Inside the business of tourism with Latitude Hotels

Nick Brown, Co-Owner of Latitude Hotels, explains that expanding Africa’s business hospitality offering benefits both travellers and local communities 

Writer: Dani Redd 
Tourism is becoming an increasingly important driver of the African economy. 

According to a report by African company Jumia, in 2018 travel and tourism accounted for 8.1 percent of the region’s GDP and contributed $194.2 billion to the region’s economy. 

Indeed, Nick Brown, Co-Owner and Co-Founder of Latitude Hotels, believes that the industry is vital to building more resilient economies in Africa.

“Tourism can offer an increased and diversified source of employment and foreign income and can alleviate reliance on agriculture and commodities,” the former investment banker explains.

“It can also deliver a significant contribution to much-needed export revenues through foreign tourist spending. According to the World Bank visitor spend as a percentage of exports in 2018 was 18.5 percent in Uganda and over seven percent in Zambia.”

While Africa has long been popular with leisure travellers – especially those looking for beach breaks and safari holidays – it also has a rapidly growing MICE industry (an acronym for meetings, incentives, conferencing and exhibitions). According to Rick Taylor, CEO of The Business Tourism Company, the sector has “enormous potential”.

“International MICE delegates spend $366 per person per day in Africa,” he added.

Taylor went on to explain that up to 17 percent of business and event travellers were accompanied by their partners, and up to 38 percent were likely to become repeat leisure travellers if their trip was well-managed.

What Taylor is describing is the trend of ‘bleisure travel’ – the idea of combining business trips with several days of sightseeing, which is on the rise in Africa. There is, furthermore, an increasing expectation among business travellers that their events and conferences will incorporate both leisure activities and immersion in the local culture. 

Sophie Neubauer, Manager of Public Relations & Communications at WorldHotels, explained that today’s millennial travellers expect much more from the MICE hotel, including bespoke leisure packages and a little “something extra” in their hotels.

“They want to share a story. This can be a unique design element, local music bands playing in the hotel or local cosmetics or refreshments offered in the mini bar,” she said.

And this is where Latitude Hotels comes in.

“The founding concept of Latitude was ‘work stay play’ and it remains our guiding principle as we continue to develop. We felt that many African cities lacked a hospitality offering that embraces the local culture while offering first class accommodation for a diverse mix of local and international guests,” Brown tells us.

In other words, the brand was born out of a necessity, to fill a gap in the market for a stylish, urban yet distinctly African hotel.

The company’s pilot project was Latitude 13˚, a hotel located in the former Japanese ambassador’s home in Lilongwe, Malawi, in 2012. The hotel boasts 20 long-stay apartments alongside garden suites and club rooms furnished with locally made arts and fabrics. It also has a heated outdoor pool, conferencing facilities and offers plenty of opportunities for socialising.

“The spa, gym and all our regular evening events – musical soirees, artist interactions or book readings and launches – are all popular and enjoyable ways for guests to unwind at the end of a day’s business,” Brown explains.

The success of the concept led to the opening of two new hotels – Latitude 15˚ in Lusaka in 2014, and Latitude 0˚ opening in Kampala last year. Latitude 0˚ has 47 spacious rooms, a rooftop bar, spa and pool – the bespoke interiors are locally sourced through ethical art organisation Katundu. Meanwhile, Latitude 15˚ boasts a private member’s club ‘The Other Side’, a hub for socialising. Each hotel has a space called ‘The Works’ – a stylish business environment with open plan desks, private offices and state of the art conference facilities.

According to Brown, local businesses make use of the The Works, alongside corporate travellers and NGOs staying at the hotel.

“We strive to encourage and foster an environment that offers a progressive and inclusive approach to business and development, as well as an authentic travel experience,” he adds.

Undoubtedly, Latitude has tapped into a gap in the market. But when asked about his success, Brown says what he is proudest of is how Latitude helps improve the quality of life of his staff. 

“We operate in some of the poorest countries in the world, where education tends to be insufficient, literacy levels low and jobs scarce,” he continues. “The World Bank states that 74 percent of the total employed in Sub-Saharan Africa are in vulnerable employment. Our staff make Latitude what it is, and we take a progressive approach to recruitment and diversity and value ambition, attitude and conscience above all else. 

“We proactively manage gender equality. We encourage internal promotion and we commit further to our team’s welfare and development not only through extensive training, but also through a range of benefits including bursary schemes where staff can apply for funded degree courses.”

Latitude’s CSR Impact Report 2019 shows that 92 percent of the staff say they have learned new skills – staff turnover stands at less than two percent at Latitude 15˚ and 4.2 percent at 13˚. This is not just because the staff receive generous wages (at Latitude 0˚ wages are 477 percent of the average in Kampala) – they also cite medical benefits, bank account access and time off for weddings and funerals as reasons for their satisfaction.

Tourism has a key role to play in making African economies more resilient by providing entry-level jobs, training and development to prevent low -skilled workers becoming trapped in cycles of vulnerability. It also directly stimulates FDI (foreign direct investment).

As Latitude’s CSR Impact Report explains: “Focussing on human capital development and encouraging FDI into the broader businesses and service sector, should provide an opportunity to enhance job creation and supply chain integration, and compensate in some cases for the lack of domestic investment.”

Put simply, then, tourism has the potential to help local communities – something Brown refers to as “a multiplier effect beyond the initial investment”.  

And Brown believes the sector will become even more necessary in the future.

“Going forward tourism is likely to become only more important,” he says. “Growth has slowed and governments increasingly have to look outside the commodity and agriculture sectors to help growing fiscal and trade deficits.”

This highlights the necessity for the African hospitality industry to be attentive to tourism trends, such as an increase in ‘bleisure travellers’, and expand provision in a socially responsible, sustainable manner.

Brown has every intention of doing just that. Over the next few years, the company plans on growing its number of hotels while continuing to establish the Latitude brand.

“Increasing importance will be placed on our role as a facilitator and fosterer of business development, aid transmission, integration, knowledge-sharing and innovation,” Brown says.

We have every reason to believe it’ll succeed.



QUICKFIRE Q&A

Q: How has COVID-19 impacted the tourism and hospitality industries in the countries where Latitude operates?
 
Nick Brown: “The impact of COVID-19 has been unprecedented for the sector. The combination of restrictions on travel, closures of borders and limitations on the movement of people has meant that much of the hospitality sector has had to temporarily close. There are differences on a country by country basis, but many NGO, Embassy, and DFI staff have been repatriated, business and tourist travel has dried up and even local social gatherings are in many cases forbidden.  
 
“At this stage it’s not clear how long restrictions will last and what the longer-term impact will be, but it’s likely that business models will need to be adjusted and reconfigured going forward.”
 

Q: What is Latitude doing to weather the COVID-19 crisis?
 
Nick Brown: “Naturally our number one priority is the resilience and sustainability of the business, and all that implies in terms of jobs and investment. With the temporary closure of the hotels during this crisis we have been able to effectively put our operations into hibernation, pausing discretionary spend and non-essential capex, ensuring – very importantly – that we can maximise the support we offer staff during this crisis – both financial, and in terms of well-being. 
 
“Whilst we have prepared robustly for the current suspension, we are also busy planning for emergence once borders re-open. We predict the post-COVID guest will give heightened consideration to both space and hygiene when planning accommodation. The first of these is inherent at our hotels, with spacious properties and low guest numbers. On the latter, we have reviewed and streamlined all our procedures to ensure we’ll continue to offer the highest standards to guests, who can be sure of a safe, relaxing and comfortable stay at any Latitude hotel. 
 
“On a broader agenda, we have extended our CSR programme this month, having formally launched our community investment scheme, ‘Latitude Gratitude’, with a recent successful fundraiser in Lusaka. This will be part of a wider programme of investment in our local communities and is particularly timely when so many of them are experiencing such hardship. 
 
“Looking ahead, we have a busy programme of growth for the group and, right now, we are just looking forward to welcoming our teams and guests – local, regional and international – back again as soon as circumstances allow.”