Striding to transform hospitality
David Desta is the assistant director of Operations and Business Analytics with Kuriftu Resort. The Cornell University graduate in Hotel Administration reflects with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew on the highlights of working in the local hospitality industry, on his vision on how local destinations can best be promoted locally and offers his take on how the new leadership of the Ethiopian Tourism Organization (ETO) can harness their potential. Excerpts:
The Reporter: You are in the hospitality industry and looking at the development of the local industry up-close. You have been doing that for the last few years. What have been some of the highlights?
David Desta: Something that stood out to me is the amount of investment going into properties outside of Addis Ababa, specifically sustainable, eco-lodges that directly impact communities.
I appreciated the fact that some investors are looking to new markets to develop accommodations that focus on preserving and protecting the natural environment and wildlife. Lodges, such as, Limalimo, Gheralta, Bale Mountain, and Wild Philanthropy in Omo Valley are diversifying the lodging segment of the country by embracing the natural wonders of Ethiopia.
You usually see metropolitan properties sprouting up in major cities to target business and government clientele, but these sustainable developments have the ability to change the appeal of untouched regions in Ethiopia. Not only do these lodges provide adventure-seeking travelers the chance to visit rural parts of the country, they also improve the livelihood of local communities. The hiring of locals, purchasing of produce and supplies, transferring of knowledge, and investing into local infrastructure can help spur economic growth in rural areas.
Some of the shortcomings of the hospitality industry seem to be the lack of training facilities. You have often highlighted the lack of skilled labor shortage of the industry. Elaborate on that and how can it be best addressed within Ethiopia?
I believe that the lack of adequate training facilities to develop talent has been detrimental to the quality of service provided to customers, as well as, the fact that many university graduates enter the workforce with little to no experience. Many businesses have had to rely on creating their own training programs and schools to address the issue.
Experience is one of the key components that sets many candidates apart. I would like to see hospitality programs at universities that require students to obtain practice credit before completing their degree. This will allow them to apply classroom theory into real-world practice whilst building their respective resumes.
For example, earlier this year, the Addis Ababa Hotel Owners Association introduced the concept of opening an academy that would help create customer-oriented employees that have a passion for providing service. I believe that the academy would be set up as a teaching hotel where students can learn in the classroom and work in the adjacent hotel.
It is essential that the government, and its respective institutes, understand the importance of investing in programs that can help improve the talent pool and prepare individuals for the rigor of the hospitality industry.
While Ethiopia promotes the local industry, there is still a challenge to promote local/domestic tourism within Ethiopia. How can that be best addressed?
Local tourism is possibly the most untapped asset the Ethiopian tourism industry has. The mushrooming middle-class is a vital market segment that can help inject life into destinations throughout the country.
The lack of marketing and promotion to the local market is rather worrying. Most deals and packages to travel in Ethiopia are targeted at international tourists. That is one reason why many locals decide to visit Bishoftu, Hawassa, or Arba Minch – places they are comfortable and aware of – instead of discovering something new.
If you were to showcase the natural beauties of the Bale Mountains or the Omo Valley and promote deals at a favorable price, I am sure it will spark some interest. I still think the issue is that many people and businesses assume that domestic travelers do not offer the same benefits to local markets as international visitors because they pay in local currency and are more sensitive to prices. However, domestic tourism can be developed as a complement to the international one and offer a well-rounded tourism economy. It can help with increasing visitor spending during off-seasons and create a sense of solidarity and pride for citizens.
However, it is necessary that tensions throughout the country die down to ensure people’s safety while traveling; because, after all, security is a key requirement for any traveler.
You are presently working with Kuriftu Resorts. There is a new water-park project that Kuriftu is set to launch later on this year. Can you tell me about that?
One of the major complaints about Ethiopia is its lack of amusement activities. The country is rich with heritage and nature sites, but it lags behind in entertainment. The development of the Kuriftu Water Park project in Bishoftu is one part of an ambitious project set by Kuriftu Resorts to add value to Ethiopia’s growing tourism industry and create a unique demand generator.
The water park is set to be the largest of its kind in East Africa. Spanning over 30,000 square meters, it will feature a range of activities from a wave pool, boomerang and spiral slides, water houses, and a performance center.
The water park will be nestled around the Kuriftu Ethiopian Cultural Village, at our flagship property, in Bishoftu. Once complete, the complex will include the resort, the water park, and the cultural shopping center that will feature over 100 exciting Ethiopian stores.
We are aiming to open the water park by November – just in-time for when schools close and the peak holiday season arrives. You will be able to see progress that has been made very soon, I advise you to stay tuned.
There is now new leadership within the Ethiopian Tourism Organization (ETO). What areas do you think the leadership should focus on, in addressing the challenges and potential of the tourism sector?
I think the new leadership should start by focusing on what the core purpose of the organization is – marketing, promoting, and branding Ethiopia. There are plenty of other issues that need to be addressed, ranging from poor infrastructure, human capital, and visa facilitation. But at this moment, ETO needs to develop and implement strategies that will help Ethiopia attract travelers to the country, because they have failed to do so for the past several years.
When you have a country like Rwanda attracting more than one million tourists per year and engaging in what will be a very successful promotional campaign with Arsenal FC, you question what Rwanda has that Ethiopia doesn’t? Their tourism industry is solely focused on their gorilla wildlife, national parks, and an ambitious meetings industry.
On the contrary, Ethiopia barely managed to attract over 950,000 visitors, of which only 47 percent were for visiting for leisure and 35 percent were transit passengers with Ethiopian Airlines. From those figures it is clear to see that our industry is not attracting genuine leisure travelers.
I suggest that the organization first understands the attractions of Ethiopia and identifies its main brand touch-points. In the case of tourism, these touch-points are meant to be instantly recognizable and are attached with considerable meaning. In Ethiopia’s case it might be Lalibela, Ert Ale, or the Harar gates.
For Ethiopia, salient touch-points such as these not only thrill visitors, but can also help convey the experience to those who have not been to the destination when incorporated in marketing imagery, writing, and brand symbolism, thereby, bringing the brand to life. Presenting these brand touch-points can help destination-marketing stakeholders to visualize the brand and how it can be messaged to target markets.
What needs to be answered though is why do tourists travel to Ethiopia – is it for the culture, historical sites, cuisine, or adventure? The branding effort of the country needs to take note of customer’s opinions, which can be conducted through surveys, forums, or focus groups. This will be the basis for rebuilding the brand and appealing to the right tourists.
With your degree from Cornell University, you can practically work in some of the exclusive hotels in some of the most advanced nations in the world. What made you come back in Ethiopia, not only to live, but work in an industry that is still in transition?
After graduating I wanted to stay in the United States and work in either hospitality, real estate, finance or consulting, because I was fascinated with the development cycle of hospitality assets and wanted to work in an established and matured market. But I realized that I had the opportunity to make a lasting impact, as well as, explore my entrepreneurial ambitions in Ethiopia, my homeland.
When I look back over the past three years, I realized that I have learned valuable insights and gained a better understanding of the local environment than what I would have been able to do in the United States. I have been able to travel within Ethiopia, observe what was hindering the industry’s progress, lead development projects, and consult local enterprises.
Tourism creates jobs and develops other sectors of the economy, such as, transport, travel and hospitality. It is vital that the proper actions are taken to ensure Ethiopia continues its prosperous growth. I simply wanted to be a part of these changes.
If you could advise a young person wanting to get into the industry, what advice do you have for them?
I would advise them to do four things: get the relevant experience or education, keep learning and expanding your horizons, go the extra mile when helping or working with others, and be enthusiastic and passionate about everything that you do.