Zambia: Interview with Michael Hunter-Smith

Michael Hunter-Smith

General Manager (Best Western Plus Lusaka Grand Hotel)

Michael Hunter-Smith

The foreign direct investment field is highly dynamic and competitive, with virtually all countries in the region battling to secure foreign investment. What would you say are Zambia’s most significant comparative advantages compared to other countries in southern Africa?

First of all, location. You are in the middle of southern Africa and wherever you want to go in the region, it is close. Anyone who is looking to set up a business in Southern Africa is looking at doing business in all the regions; not just one country. So your location is key and we are two hours from everywhere. You can blink and you are in Johannesburg, you can go for a meeting and come back on the same day.

Secondly, Zambia is a very safe and stable country, with very little violence. 50 years of independence and no civil wars. Zambian’s are preparing for the upcoming vote now and I hear often on the radio that you must not forget that we are “One Zambia, One Nation”. That’s what they push and promote and they are very loyal to each other. The Zambian nation as a whole are peace looking people.

The copper industry is doing well despite the fluctuations in the market. Traditionally Zambia used to import everything, and they still import too many products, so there is opportunity in self sustainability. There is a great opportunity in the agricultural side and sustainable energy is going to be huge. Zambia electricity comes mainly from turbines which are not handling the growth of the country.

There is also an opportunity with infrastructure. There is a big push to up the infrastructure - roads, railway, water, sewerage etc. There is a Canadian company here now that is redoing the whole water and sewerage system of Lusaka.

Also in terms of manufacturing industry. It is in this field that Zambia needs more entrepreneurs.

Travel and tourism accounted for 2.7% of Zambia’s GDP in 2014. In your opinion, do you think both the country and Lusaka are reaching their full potential in terms of tourism?

Not at all, they just started. The problem is that Zambia has not traditionally had a tourism focus, however, I believe that the new Zambian Tourism Association is doing everything they can to promote the country. The first thing they are doing is promoting Zambia as a great place to travel for locals, and secondly to International travelers as a destination on its own. With Victoria Falls and Livingstone being the main attraction most international tourist visit there as an extension of their holidays to surrounding countries. The drive right know is the change that and get people to visit Zambia as their holiday destination.

Best Western Hotels & Resorts is this year celebrating its 70th anniversary. Since its opening in the USA in 1946, the hotel chain has developed a trailblazing portfolio across the world- today with 4,100 hotels in more than 100 countries and territories worldwide. In your opinion, what are the main reasons behind the company’s ongoing success worldwide?

Firstly, I believe they are extremely professional in what they do and very strict with their standards. So when you book a Best Western, you know it will be a decent hotel. Their quality assessment program is very strict and ensures that the guest experience will be top class

Secondly, it’s the Best Western rewards program. They have just introduced an app on your phone, where you can claim and manage your awards anywhere from your phone. So every time people stay at our hotel, they get points, and these can be used anywhere in the world at any Best Western hotel. So although somebody might come and stay with me all the time and build up their rewards, they can use their rewards at and Best Western worldwide. And it is free to join. This is a huge database so your chances of getting bookings from them are big and it’s managed very well. We have, for example, in our hotel a guest relations manager and her job is to sign up people to the rewards program.

Plus, all Best Western hotels have access to a revenue manager. Mine is based in Ireland and watches my hotel all the time and advises me on strategy depending on occupancy levels.

Boasting four stars, the Best Western Plus Lusaka Grand Hotel has 92 rooms and suites as well as meeting and conference rooms, an outdoor pool, restaurant and bar. How recently did Best Western Plus Grand Lusaka Hotel commence operations in Zambia and how would you describe its experience in Zambia to date?

This hotel has been here for six years before it became the Best Western. We opened as Best Western on the 2nd of April, 2015, so one year ago.

First of all, we attracted lot of attention from the other hotel groups. We opened up with an opening special and we filled up very quickly because we are a business hotel and Lusaka is a place where people come on business. We then got some American conferences and we were overbooked so we had to call other hotels for bookings. So the first six months were a real success and we got lot of attention. That’s one side of it, and then the other side of it is the hotel that was here before had a pretty bad name, and it took some time to clear this reputation. The hotel whilst it’s a Best Western branded, it is privately owned and operated. We brand ourselves as Best Western and act like Best Western employees because it is a franchise.

Lusaka’s hotel industry features some internationally recognized names such as the Radisson Blue Hotel and the InterContinental Hotel. In your opinion, how is Best Western Plus Lusaka Grand Hotel positioned in the city’s hotel industry and what are you doing to ensure that your hotel can compete?

We are a four-star hotel so we sit below the Radisson Blue Hotel and the InterContinental Hotel because they have five stars. However, there is no grading council here. The Zambian Tourism Association is about to bring out a grading council where they will come and officially grade the hotels so it will be interesting to see what the official grading of each hotel in Lusaka will end up being. Another important element is getting your pricing right and creating a comfortable environment for the guests. The way our hotel is designed is very intimate and homely.

The Best Western Plus Lusaka Grand Hotel is located close to the central business district and within easy reach of all major embassies and government offices. Can you tell us about the scope of your clientele and who you are targeting primarily?

Our primary target is businessmen who come to Lusaka often. In addition to companies for example in the mining sector, we also reach out the embassies, and the Electoral Commission of Zambia. We have quite a lot of South Africans staying here as well as Ugandans, Ethiopians, Germans, English, Americans etc. Our location is good for business people as we are very central. So when we get guest feedback people always say that the staff are the best, very friendly and helpful, and that the location is fantastic.  

Best Western Hotels & Resorts has over the years won a number of awards and been recognized for, for example, its customer loyalty program and digital presence. How do you ensure that the Best Western Plus Lusaka Grand Hotel fulfills the brand’s commitment to excellence?

Best Western Hotels & Resorts keep their hotels fully informed of all brand expectations and we all follow an approval process to ensure that errors do not occur. Each hotel also has a Revenue Manager who assists the hotels to obtain maximum exposure and high occupancy figures. The hotels are also very active in issuing Best Western Rewards Membership as this helps all the hotels in the group to grow our awareness. Its free membership so the guests love it.
Do you have any plans to expand your hotel in any way?

We would love to but we just don’t have any land to expand to. We are hoping to get a place next door as we need more parking, another conference room and another restaurant. That’s the plan but there is no way to do it at the moment. 

When a foreign brand or company arrives in Zambia, it’s in their best interest – for a number of reasons - to develop a long-term partnership with the country. Can you give some examples of ways the Best Western Plus Lusaka Grand Hotel has supported President Lungu and the People of Zambia?

We have supported youth programs and we are big supporter of sport in the country. So we always do our bit for the country. We are a major sponsor of Esther Phiri who is Zambia’s biggest boxing hero. We did a big event for her and President Lungu and the Minister of Sport attended. Our ballroom is a perfect venue for parties. We have done a lot of launching of the local music industry there, it has fantastic lighting, dance floor and stage.

Your career in the hotel industry spans nearly 10 years and has taken you from Nigeria to South Africa to Zambia- to name a few. Given your wealth of experience in the region and in the hospitality sector, what vision do you have for Best Western Plus Lusaka Grand Hotel over the next 6-12 months?

As part of the plans to upgrade the hotel facilities we are going to offer a new restaurant, bar and pool deck. Also, at the moment the hotel is very focused on the business traveler and I would like it to be more of a venue where people would come for leisure activities. We are building a new pool bar which will attract a new crowd to the hotel.

Finally, the readers of L’Express include many of France’s most influential political and business leaders. What final message would you like to send them about investing in Zambia as well as Best Western Plus Lusaka Grand Hotel?

First of all, I would like to tell them that they should make the Best Western Plus their home away from home when in Lusaka.. We have experience with long staying guests who are working here on contract. We also have a great variety of food, with an international menu, an Indian menu, and a Chinese menu. We also have very good staff who attend to the guests every need. We also offer the best value for money in Lusaka.

With investing into Zambia, this is the place to come because it is peaceful and is definitely on its way up. Zambia is not a country falling apart, rather it’s a country getting stronger and stronger. It’s not like many African countries that have a great sense of danger, here it is peaceful and the people are a pleasure to work with, very hospitable and intelligent.