure, and a growing middle class. However, the continent still suffers from an imbalance between supply and demand for internationally branded hotels with world-class standards and services, and we want to change that. It is not merely about growing the number of hotels – we aim to be a leading employer in the region. By creating new jobs for local talent and by contributing to the communities where we operate in, we can make a huge difference.”

Harnisch told Hotel & Restaurant that there is no country in Africa that the group wouldn’t want to be in under the right circumstances. Nigeria and South Africa stand out as key countries on the continent, but he continues to see a future for Egypt and Libya once the political situation in those countries stabilise.

“Africa is about opportunities. Operating hotels in Africa is different compared with Europe. When we invest in Africa we also invest in infrastructure and people development,” he notes. “In African capitals people aspire to work and we get a lot of applications for jobs. Many of these are from people who are not necessarily experienced but passionate so we hire for attitude and train for skills.”

Harnisch says that because of the growing middle class across the continent, more local residents are starting to make use of the group’s hotels. City hotels in Africa have generally attracted mostly international business clientele, except for Cape Town which has a strong leisure component, but there is a shift to hotels now being seen as a meeting point by their domestic market.

When asked about how the new visa legislation will impact tourism to South Africa, Harnisch says as a group with hotels across the world, its sales teams and agents are well versed in visa requirements for different countries and will advise their clients accordingly so that their trip is as seamless as possible and there are no hassles at the airports. He admits that new administrative requirements introduced anywhere in the travel industry that are cumbersome to tourists do have a negative impact and may make people think twice about traveling. However, he says South Africa already stands out as easier to visit than some of its neighbours as visitors do not require Yellow Fever shots, for example. Also, the Ebola outbreak in northern Africa has resulted in a number of cancellations to that region.

A major focus for the group is its food and beverage offering. South African chef Stuart Cason was recently appointed area executive chef sub-Saharan Africa for Carlson Rezidor, based at Radisson Blu Gautrain in Johannesburg. He has long been passionate about the group’s dining activities in its various hotels, in dedicated to training and upskilling staff and relishes the prospect of working more closely with the food and beverage teams across the region.

Harnisch says, “Food and drinks is a critical part of our business – hotels are not only about sleeping but also eating. It’s also where you can really make a difference, especially breakfast, in the attention to detail. Our area chefs provide support at local level and help deliver on our 4D strategy.”

This 4D strategy was launched last year and sees the group focus in all of its operations on the following principles:
– Develop our talent
– Delight our guests
– Drive the business
– Deliver results
(To hear Neumann explain what this means in more detail, go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYip3vW4Wgk&feature=player_embedded)

Looking at the year ahead, Harnisch remains positive and says the group’s hotels in Africa usually beat their forecasts with few exceptions. He says South Africa has managed to overcome the “hangover” from the World Cup. Many countries hosting major international events of this nature have to endure the aftermath of a dip in demand coupled with an oversupply of rooms. He says the growth rate in South Africa has ensured that the construction of new products is now being absorbed.

Next up for the group is the launch of the 122-room Park Inn by Radisson on the corner of Hemlock and Thicket Roads in Newlands, Cape Town, which is a joint venture between Meridian Property Holdings, Deaf Federation of South Africa (Deafsa) and the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC). The property is being built where a Deafsa building used to be and the collaboration opens up a wealth of opportunities for the hotel to hire hearing impaired staff. This will see a new approach to staff training and a greater sensitivity to guest needs.

“The hospitality industry is a great industry to be in. It is extremely dynamic and continues to be successful for those who are nimble and flexible enough to adapt to changes,” says Harnisch.

“Technological changes are having a massive impact on industry and there is more to come, especially technology that helps hotels offer a personalised, tailored guest experience. Online booking processes are now more transparent, easier and quicker with fewer steps. Hotel reviews, such as those on Tripadvisor, are also having a tremendous impact, with guests looking to rating sites before booking. We work with this and find a lot of useful information and opportunities. The higher up your rating, the more business and demand you experience and this also impacts on average room rate. Our general managers are on top of their hotel’s performance.”

Harnisch is of German and French nationality but grew up in Togo. He joined Rezidor in January 2013 in his current position. Prior to joining Rezidor, Harnisch worked for Hilton Worldwide for more than 14 years, with his last position as vice president, Northern and Central Europe.

He began his career in 1986 as Commis de Rang at the Hôtel Negresco in Nice, France after completing an apprenticeship as a restaurant waiter in Briançon, France. He has worked on four continents since and speaks six languages. Harnisch holds a Hotel Management Degree from the Berlin School of Hotel Administration (Hotelbetriebswirt), an MBA from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, a Master of Science Degree in Organizational Behaviour from the University of London as well as a Certificate in Hotel Real Estate Management from Cornell University. He has also been awarded the distinction “Certified Hotel Administrator” by the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

Providing an overview of the group’s growth strategy in Africa, Elie Younes, senior vice president and head of group development of Rezidor, said earlier this year: “We aim to establish Radisson Blu as the leading upper upscale brand in the region and to pursue the scaled growth of Park Inn by Radisson in high potential primary and secondary destinations. Quorvus Collection and Radisson Red will offer additional potential to accelerate our growth in this region and to cover all market segments.”

In sub-Saharan Africa, Radisson Blu is focused on capital cities, financial and economic hubs, and Park Inn by Radisson in clusters in three of the 16 economic communities in Africa, including Nigeria and South Africa. Recent flagship openings of the group include Radisson Blu Hotel Maputo in Mozambique, Radisson Blu Hotel Lusaka in Zambia and Park Inn by Radisson Foreshore Hotel in Cape Town.

The group recently announced the opening of Radisson Blu Mammy Yoko Hotel in Freetown, the first five-star hotel in Sierra Leone. Future openings include Radisson Blu hotels in Nairobi, Kenya and Kigali, Rwanda and Park Inn by Radisson hotels in Cape Town and Kigali, Rwanda.