“My only wish is that we all make it through this hard time together and toast all the wins and losses we will have, 5 years down the line” – Apiyo Aloo.
Born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, Apiyo Aloo has always been passionate about four things: Hospitality, Sustainability, Growth and Africa. With over 13 years of experience in the global market, Aloo has worked for Best Western Hotels, Hilton Hotels, and one of the best 50 restaurants in the world, among other international brands. Based in Nairobi, Aloo is the Founder and Director of Development at Lustar Group REIT Ltd, a hospitality Real Estate Investment Trust in Africa that focuses on creating Unique and Innovative hotel Brand Concepts that connect with guests Emotionally.
Could you tell us a little about your professional background?
My first job was working at Lord Errol, a 5-star restaurant in Nairobi, Kenya, as a casual in the pot wash, right after high school – I was only 21 years old. I turned down an opportunity to go to Moi University to study something completely different from what I had a passion for. I simply wanted to be a hotelier, and my mind was set.
I was quite lucky to join Kenya Utalii College right after, the best hotel school in Africa at the time, to study hotel management and I never looked back. This journey has exposed me to various positions both locally and abroad as I started my career in restaurants. I managed one of the 50 best restaurants in the world and later moved to the hotel space, having worked for both Hilton Hotels and Best Western among other brands, focusing on F&B, Operations, Rebranding, Repositioning and later a Pre-Opening General Manager for a 5-star independent property in Tanzania. This experience introduced me to hotel development, which I found quite fascinating.
With an aim to learn more about hotel development, I started a journey that led me to some of the best hotel schools in the world, Cornell University and most recently, Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL) in Switzerland, where I pursued an MBA in Hospitality Management – an experience which changed my outlook of the hotel industry globally and shaped my life for a new journey.
Most recently, I have been involved with Alliance Hospitality as the Business Development Partner – Africa, focusing on hotel development projects across the continent, the Regional Director for a Hospitality Investment and Financial Advisory Firm, Advisory board member for Tourism Development Association in Africa, a Typsy Mentor and Coach and the Founder and Director of Development of Lustar Group REIT.
You have founded the Lustar Group REIT Ltd, when did you decide it was time to start your own company?
I have always been passionate about four things, Hotels, Development, Sustainability and Africa.
Africa has so much to offer: the culture, authentic experiences, and most importantly, the people. We are pre-disposed to hospitality as it’s always been taboo to visit a friend without a gift or turn away guests without offering them food or accommodation.
My decision to set up shop was driven by the challenges I saw Independent hotel owners/investors were experiencing. The lack of authentic, unique and emotional guests’ experiences that deliver indelible memories. In 2016, I wrapped up a project which was an eye-opener and Lustar Hospitality Group was born, first as a consultancy that focused on hotel development projects in Africa.
While doing my MBA at EHL, I met one of Hospitality’s greatest minds, Stephan Killinger, Martin Ehlers and Claudia Vivaldini, luxury hospitality gurus who took the time to advise and mentor me. This pushed me to realize my dream of developing a platform where unique boutique hotel concepts are brought to life from a mere idea to an operational going concern.
This experience led to the morphing of Lustar Hospitality Group (LHG) into a Hospitality REIT, which focuses on hotel development projects in East and West Africa. We aim to be the leading African-owned Hospitality REIT, a daunting task that still puts me on my toes to date, but the best experience in my life by far.
With a marketplace driven by unique guest experiences, a hotel with an individual character and unique tailor-made experience can be leveraged to surpass guest expectations and achieve the highest guest satisfaction and review score.We provide personalized hospitality management services, tailored to the individual requirements of each and every single property.
At LHG, we believe in offering an authentic African experience of innovation, sustainability, well-being, and emotional connections with our guests, team members and stakeholder.
In the last years, you have created three hotel concepts, can you please walk us through each concept?
The Ankara Collection is our flagship brand offering an Upper-upscale African Fashion Lifestyle brand experience in remote tropical locations that merges the unique African sense of culture, adventure, fashion, sustainability and lifestyle, with an international touch of class and elegance. This offers our guests a uniquely African experience, through the famous Ankara print that is widely known to represent our African identity across the globe. It’s simply elegant.
U-Centric Hotels is our economy brand that focuses on the discerning business traveller with a brand promise of an experience that is “guest-centric” and for your basic needs (limited service hotel) as you stay with us. A four-star experience at two-star prices
Colive focuses on the human basic need for interaction and a sense of belonging, creating a communal sense of lifestyle in a hotel setup – a mixed-used facility, targeting the increasing professional nomad millennials and Gen Z. The rise of coworking is a natural predecessor for widespread coliving: the concept that guests can live in a shared space without recreating the feeling of living in a dorm room.
Which countries are you developing these properties in? How many hotels do you have in the pipeline?
We are focusing on West African and East African markets with six properties through HMA and Joint ventures, both greenfield and brownfield projects with different investors. However, Covid-19 has led to a temporary halt in our development strides as we now take a step back and re-strategize the way forward.
What do you feel will be the key issues and challenges affecting the development of the hospitality industry in Africa in the coming years?
Funding remains the biggest challenge across the continent as our industry is still not a regional priority and banking institutions require a lot of securities, which can create complexity in structuring the right deal. Costs of financing are usually high and, therefore, an operational burden that can be carried on a project and its initial investment may quickly result in questioning the viability of pursuing it or not. A lot of individual investors are willing to walk through each step, but the lack of accessibility and of a large network of financial support often create further obstacles for a project to see its completion.
In addition, in order to ensure proper work, each project requires a professional design team and not every country across the continent has the local structure and this often requires foreign assistance which equally comes at a cost. Usually, costs of construction across Africa are the highest globally due to those factors, but, as we see hospitality becoming a national and regional priority for many African countries, we can expect the professionalization of the sector and the reduction of the associated costs over time.
What is the single most important thing that people should know about you, or your work?
I am a strong advocate for partnerships/collaborations, strategy, professionalism, transparency and sustainability. My love for the African continent and passion for hotels fuels my drive to see the growth and development of the Hotel industry in Africa thrive. Coming from a humble background to start interacting with amazing people from all walks of life has taught me one thing: humility is key. Every hotel project is unique in its own way and should be approached exactly that way… uniquely. Guests are no longer looking for products but experiences, hotel development should be guest-centric, not investor centric. At the end of the day, a hotel is just a building.
You have created the “Beneath My Smile” Foundation – can you please tell us more about the Foundation and its roles?
Mental health in the Travel, Tourism and Hospitality industry has been a major issue for decades, more so in developing countries, but a silent one far too long. We serve our guests and colleagues with a smile full of pain underneath it. Long working hours away from family and friends, depression, poor social and psychological well-being and even suicide cases are on the rise within the hospitality industry. I lost a close friend who was going through depression and this triggered my interest in focusing on improving mental health and awareness in the hospitality and tourism industry. At the Beneath My Smile Foundation, we create a safe haven for individuals who feel lost and are going through depression, alcohol, drugs and substance abuse, suicide survivors, victims, and dependents. Many workers suffer from various mental health-related conditions and are in pain, all while working in the hospitality and tourism industry.
For the past 5 years, we have managed to help and give these individuals a shoulder and a support system through various partnerships and sponsors. Our main goal is to improve the mental well-being of professionals working in the industry, support families left behind due to suicide cases, advocate for mental health education in training institutions and the workplace, and eliminate alcohol, drugs and substance abuse among professionals in the industry. At the Beneath My Smile Foundation, we aim to create a sense of belonging and self-worth. We are a family, we also smile and we share the pain.
Last, what shall we wish you for the next 5 years?
My goal is to bring an authentic African boutique hotel brand experience to every continent across the globe to showcase who we are, our culture, our food, our fashion, and our tradition with a touch of excellence and international standards. This can only happen if the hostel industry survives and if every small hotel owner/investor can make it to the post-Covid world. This can only happen if we all work together to reopen our hotels globally and support each other through meaningful cross-continent partnerships and collaboration.
My only wish is that we all make it through this hard time together and toast all the wins and losses we will have, 5 years down the line.