Exclusive InterviewsAn Interview with Hospitality Entrepreneur, Mary Dinah

An Interview with Hospitality Entrepreneur, Mary Dinah

Mary Dinah founded M.A.D Hospitality, a hospitality consulting firm with particular focus on the management of boutique hotels and service excellence training. The company has since grown and diversified into corporate hotel bookings with international clients that include Fortune 500 companies and more recently the luxury private residences where Naomi Campbell and Roberto Cavalli stayed while visiting Lagos. In this interview with Lehle Balde overlooking the Lagos Lagoon reminiscent of Seattle waterline, the Harvard graduate and founder of Job Link Foundation talked about her new venture as the CEO of Seattle Residences, Luxury Apartments in Victoria Island, Lagos.  Excerpts:
How did you get started in the hospitality business?
I have been in hospitality for 18 years, and that has been many years in hospitality for me. I’m quite lucky that I started young. I started at the age of 17 with the Hilton in London. I was the Conference and Banqueting Operator, helping with large meetings and conferences. Hilton is the largest conference and banqueting hotel in Europe, their conferences sits about 3,000 people, we were having really big banquets and awards.
It’s a big stage to start on. I studied computer science at the University of Nottingham, and immediately after that I did a Masters in Hotel Management. In between the two, I worked with Four Seasons in London, on an internship for four months, after I finished the masters, I joined the Marriot Hotel Group, which offered a fast track to general management and most of my career has been with Marriot.
I worked in the front office, food, and beverage and I was a chef for some time. In any hotel, you will immerse yourself with foods and beverages; you can’t do without it, from the menus, menu engineering, work with the chefs, during events. I was a breakfast chef, pastry chef, and then I worked with housekeeping. To be able to be a general manager of a hotel, you have to work everywhere. After that, I focused more on sales and marketing and moved to Marriot head office team for sales in central London.
Shortly after that, I went to Harvard to study entrepreneurship, which pushed me to set up a management company called MAD, which is the hospitality business I have now run for about 10 years. At MAD Hospitality, we do a global distribution system, which is more focused on the technology type of hospitality. MAD Hospitality partners with some of the big names in the industry: we partnered Saver to be their representative in sub-Saharan Africa, so the clients would never see us, but when they book our hotel in Nigeria we are behind it, and then we get fees from it.
We did a lot with BOA, and also the local banks like First Bank and a couple of other companies, and then we manage hotels, like the Panel Apartment in Abuja, Lagoon Quest in Lagos, Golf and Spa in Abuja, Harold Park Golf Club in Abuja.
I am now the CEO of Seattle Residence. The first time I came here to visit I just thought it was stunning and beautiful and perfectly in line in terms of what we do at MAD. I thought it was perfect because I’ve worked with executive apartments before, which is what this is: luxury, extended stay, serviced apartments. There are normal apartments, but you can rent them on a nightly rate or a yearly rate, like three months, six months, it’s funny that they say short-stay because it’s actually long-stay for hotels. It’s important to know what the differences are between nightly guest and people that stay for longer in serviced apartments; the housekeeping is different, the attention to detail is different, the service and the whole feel is more homely, it is genuinely a home away from home. To the extent that we don’t even say “home away from home”, we say “your Lagos home”. It’s where you call home in the city.
It’s usually for people that travel a lot either local or international, people who want the opportunity to come and go as they please and know that everything is sorted for them, and even at their request, we can even clean their apartment daily while they are away and keep it exactly how they want it.

How do you see Seattle Residences contributing to Nigeria’s tourism? How are you able to impact the tourism industry?

In terms of what we bring to tourism, one of the reasons I moved back to Nigeria is because I wanted to make an impact on the hospitality and tourism industry in Nigeria. I had all this experience quite young, I moved back about seven years ago, but I’m still very much in London, we are working with our hotel groups here, it’s my country, Nigeria, and I want to make a key the difference, a key contribution to the industry.

The industry is still very young, very much in its infant stage. In 2010, we only had about four internationally branded hotels in Nigeria. I moved back to Nigeria, I joined the 4 Points as their head of marketing for all the Starward Hotel in Nigeria, so that’s 4 Points Lagos, Sheraton Ikeja, Sheraton Abuja, Le Meridien Port Harcourt, Le Meridien Akwa-Ibom, which is a golf resort, so I was shuffling through the five, and reporting to our head office for Africa, which is in Brussels.
The marketing hub for Europe, Africa, the Middle East, which is the London Park Lane, so I was shuffling between the two, and it was a perfect job for me because I could perfectly connect everything that I was learning and what the company was doing in Europe with what they were doing here, and I was employed to bridge the gap and make sure that marketing concepts and promotion are exactly the same as what they do everywhere else in the world, that was what I did on that role.
I took a break from managing my own company to take on that role, now after three years, I went back to manage my hospitality company and we are managing various hotels. I think it was a necessary role for me because I learned a lot, and it put me in good stead to do everything that I’m doing now.
Going back to what we want to bring to the industry, we want to show a world class property, we do a lot of service excellence training, for me, the service quality in Lagos, Nigeria is not as it should be.
I think that Nigerians are very hospitable, some of the most hospitable people in the world, and it comes naturally, we are very community-based, very family oriented, even in my language in Yoruba, when people are eating, they say in Yoruba “e wa jeun” (come and eat), they say “you meet me well, come and join,” and when you say no, they say bring a fork.
They are very hospitable, you have your family around, it is all-normal and that’s how the culture is. It is not that way in other cultures, neighbours don’t just smile at each other just because they are neighbours; they just walk past.
Some cultures are very conservative and they all keep to themselves, mind their business, and even siblings don’t necessary live together, even parents, when they are older, are moved into homes, as opposed to our culture where you move them to your home. I think we are very hospitable, but we somehow haven’t learned fully how to make it work, how to commercialise that hospitality, and so that is what I want to bring into the Nigerian culture, to show that we are hospitable, we are happy, smiley, friendly and warm, we are very social, we like to host, we like to welcome people it’s who we are and I want to make sure that we showcase who we are.
The trainings that I do is to bring it out of them, it is not to teach them anything new because it comes naturally to them, it’s to encourage them to keep that attitude when they work in the hospitality industry, to work with it, and be able to welcome people the way they would in their own homes.

One of the issues people complain about a lot in the hospitality industry is Service. What brings the difference in how you train your staff?

There is a very big difference. Almost all of the excellence training service that I’ve heard about in Nigeria is classroom based, and I do mine differently. It’s always on the job because service is a verb, it’s a doing word. When you give service, it’s an action, an act or a facial expression or a smile. It’s something that you do, it’s not cognitive and it’s not academic as something might be in other industries.

In hospitality, it’s very much action, so I don’t see the point in people sitting down and telling them this is how you should greet a guest, I would rather go to the front office and sit with them and say just continue, act like I’m not here and when they greet the guest and the guest goes, I say OK that was good, but you know the guest was holding a baby, did you ask if she needs a cot or it’s a businessman and he was holding a suit, did you ask him if he needs an ironing service, does he need a car to work.
The anticipatory service, the things that you look out for to think beyond what they’ve asked you to try and help them put together the things they’ve not even expressed, by the time they express it, it’s already a complain, or at least they are prompting you to do something. They would rather that you plan for them and ask them what they would want, based on cues that they’ve already given, the things that they need. That goes into going the extra mile for the guest, going into anticipating their needs goes into making their stay more memorable, more comfortable.
Hospitality goes as far back as biblical days; I’m a Christian and the bible talks about being warm to strangers in your community. For me, in terms of growing up in the church, every time they talk about hospitality in the Bible, there are so many stories about people welcoming others.

What is your favourite story about hospitality in the Bible?

There is a story about a man that welcomed a person into his home, and so doing welcomes an angel, and that angel then turns his life around. And the concept of it is, you never know who you welcome into your door or city, but there are many stories about being kind to strangers.
I’ve thought about this for many years and I realised that travel comes with its own stress, no matter how luxurious the hotel, no matter how warm your smile, for me I’m not so interested in Economy, first-class, business-class or private jet. I can sit anywhere because everyone is still going through a travel process and it’s not the most pleasant of things, even if you sit in first-class, it’s all nice and all but there is the cabin pressure.
I did a module in a course in school on travel catering and what it takes to get them food on a plane, the air has to be sucked out so the food can stay fresh, that’s why when they bring it, it’s all packed in the foil. It takes a lot to get it on the plane and it has to wait for possible overnight for the flight, for you to open it and it’s still fresh. It’s never perfect, it’s never restaurant quality, and it’s getting better with technology.
Everything about travel, from the airport to the car pick-up, comes with its own stress and it’s very growling. It is important that we go the extra mile for everyone you see that checks-in especially if they come from abroad, they are going through a lot already even if they flew first-class or enter a limousine and they open the car door, it’s a whole journey and they might have been on the road for 12 hours before you see them, you don’t know what they’ve been through, who they left at home.
The hotel that I started with at the Marriot, we had people who lived in New York and worked in London, every Monday they were in London and every Friday they flew out. It’s a lot deeper than people think, and how people write letters and say this whole trip for me was problematic and difficult, I just got a divorced, or I just moved home, I just had a baby, or I just got this job, reading those letters, and they mention how good the hotel service was or mention other people’s name or even your name and when your name is mentioned, you get employee of the month.
Those early days in hospitality, I realised this is so much more than just my passion for hospitality and it has a lot to do with real impact in people’s lives and people’s lives are much better because of me.  When you individualize it, you realize that your job is so much more than you. I would liken it to the work that nurses do, it’s far more than just that, the experience with people, sleeping in hospitals, being admitted or just visiting for the day, it’s such a crucial time in their life and they will always look back to the caregivers, so we are caregivers as well.
I see hospitality within hotels as that service, people argue sometimes that it’s different because it’s expensive, and it’s 5-star. It’s so much more than just giving luxury, the champagne, the tea, the $1000 suite and things like that, but when you go beneath the surface we are caregivers, whether it’s in the hospital, or in a home, or a luxury hotel, it’s the same thing, we see the same people, just at different times of their lives and the care that we give them is just as crucial as anyone else.
So, that type of mentality and concept is embedded in the training that I give to the staff and I think that that’s what makes the service here different, and I think that because I’ve gotten a lot of feedback about the team and our service, and everything from the security.
The rest of the directors and I spend a lot of time training the security staff members, standing with them outside not in the classroom. We always have a classroom training for maybe 2 hours to discuss, where we share some videos, presentations, the rest of the one-week training is hands-on training and I think that’s what makes the big difference.
Also, the type of properties that we manage: I’m very lucky to have fantastic owners, they really understand hospitality, they shared the vision that they wanted to create, it was spot-on the type of company and hospitality service that I wanted to put together and provide, so it’s a perfect team from the start.
So, when I explain we need to employ a certain number of people, they say go ahead, or we need to invest this much in training, they say go ahead. Their attention to detail and their understanding of it is far deeper than all the previous owners, I’ve worked with, from the quality of the hand towels to the scent of the candles and all of the equipment that we put in our wellness centres, everything has to be world-class. All of the equipment at the gym, our interior design option is the best, we appreciate indigenous, so we always look for the best indigenous companies. If for any reason we can’t find it, then we go abroad. They want local luxury. It’s a Nigerian hotel and we want Nigerians to have it at the best, but at the same time, we don’t discriminate.
We have a lady from Senegal as our restaurant manager, the front office manager is from the Philippines, and our lifestyle manager is from India. I think I am GM or CEO of the top hotels in Nigeria that is Nigerian; all of the other GMs are foreign. Sheraton came to Nigeria in 1985 and they’ve never had a Nigerian GM, so it is great to say that I am the first lady to not only become the GM & CEO of the management company but also heading the whole operations; it shows that Nigerians can do it, you just need to get the right Nigerians and support them to do it.

How would you say the government is supporting Nigeria’s tourism business? What’s your take on the government efforts to improve tourism in Nigeria?

At the moment, we are in-between governments, we have our new Governor-elect, and I’ve met with him several times. He, in particular, wants to focus on tourism, which is refreshing. I was an ambassador of tourism for about two years and we were able to do some projects on beach renovations.

I also did a lot of consulting in terms of the service industry, hotels, customer service, and hospitality. With Sanwo-Olu coming in, I think he is going to put a lot of focus on it and prioritise it to the extent of what the budget will allow. He is trying to make some moves in tourism, and I’m sure that we’ll work together. He is interested with projects that come with their own funding, and for me, that’s as much as you can expect from the government.
In that regard, they’ve been very supportive, however but the budget is not always adequate.  If you have a proposal and you take it to the Ministry of Tourism, if you have your own funding, they would almost always help you execute it and give a letter that they are endorsing it. Unfortunately, you can’t really ask for more than that.
I think the problem we have a lot of times in Nigeria is that people expect the government to be a bank, so their focus is to meet government for money, but my own focus is to create money from private sector, banks or international lenders and then go to the government to partner.
So, what they can contribute can to do a large-scale training in security for instance: in terms of venue (because they have a lot of training centres) in that sense, they are always very supportive. Funding not so much, because they don’t really have it and there are so many issues with corruption and things like that, so I even prefer that they just support, and put their logo on your project, it goes a long way.
I think that in the new administration, Sanwo-Olu is going to be even more supportive and more open-minded because he has had a lot of exposure, and for tourism, and that is what you need. You need an experienced leader to say this isn’t the way things should be.
It is basic, maybe I will speak to him about this, for example, Lagos’ nightlife. We have a very buzzing nightlife. London has a great nightlife, but Lagos is different, the weather is warm and we need more security at night. There is no reason why we can’t have one policeman every 100 metres between Adeola Odeku and Akin Adesola.
There was a time streets were not lit and it was dark, the street lighting was not consistent, and if it’s not lit up, it’s a security hazard. But now, 24 hours a day, there is light everywhere; you will never find Adeola Odeku without light even at 4am. So, the next thing we need now is security all around, and if we have that, we can convince all the tourists that they can go clubbing and come back at 5am. I know it’s not something they can do in Surulere, Ajegunle, etc. but at least in these areas where you have all the nightclubs.

Naomi Campbell, Edward Eningful, Robert Cavalli and Andre Leon Tally all stayed at the Seattle Residences in May. What was it like?

It was really exciting to have them stay at Seattle Residences. It was amazing to house all of the big fashion people. They were all very happy with their experience here at Seattle and Lagos in general. Naomi Campbell made a very creative video essentially marketing Nigeria from the fashion shows, the beaches, Seattle Residences and the Lagos vibe. It is important for people to see the various sides of Lagos. Lagos is a dynamic city with luxurious experiences and we want people to see this side of Lagos too.

Apart from hospitality, you have a foundation called JobLink, what does the Foundation do?
JobLink is one of Nigeria’s fastest growing human resource development companies with its headquarters at 8 Kingsway Road, Ikoyi, Lagos. The company has a network of over 200,000 jobseekers from all states in Nigeria and over 500 top companies as clients. Job-Link continues to focus on its main objective of reducing the unemployment rate in Nigeria by connecting candidates to jobs in diverse industries. To date, over 10,000 job seekers have been connected with employers.
In addition to recruitment services, Job-Link specializes in human capital development. Our employability training are designed to ensure all candidates have the soft skills required to excel at interviews and keep the jobs we connect them with. Certificates of attendance are given at the end of the training, which candidates can add to their resumes and profiles to boost their chances of attracting employers. More than 2,000 people have been trained at our 150-seater training centre in Ikoyi with very encouraging success stories.

What advice do you have for young women navigating their professional lives?

My advice to young women is simply ‘Go for it’. The sky is the limit. Women in this culture are too concerned about their reputation and what other people think. A lot of people hold themselves back because of what they think people will say, the fear of being judged for being too assertive and out there. My advice is to stay focused on your objectives. Men in Nigeria are the ones closing all the deals and that is how they get ahead. Women need to believe in their abilities and go after what they want unapologetically.


(This Interview was  done by Lehlé Baldé for Businessday Media)

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Award-Winning Global Citizen 

Lehlé Baldé

Sustainable development professional, event host, moderator, and producer with a core focus on economic inclusion through financial inclusion and literacy advocacy. Listed on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for media.