It’s 11:05am and I am late for my tour of the new 4-star Azalai Hotel Abidjan. As my taxi flies over the Henri Konan Bedie toll bridge to my destination, my mind turns to Samsung. This year, Samsung was named Africa’s most admired brand. Indeed the South Korean industrial giant is a household name in Africa. The historical narrative of the country that birthed the technology behemoth is a familiar one for Africa – poverty, war, and colonialism – making its remarkable economic recovery story one to which the continent also aspires. But in this era of MAGA (Make America Great Again), I wondered if countries should rather not look inward for their source of corporate admiration?
Enter the Azalai Hotel Group, a brand featured in the London Stock Exchange’s new Companies to Inspire Africa Report. Founder and CEO, Mossadeck Bally has been a trailblazer in the West African hospitality industry for over two decades. Born in Niamey, Niger and educated in France and the US, he has acquired properties in Bamako, Ouagadougou, Cotonou, Bissau and Nouakchott. Azalai Abidjan is the first hotel Bally has built from scratch and therefore the crowned jewel of his portfolio.
Truth be told I myself was completely unfamiliar with the brand until I noticed the Azalai logo, from a distance, rising high out of the 14 story hotel off of Boulevard Valery Giscard d’Estaing. The new hotel comprises 200 rooms including 16 executive suites, 4 presidential suites, 4 handicap accessible rooms and 10 connecting rooms. Strategically located 10 minutes from the airport in one direction and 10 minutes from the administrative center of the Plateau in the other, it is destined to make a mark on the city’s frequent flyers.
I am meeting regional marketing manager Franck Egya. When I got to the front desk (located on the 2nd floor for security reasons) and asked for him, the receptionist replied coyly: “Do you mind calling him? To be honest we never know where he is!” Surely there was a lot going on requiring his attention. Having opened only at end-February, Azalai was abuzz with activity: a Pathé O photo shoot was in its final looks in the lobby, decorations for a wedding for 250 guests was being set up on the 2nd floor. Just as my cell phone began to ring Franck’s number, he emerged from the restaurant.
Much younger than I anticipated, Franck was very gracious during the entire tour. He proudly explained the subtle details and unknown facts behind the Azalai brand as we walked throughout the space. The significance of the name Azalai, derived from the caravans of Tuareg salt traders between Mauritania and Mali known for their hospitality. The logo inspired by a camel print on a sand dune. He told me of the recent rebranding exercise which resulted in a group holding to unify the other business lines – Azalai Apartments, Dunia Hotels, a School of Hoteling, among others – under the same umbrella. Following the restructuring which included the entry of new shareholders like AfricInvest, the corporate holding company retained the red logo as the Azalai Group and the hotel brands emerged with a more soothing terracotta colored logo which is the color palette of the Abidjan hotel.
Within 30 minutes of the tour, we bumped into one of the hotel owners and I introduced myself. Walking away I overheard him sternly reminding staff to take care not to leave any scuff marks on the glass walls encasing the restaurant. The endeavor to maintain this CFA 24 billion (USD 40 million) investment was palpable.
Franck explains, “Our ambition is to provide a unique experience in terms of home, hospitality, and quality of service. We rely on staff to create a healthy and sustainable environment for each of our guests and a strong link with the values of the Azalai Group. We want our staff to feel empowered, involved, invested in the mission and to feel the pride of working for an African-owned hotel group. Staff who generate a standard of exceptional service thereby build our reputation in the city for one common goal: the satisfaction of our customers who will then imbibe our mission and values by osmosis.” The company provides employment for over 4,000 people across the West Africa region. “We want our staff to feel empowered, involved, invested in the mission and to feel the pride of working for an African-owned hotel group,” adds Franck.
Azalai Abidjan was realized by Archi 2000 and Portuguese interior design firm Viriato Hotel Concepts. Interior decoration was led by the owner of the Melabre boutique store located on the first floor Mrs. Suzanne Abrogoua. “The interior decoration of the hotel harmoniously brings together paintings, photography and handcrafted furnishings. The décor is a mixture of African traditions with a resolutely modern and contemporary touch that reflects the emergence of Côte d’Ivoire while keeping with its ancestral values,” Franck explains.
The dining area features a gallery wall of ‘colon’ statuettes on one end and local masks on the other. It is flanked by an outdoor space with a vertical garden realized by Les Arts Verts, where Franck tells me they plan to host BBQs and live music in the evenings. The pool located on the 3rd floor seems like an oasis away from bustling Cap Sud and the newly opened PlaYce malls nearby. Although, Marcory is arguably not the most scenic neighborhood in Abidjan being largely industrial and slightly overcrowded, the building’s height offers amazing views of the city by way of a glass wall at the end of the hallways on each floor.
The 3rd floor is a leisure space for guests. Not yet functional at the time of my visit in April 2017, a room directly off the elevator rather openly displays the amenities of the future hair salon ready to be unpacked and mounted. The spa features five treatment rooms as well as a Jacuzzi and sauna. Although the sauna boasted a glittery bathroom tile and interesting chairs, the finishes of the space were unimpressive. Red curtains hung like high-water jeans on a teenager who recently experienced a growth spurt; albeit necessary to cocoon prospective spa patrons from unsightly views of electrical and plumbing infrastructure outside. The walls featured somewhat tawdry floral motif stencils in perhaps a desperate attempt to bring the outdoors in. The gym’s rather loud mural on the back wall and the small A4 paper which read “For Guests Only” handwritten in marker above a shelf of towels led me to believe that less thought had been put into these spaces than into the gorgeous and expansive reception area below.
The hotel does make up for its few shortcomings with high tech features including plans to have customized music styling where visitors can choose the hotel playlist for the day using a modern version of a jukebox. There was also conference room projector technology that is wifi enabled, allowing you to display presentations on wall mounted screens from the comfort of your mobile phone without tripping on a single cable. Each of the eight conference rooms are all named after scents – caramel, citronella, coffee while diffusers help to invoke the ambiance during the meetings.
In a break from protocol, I was invited by Franck to also tour the kitchen. Well equipped, hygienic and organized, it was a treat. A room for the resident pastry chef, another for food prep. One entry from restaurant to kitchen for dirty plates with its own separate dinnerware wash up space. Another entry from kitchen to dining area for serving prepared food. After the 2-hour tour, I was invited to partake in some lunch. The salad bar was quite tasty while the main meal was African inspired, delicious but rather straightforward: choukouya poulet, white rice, veggies.
Rightfully so, Azalia considers itself first as an ambassador of African culture to those who visit the continent. “We portray character through both a culture of hospitality but also art and le ‘savoir faire’. Our slogan is Africa Welcomes You, so we aim to promote Africa in everything we do,” shares Franck.
Can Samsung do that?