[Interview] Jameel Verjee, Founder & CEO, CityBlue Hotels, East Africa
Jameel Verjee is a British entrepreneur expanding his business in the hospitality industry across East Africa. He is Founder and CEO of CityBlue Hotels, founded in Rwanda and now expanded into Kenya and Uganda.
Please introduce CityBlue Hotels.
CityBlue Hotels is a privately-funded, home-grown outfit founded in January 2013 with the vision of introducing much-needed world class hospitality facilities in Sub-Saharan Africa’s mid-scale hotelscape. In the years since it was established, CityBlue has built a reliable and passionate team of local and international professionals from the ground-up, instilling discipline, growing standards and fostering a sense of family. CityBlue’s portfolio features two sub-brands which together capture the group spirit: Urban by CityBlue; the luxury boutique division offering gourmet dining services and CityBlue Hotel & Suites, the ultimate hotel for the business traveller.
When and why was it set up?
The work for CityBlue Hotels began in Rwanda in 2011 when I was travelling in East Africa on business and noticed a distinct lack of consistent, well-managed three-star business hotels, and none with a brand. The building blocks to commence trading took almost two years to prepare, including significant travel across Asia and the Middle East to spend time with the management teams of successful, fast-growth indigenous hotel chains in China, India and the UAE. This helped CityBlue to decide upon a business model for sub-Saharan Africa, to learn the key tenets of the industry from the ground-up, to create a management company and to persuade would-be counterparties and landowners (initially) in Rwanda to agree commercial terms. And once all of that was complete, we had to actually begin trading ... I even remember when the first dollar was banked in 2013! Today, CityBlue has operating hotels in Kenya and Uganda.
What is CityBlue’s unique selling point?
We are the only indigenous African mid-market business hotel chain in sub-Saharan Africa that has scaled beyond one jurisdiction with a promise of technology, affordability, service and location. Our unique selling point has been our ability to enter new markets with five-star locations and offer a solid three-star product at the right price.
Have you founded any other companies?
This is the fourth company and first hospitality business that I have founded after leaving my career as a lawyer in London and Paris. Each has been both challenging and rewarding but I have learned from every experience.
How did your business perform in 2017?
2017 was our record year in terms of opening in new markets, employing more people, paying more taxes and reaching higher levels of EBITDA. We now have to build upon the success of 2017 in the years ahead and watch cash flows very cautiously.
What are the plans of CityBlue Hotels in 2018?
We added two new hotels to the portfolio in the last quarter of 2017 and are growing our pipeline for 2018 so we expect that the year ahead should provide increased revenues and EBITDA with the benefit of economies of scale gained from a larger business. We must also be more prudent than ever in ensuring reporting and accounting consistency so that the growth that we foresee is managed well.
Which African countries do you predict will perform best in 2018?
I think that Kenya will recover well after the elections of 2017, Rwanda will continue to grow from strength to strength and that Zambia and Uganda will steadily improve.
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