In this interview, Sunbird Tourism plc board chairperson Vilipo Munthali speaks on the Malawi Stock Exchange-listed hotel chain’s performance in the year ended December 2021 and future prospects. Excerpts.
Q1. How has Sunbird Tourism plc faired in the previous trading year amid the Covid-19 pandemic?
The tourism industry continued to encounter reduction in tourist arrivals and domestic demand for hospitality services due to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021 and 2020 in comparison to 2019 pre-pandemic levels.
Malawi’s total contribution of tourism and travel to the gross domestic product [GDP] was at 5.8 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019 which stood at 7.3 percent. In 2021, domestic tourism spend for Malawi was at 97 percent and three percent international compared to 89 percent for domestic spend and 11 percent international spend respectively in 2019.
Sunbird total revenue grew by 23 percent with corporate segment which constituted 57 percent, continuing to anchor the business followed by conference groups segment at 27 percent. There is continued focus on these key segments while initiatives are being pursued to grow leisure to optimise revenue performance across the group.
Q2. What in your opinion has helped the group’s profit performance, despite challenges in the tourism industry?
Despite the challenges, the group was able to position towards recovery from the devastating impact of Covid-19 due to an improved trading environment and through responsive and aggressive sales and marketing efforts on the domestic market, prudent cost-management, business process re-engineering and continued efforts to deliver unrivalled guest experience. These strategies were powered by the growth strategy pillars and included the following; enhanced customer relationship management, product and services development targeting the domestic market, continued focus on unrivalled guest experience, responsive revenue management and an aggressive marketing approach for the domestic market.
Q3. Looking to post- pandemic era, how is Sunbird positioning itself for growth and recovery opportunities?
Industry experts, including UN World Tourism Organisation, expect international travel to return to pre-pandemic levels by 2024. Sunbird’s focus as we position towards full recovery and growth is unlocking increased demand through enhanced destination marketing to leverage on the increased international travel as the industry continues to recover. Sunbird will continue to collaborate with the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Culture in its efforts towards destination marketing as it is key to unlocking Malawi as a preferred tourist destination on the international and regional markets. The efforts of the ministry in this space are of great significance.
The group is confident of a full recovery. Our efforts for growth and expansion are ongoing. We are exploring opportunities to further diversify our business and product base by focusing on eco-tourism, product improvement and expansion within our existing lake resorts and more leisure activities targeting both the domestic and international markets. Focusing on the possibilities and potential, among the pillars anchoring Malawi 2063 is the role and scope of the tourism sector. The vision recognises the inherent vast and diverse tourism resources in form of natural heritage and culture, national parks, diverse and scenic landscape, Lake Malawi and creative arts, which if appropriately harnessed would elevate Malawi to a destination of choice in the region.
Q4. In terms of your product, facilities and services, how is Sunbird positioning itself to remain competitive and retain market leadership?
Sunbird has continued to invest to ensure that the guest experience remains elevated across the group. In line with this, the group has continued to roll out its product improvement and development strategy which aims to ensure the group remains competitive.
Sunbird has executed a number of key product improvement and development initiatives such as phase one construction of the 46-roomed Sunbird Waterfront, a premier luxury resort on the magnificent shores of Lake Malawi in Salima. Vincent’s Platinum, a fine dining restaurant offering a blend of contemporary and classic cuisine located at Sunbird Mount Soche in Blantyre. Recently at Sunbird Waterfront and Sunbird Livingstonia, we opened doors to the lake facing restaurant facility. The restaurant facility is positioned to improve the dining experience for the two resorts further complementing the overall resort experience.
In our quest to ensure a diverse customer experience all under the Sunbird brand, we will soon be breaking ground for an Eco lodge construction in Majete Wildlife Reserve. This will target the discerning traveller looking to experience nature and game tourism while accommodating business and pleasure. Sunbird Ku Chawe is currently undergoing a rooms’ refurbishment to ensure that our guest experience remains unforgettable, the rooms refurbishment is slated for completion towards the end of 2022. At Sunbird Mzuzu, we will soon commence rooms’ refurbishment to consolidate its status.
Q5. What would you say are the key features that make Sunbird Hotels and Resorts the home of hospitality?
Sunbird is focused on offering an unrivalled guest experience in our hotels and resorts by continuously improving our products and services. Our commitment to product improvement and development ensures value for money for our guests and that they continue to enjoy an enhanced guest experience across our hotels and resorts.
To deliver the brand promise, Sunbird has continuously focused on development of our people so that they are highly motivated, driven for excellence and well trained to meet and exceed the customers’ expectations. Infact staff friendliness coupled with professionalism, the two attributes which we score highly as a brand contribute immensely to the greatness of our hospitality.
Q6. How does Sunbird expect to perform in 2022 and onwards considering the economic outlook and current position?
Looking ahead, the year looks relatively positive despite uncertainties due to the prevailing economic environment as we forge ahead towards a full recovery. The trajectory for improved trading environment and increase in international arrivals is anticipated to be maintained despite adverse effects from inflation caused by the war in Ukraine, devaluation of the kwacha that has pushed the cost of sales, leading to rise in utility tariffs and fuel prices.
The net effect of this coupled with austerity measures taken by the government is reduction in demand and reduced business prospects.