The former governor of Cross River State, Senator Liyel Imoke, was the keynote speaker at the annual general meeting and tourism conference 2017 of the Nigeria Association of Tour Operators (NATOP) held recently in Lagos, ANDREW IRO OKUNGBOWA, captures his seminal presentation on ‘The building blocks of tourism products’
It was a packed audience of travel trade professionals, including government officials, at the banquet hall of Renaissance Hotel, Ikeja, Lagos, venue of the recently held annual general meeting and tourism conference 2017 of the Nigeria Association of Tour Operators (NATOP).
The former governor of Cross River State, Senator Liyel Imoke, was the keynote speaker. The theme of the conference was: ‘Positioning tourism within the Nigerian economic space’ but the former governor spoke on ‘the building blocks of tourism products.’
It would be the first time that Imoke, who was part of the revolutionary move of turning Cross State into the tourism hub of Nigeria, publicly spoke extensively on the making of Destination Cross River to travel trade professionals.
With a stately pose, and sartorial disposition, Imoke held the audience captive with his exposition of the factors and challenges as well as the joyous and beautiful moment in the onerous task of building his beloved state, Cross River, to the enviable position it is today.
Starting with the former governor, Donald Duke then himself and now Governor Ben Ayade is steering the ship of the tourism state.
Dare to dream
When did we start or when did all these start? Well, I don’t know whether Cross River State is an exception or otherwise. Where did it start? It started with a vision and everything that must grow must start with a vision. It started with a vision that was expressed long before 1999 and that vision was expressed by a group of young men who felt that they could come together and make a difference in governance in Cross River State.
In developing an economic blueprint, those young men believed very strongly that Cross River State (CRS) has a comparative advantage in tourism and that if they did it right tourism could become an economic driver for the state. But those young men have no powers, those young men have no authority, those young men just sat down and discuss the economy of the state and tourism but they had a great vision.
So, for us when you talk about building blocks, that was the vision and I was privileged to have shared in that vision. And because I was part of that original and initial vision, it was easy for the vision to continue in CRS. 2005 was the first carnival, 2006 was the second, 2005 and 2006 carnivals were started by my predecessor, Donald Duke, with that vision but with a lot of work that went into it long before the first carnival, including trips to the various carnivals globally. We had two carnivals under Donald Duke, eight carnivals under Liyel Imoke and two carnivals under Ben Ayade.
But one great thing that happened with that vision is that we managed to get the carnival, for me, which was the most important thing, to a point where no governor in CRS can say I am not doing carnival. And that was very critical and very important because of the standard vision from the beginning.
Because I could have come in as governor and say this carnival business I don’t understand it. I think there are few states where the carnival started and lasted one – tenure and of course, there is no more carnival. So, because I share in that vision I could understand what it was about and I could refocus our minds on the product.
Now, the difference between the governors is not relevant anymore and that was very important. In public sector we tend take ownership, we tend to be identified with the product. We want to be seen as the creator, as the inventor, as the owner and to be celebrated.
But for us to sustain the carnival and build it up I have to ensure that my own character should not affect the success of the carnival. When I say my own character, my brother, Donald, was more of a showman than myself and so he could wear a carnival outfit and dance and party but I have two left feet (general laughter), there is no hope there but I have to keep the carnival going. So, I have to focus on the product and take the carnival away from the governor. And that was very important in other to grow the product.
Now, for us to have this we have to also focus on policy. One of the things that I found fascinating in government is that the government doesn’t have a policy or there is a policy document that has been written but it is never implemented. The next thing for us was to now develop a tourism policy.
That was one of the critical building blocks for us because if you didn’t have a clear policy then people will not be identified with the vision. So you go from the vision to the policy and in that policy you reflect the vision. And that policy document is shared so that people can buy into that vision. So when they buy into the vision then they understand what the policy is talking about and in CRS our policy was a broad policy and the carnival and the festival were just one component of that policy document.
Legislation and regulation
The next block was legislation and regulation; after policy if you don’t have laws then of course it becomes more difficult to implement your policy. For us, it is critical to start with legislation and legislation was not about tourism but you have to now legislate about other components.
How do you regulate an industry that is unregulated? There is no regulation and if there is one sector that is absolutely unregulated it is tourism. But tourism being a new thing for us with legislation we now have to create institutions.
Once you make the law then you must have institutions and you can’t create an institution without the law. Yes, you can announce a carnival commission, you can announce a tourism bureau but then what is the law backing it? So, we now have to go into legislation and we have laws passed by the state House of Assembly, setting up the commission and setting up the tourism bureau and all of these trying to build those institutions from scratch you have all kinds of challenges. So, you have these institutions that you have established in a sector that is unregulated, no legislation and no capacity.
When Donald started to look for tour guides, it was like an alien word in Nigeria. What is a tour guide? The first set of tour guides were trained abroad. So, you are going into a sector that is clearly not just unregulated, doesn’t have enough legislation, is not protected and then you are going into it in such a manner that the people who are supposed to provide the service are not able to do it efficiently for so many reasons.
Capacity building/human resources
So after building those institutions you now have to start looking for capacity. So the next thing was human resources. How do you make those institutions to work? How do you get the right people to man those institutions especially in a country where if we must be honest, we are not a tourism country? Where do you find these tourism experts?
Where do you find Nigerian tourism experts to drive these institutions? So, it becomes a challenge. At some point in time you now find that bringing in expatriates from tourism countries to develop our own local capacity is crucial. And you must be ready to make those investments, don’t be shy about it and don’t think that, well I must find a Nigerian in CRS who must do it or that it is CRS’ institution and it must be Cross Riverians.
You must understand that you must invest in those resources and in building those institutions as a government, how governmental is that institution and how much of private sector is that institution. For us to get the right resources into those institutions, we now realised that we could not keep them as civil servants.
Training the human resources
Once you identify the human resources, then what, the next building block was training. This whole process takes a lot of time, being able to train at various levels and develop capacity is very critical and you must be able to identify your human resource gaps and if you are not able to identify your human resource gaps you are just going to continue to fill them with people who don’t know what tourism is all about and that becomes a challenge for the development of the sector.
For us, when we now saw those challenges, for me, it became critical that our product be guarded jealously and for me, it became critical that we brand. We started with branding CRS as we have the Destination Cross River brand and it was everywhere, on our letter heads, everything in government, no letter left CRS government, no business cards or any official correspondence without Destination CR. In branding CRS as a destination, we said how do we go about it? So, we have a slogan, as the warmest welcome in Africa because we knew that branding was very critical for us and we started to refocus on the 170 million Nigerians.
We try not to look for the ‘oyinbos’ and the other Africa countries to start coming to us as we said that if we can just bring one percent of Nigerians to Calabar we said we would have a successful brand. So, we focused on brand and brand recognition was so important to us. Our Destination Cross River was ‘clean and green’ and everybody bought into it that if you go to CRS it is clean and green and it is safe.
That was something that we had to protect. One incident of kidnapping and the most important thing for me as governor and the chief executive, was please don’t let that leak to the media. We have to brand the Calabar Carnival and before it didn’t have anything that you could recognise as a logo.
We now branded the Calabar Carnival and we called it the ‘biggest street party in Africa.’ When we came up with that we started selling the product but of course there were a lot of things that went into its development but it was critical for us to understand that we had the biggest street party and we had a brand.
We have to protect the carnival brand and the festival brand. So, we had logos and we had to register them and people were wondering and I said yes, so we registered all our brands, we rebranded the ranch as the Obudu Mountain Resort and even the Obudu Mountain Race, we branded. So that everybody could recognise our products anywhere in the country and even internationally. I was surprised that people started to recognise our brands beyond our shores.
The media angle
And of course, the media angle was very important to us in all of these, so we now have to form media partnerships, whether it was working with Ikechi Uko of Akwaaba or Goge Africa or Mo Abudu. We just had to engage them and create value for our products. In our product development, we had to be creative for the brands to be sustained and once you could do that you could have sponsors. So, by the time that we were done, we were getting more than half a billion naira sponsorship for our events.
Because we protected the products, we created value for the products to such extent that Dangote would come in, First Bank Nigeria would come and everybody would want to identify with the product and in so doing we were able to carry substantial percentage of the cost. This was important to us because it was not sustainable that the government would continue to cough up N500 million, a billion naira yearly for festivals. So, when private sector came in to participate, it was very, very critical for us.
Creating variety of products
Of course, trying to sell your product you have to be creative because we started with the tree lighting and the carnival. Now, people coming into Calabar, are they going to come in just for one day? So, what is your product variety and how do you appeal to the tastes of the various people coming in? So, we had to introduce new products, many new products. The festival itself was one month thing but we needed to create additional products almost every two or three years.
December was my best month for IGR
So, we had a variety of products that were introduced to continue to grow the brands and attract people into the city. What happened was that our Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) went up and December was my best month for IGR and it was also my best month for no crime. As you expand and grow the sector, of course, it became challenging being able to meet the expectation of the people. You don’t expect anybody to come and say, ‘ah, last year’s carnival was better than this year.’
It was not acceptable to us, so for us, the next carnival and the next event and the next festival started a day after the last one. We had our post mortem meetings towards building the new products for the next year.
The success of the Calabar Carnival is the private sector
But as a government we have limitations.How does the private sector come in? I must be honest the success of the Calabar Carnival is the private sector. There are five carnival bands that are privately owned and we don’t appoint their chief executives or appoint anybody in any of the carnival bands.
All we do is create an intense competition for them and so it becomes not just a matter of the money but it became a matter of prestige, ego. Who is going to win the carnival?
We now saw that we had bands like Masta Blasta with over 5,000 registered members, paying members. And then of course, you have bands like Passion 4, Chris Agibe’s band. It was so creative and innovative and they kept on winning and drove everybody into intense competition. Now, what was our own role?
Make sure that there was security, make sure that the carnival route is cleared, make sure that there is equipment, and make sure that the bands can perform. Then make sure that the bands believe in your evaluation process. Don’t allow the government to now come and say, ‘no ooh, last year Passion 4 won, this year, abeg let another band win.’ Initially, I was in Masta Blasta but I pulled out as governor. What happened was that we were able to have independent assessments and people would accept the outcome.
Now in trying to manage all of these and trying to build value for these assets that we have, it became critical that all those who participated in the process took ownership of it. We started to encourage them to basically be the owners.
Initially the bands can’t raise money so we created the Band Owners Association and the objective for me was that the Band Owners Association should now be the driver and take complete ownership of the carnival. And that is why today that no matter how good or bad a governor maybe in CRS the Band Owners Association will guarantee that there would be an event.