The hotel industry in Rwanda is growing aggressively. But one hotel stands out from the rest: Hôtel des Mille Collines, the premier hotel that has been part of Rwanda’s hotel scene for over 40 years. As times change, the hotel is set to boost its glory, as the General Manager, Denis Wollner explained to Africa Inc. magazine.
As Rwanda soars in its quest to be one of the prime business destinations in Africa, the hotel is planning a major upgrade and changes to the way it is managed to take advantage of new business opportunities in the country, says Denis Wollner, the General Manager.
Denis, who is a 38-year industry veteran previously worked in Europe, Africa, Middle East, Asia and Latin America and is a consummate Swiss national whose family’s involvement in the hotel industry goes three generations, believes that the hotel is set for glorious times ahead.
“When you offer security and keep the country clean, every investor would find it very easy to come to invest in the country.
Rwanda is not Switzerland, but the first impression that visitors and investors have of a country is very important, and in that it can compare itself to Switzerland,” says Denis as we chat in his office, on the common referral of Rwanda and the “Switzerland of Africa.”
Having worked in several African countries, Denis feels at home in Rwanda, but the most important part of his day is spent working on boosting the profile of Rwanda’s iconic hotel, Hôtel des Mille Collines, which has been in existence for over 40 years, and where he has been the General Manager for a short period, approaching his first year in the role.
Strong and long heritage
Hôtel des Mille Collines (meaning hotel of a thousand hills, named after the breath-taking hilly landscape of Rwanda) is as important to Rwanda as many of its historic sites.
The hotel is immortalized in the movie Hotel Rwanda and other movies and documentaries.
Hotel Rwanda told of the refuge the hotel offered to thousands of people who ran to hide on its grounds to escape the 1994 genocide that nearly brought Rwanda to its knees, only for the country to defy the norms and rise to its present position in Africa as a peaceful, prosperous and a premier investment destination.
“This hotel’s story is very unique. Firstly, the hotel has a history of over 40 years and has been a key part of the country for all these years and secondly it made history, unfortunately, during the genocide, so the hotel is part of the country and should be kept as such.
But it is not fair to compare the film and the hotel as the movie producers had their story to tell, which could be a bit different, from what really happened here.
We have a country here, which is just over 100 years old, and 40 years ago this was one of the first hotels that has continuously offered quality service and high standards over all these years.
It is still a remarkable place, not only the brand Hôtel des Mille Collines as such but also the employees who have worked at this hotel over the 40 years.
Without the right employees, you cannot have success in any corporate company. But, yes, the Hôtel des Mille Collines brand is very strong,” Denis says.
And then there is the Rwanda story that works in favor of the hotel to deliver on its mandate, considering that as a small country, Rwanda, on paper, may appear to not have many good things its way in attracting guests to utilize the hotel facilities.
“In Rwanda you have a feeling of excellent quality of life that keeps attracting visitors, be they tourists or business men into the country, to our favor as hoteliers.
I hope this doesn’t change because when business grows, people also change their standards and quality, and their own mentality to superior service.
If Rwandese keep themselves as welcoming as they are then that will be great asset for this country into the future.”
Hôtel des Mille Collines is located in the Rwandan capital, Kigali. The hotel features 112 rooms, suites, meeting and conference facilities.
It also has a ballroom that can host up to 300 people, an outdoor swimming pool, recreation area and seven boutiques.
Located in downtown Kigali,75% of the hotel’s guests are business people with the remaining 25% being tourists.
“We have a couple of products; banquets and events, syndicate rooms for small meetings and a panorama restaurant which is our main restaurant on the 4thfloor with an exclusive view of the city, plus exclusive service and exclusive food.
“Then we have the terrace restaurant which offers nice breakfast, African and European buffet every day. We also have the pool bar which offers snacks and of course the pool and relaxation time. If I would be asked to define this hotel, I would say we are a city hotel and a resort,” says Denis. In fact an “ULTIMATE URBAN RESORT”, says Denis.
The management team of the hotel is composed of experienced and professional team members with great experience and background in their domains, all the way from the General Manager to the departmental heads, line managers and staff.
Most staff members have grown in their areas of responsibility while working with the hotel. For example, the company’s Executive Assistant in charge of rooms Claire Kangwage, has been a member of the team since 2006, starting as Guest Relations Manager. She has a Hospitality and Tourism background, and the right experience.
The Executive Chef and Executive Sous Chef both have a great experience in the industry in Europe, Middle East and Africa.
Denis is a third generation hotel industry descendant whose father and mother worked in the hotel industry, with over 38 years of experience in Europe, Africa, Middle East, Asia and Latin America.
“All our team members no matter the sector or department have knowledge in their fields, including our gardening and IT specialists.
All of them are proud to be part of a great and remarkable hotel and bring forward new ideas and suggestions every day for us to improve our business and make the hotel better,” Denis informs us.
The hotel’s core business is selling accommodation rooms and food and beverages to its clients, with two main service categories.
It also offers MICE facilities, catering services, massage, business centre services and car service.
“We try to accommodate our guests from the moment they land in Rwanda to the moment they take off back to their destinations by trying to cover all their needs when they are in the country.
We also work with various third parties such as tour operators, airlines and conference services providers to provide a seamless service to the clients and ease their travel, be it for leisure or business,” Denis adds.
The company is a privately owned family business with strong roots in Rwanda that works well of the company.
Booming industry, with challenges
“The biggest challenge we are facing in the next months are the competitors, there are many competitors coming. The industry is multiplying by a factor of three the number of rooms in the four and five star sector, which is a lot in a short period of time.
Of course we could suffer because they are newer but we have our brand that everyone who comes to Rwanda wants to see, whether they are staying at the hotel or at to another hotel,” he says.
“The other challenge we have ahead is the recently opened Kigali Convention Centre that shall compete with our conferences, incentives and meetings, but we do have our place in this business area, and we can only improve our facilities to make it a wonderful place to consider for these activities.”
“Of course as a country, we have a gap here in training of staff on hospitality and food and beverage courses.
The country needs a high caliber hotel management school that meets international requirements, which I know the Hotel Association of Rwanda is discussing at the moment.
For our part, we are willing to have some practicals and internships here to build more capacity. We have good trainings here and this can be proved by the fact that other hotels are taking our employees regularly.”
Building for the future
According to Denis, with 40 years behind its back, the hotel is set for a major upgrade to cater for changing customer needs.
“Over the past 4 months we have started to refurbish the centralized areas of the hotel to build on our recent initiatives to improve the service and quality of the hotel, but we are not yet done with the changes we require.
We are having a major refurbishment of the hotel in the next 18 months, in three phases, commencing early next year, if all go to plan.
The project aims to improve the rooms and other facilities, plus the security, fire detection and communication systems in the hotel.
We shall also upgrade the Wi-Fi, electricity, water and TV, rooms, and public areas all to optimize the services for our clients,” Denis says, with the aim of giving their clients better and improved service.
But even as the hotel looks forward to major changes, innovation still continues to meet customer requirements.
“We recently introduced a massage gazebo by the swimming pool which has proved to bring great added value to our guests’ experience at the hotel. That has been reflected in extra revenue at the end of the month but also positive feedback from guests,” he informed us.
Employee focus and awards
As stated earlier, Denis believes that the hotel brand has also been supported by a strong human resource capability.
The management of the hotel has ensured that the staff members are involved in improvement initiatives at the hotel including through formal monthly staff gatherings where they can communicate their concerns and share their achievements.
Informal activities including sports and birthday parties add to the creation of a friendly working atmosphere.
The hotel is also improving on its procedures and processes to ensure that service quality is standardised across the team members by having regular training sessions that build on employee capability.
“We recently received the “Best Hotel Customer Service” award from the annual Service Mag award. It certainly had a very positive effect on the team, which got inspired and motivated by such recognition.”
The future in mind
Denis says that the hotel aims to maintain and improve its standing in the Rwanda hospitality market and to be competitive with the rest of the industry.
“We will have to analyse closely the market and our competitors, be at their level or better, with the focus of staying the best traditional landmark hotel and the sole hotel where business can be shared with leisure in a unique atmosphere of remarkable urban resort,” adding that the hotel has its unique proposition that makes its customers to continue to patronise the facility, but that they will also add more effort to market the facility to new clients.
As a business they have many priorities but first they are focused on improving the services and optimizing the effectiveness as the team.
The hotel is targeting to take advantage of the growing investments in Rwanda to drive more business through its doors.
“The city is growing and also the economy of the country, we are part of these improvements and of course we shall take advantage to grow.
With the recent investments in a major conference venue, Denis says that they foresee more conferences, and shall build their capacity to handle the conference guests.
“The trend will be more conferences and meetings in town and we are prepared as we initiate changes and improvements to make us become more flexible for any requests for our future clients,” he states
“With the planned works we will achieve perfect quality for our guests and clients that will cater for their needs for the next years,” he adds.
The hotel is deeply connected to the community and Rwandans feel much attached to the property.
The company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy is focused towards youth empowerment, the goal being to support self-sustainability within the local active population.
Some of the recent activities include the full coverage of university tuitions for some young students and provision of cows to upcountry residents in order for them to sell milk and start small businesses, according to Denis.