The panel was headed up by Vanguelis Panayotis, CEO of MKG Consulting, as part of the conference marking forty years of the leading European hospitality postgraduate management programme. He was joined on stage at Pullman Paris Centre – Bercy by Michael Levie, Co-Founder of KUBE Ventures; Eric-Michel Omgba, Founding Partner of Alboran & FirstName; and Winoch Billette, an entrepreneur in hotel investments.
Vanguelis Panayotis kickstarted his second panel of the IMHI 40th anniversary conference by recounting a rather surprising anecdote regarding the future of entrepreneurship in the hospitality sector.
“I was speaking to a class of hospitality students last month and I asked them ‘How many of you will in the coming years create your own company?’ 80% raised their hands. This surprised me. When I was that age, maybe only 20% would have done so.”
Michael Levie works with three hospitality tech companies, four start-ups, and five business ventures. Entrepreneurship means for him that he can work at his own pace with the people he chooses.
Eric-Michel Omgba, alongside his two partners, manages, owns, and operates properties. The trio also recently launched their own brand, FirstName.
Winoch Billette is still in the process of creating his first business. His objective is to acquire three-star hotels and reposition them to create value for his partners.
The process to starting his own business was a long one for Billette. He shared how the decision to do so came about after having worked as an advisor for asset owners over a 12-year period. Then, one day, he simply thought “why not do this same thing, but for myself?”.
His idea of differentiating his business is by doing things “right, simply, and efficiently”. This stands in contrast to his peers on the stage. Michael Levie believes firmly in the importance of being a disruptor. He extolls looking at a situation and seeing how you can break the status-quo.
Eric-Michel Omgba sees things in a similar light to Levie. He explained how the FirstName brand is all about taking care of the customers, but also of its staff. Its teams do not work any split shifts, for example.
Next, Vanguelis Panayotis directed the conversation towards that core belief that drives any entrepreneurial undertaking, and how to sell it to others.
In the case of KUBE Ventures, Michael Levie confided that this core belief is not too complicated to sell as they are owner-operators and, as such, they still control the board. He then went on to discuss the question of innovation in entrepreneurship.
“87% of new innovation fails, I believe this is because people are afraid to make mistakes and, if they do, they cover stuff up”, he declared. At his company, they celebrate mistakes and negate their potentially damaging effects by recognising them quickly and working to improve on them.
For Michael Levie, the client has been forever changed by Covid and technology. Technology is thus a space for innovation in the hospitality sector, but it needs to be done more intelligently than “simply throwing an app” at a problem and being content with that.
This aligns with his vision of recruitment, where in his hotels, he hires for attitude, and in his offices, he hires for specialisation. In his opinion, hospitality lacks specialisation in certain areas, and a CTO can be just as important as a CFO.
Eric-Michel Omgba addressed the recruitment criteria they favour at FirstName. He stated, “we need to hire for attitude rather than skills. We can teach the skills later. For us, it is about [being] cool and respecting each other”.
Looking forward, he also predicted that eventually FirstName will have more owners working with them rather than hard brands. To his mind, people will want properties that are a reflection of themselves, not simply “generic” spaces.
Vanguelis Panayotis then turned the spotlight back on Winoch Billette in order to find out how his time at IMHI helped him reach where he is today. His response was unequivocal: “it was key, and it was central”.
He told the students present in the room that they can start their own business straight away after graduation or earn experience first before feeling ready to take the leap. It is important to do it following one’s own rhythm.
Billette followed the advice up with another key point. When looking for partners, rationality should not be left at the wayside. Regardless of how great or innovative an idea is, the banker or the investor looks first and foremost at the figures and the financial viability of a project.
The other panellists supported this statement. Michael Levie warned about looking too much at content and losing sight of other factors. Though, he tempered this with a warning that if we do not support start-ups, ideas, etc. then the industry will not move forward.
Eric-Michel Omgba underlined the importance of perseverance as well, and shared that he and his partners failed twice before they managed to launch their current company.
On the subject of upcoming projects that excite the entrepreneurs, Michael Levie revealed that he has two in the pipeline. The first revolves around the possibilities linked to making “extra deluxe” buildings in AAA locations more efficient. The second involves the lower-scale segments and opportunities afforded by accessibly priced tech solutions in terms of efficient central management.
As for Eric-Michel Omgba, success is not defined by how big the company is or how much it makes. Rather it is defined by how much impact it can have. In the coming years, he has his eye on expanding the company overseas, with a particular focus on Africa. Eventually, he would like also to grow the company beyond hospitality and envisages launching projects in other sectors.
Finally, Vanguelis Panayotis asked Winoch Billette to share his hopes for his company for the next five years.
His desire is to see his company have five or six small hotels across France. Billette then concluded the panel with one key takeaway for students: “be 200% convinced of your project but be flexible as well”.
Alboran Hotel & Hospitality
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Middle East and Africa
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