Elizabeth Ohene Writes: Place Of Joy, Gone Silent

It is not often I am lost for words nor reduced to total incomprehensive silence. I have lived through quite a number of crises in my long life and have been suitably impressed with how devastating this current global crisis has been.

Last Thursday, I went to the African Regent Hotel, my favourite African themed hotel, which is five minutes from where I live, and I walked into the reality of what we have all been saying, but perhaps never truly appreciated.

The state of the African Regent Hotel broke my heart, but I am writing not about this particular hotel really, I am using the experience to highlight what is happening to hotels in general.

I walked into eerie, haunting silence where there used to be constant movement, interesting and differing sounds, aroma, challenging colours and surprises.

On a normal day at 5 p.m., which was when I got there, I would on entering the reception, have walked into the sound of beautiful music from a pianist in the corner, on some days there would be a choral group with the pianist.

Towards the bar, there would be people gathered around tables, there would be waiters carrying exotic cocktail drinks and there would be fresh coconut or palm wine on offer at the entrance of the dining room.

They organise a famous buffet and the grill is particularly popular. Two Sundays ago, it was Mother’s Day and the place, like most other hotels, would have been crowded with people bringing their mothers and grandmothers.

There would be obvious business types lost in conversation with prospective dealmakers and there would have been shrieks of delight coming from the swimming pool.

On this day, I walked not only into silence, but into what looked like a scene from an old Charles Dickens Great Expectations film. It looked like the world had suddenly stopped and the hotel was frozen in time. The piano, the tables, the chairs, every bit of furniture, every item, was draped with large sheeting of textile.­

The offices that used to house the people who worked behind the scenes to make the place run like clockwork, they were empty, the chairs, tables, computers, cupboards were all covered and there was unnerving silence.

Thundering halt

The story of this hotel is not unlike that of all the other hotels in the country that have been brought to a thundering halt and with it, a network of other businesses and people.

This hotel has 109 rooms and had hoped and planned on having a 65 per cent occupancy rate this year. Things had started well until the middle of February when cancellations started and no new bookings were being made.

COVID-19 had by then reached Europe and the United States, where most of the hotel’s customers come from. By the middle of March, the hotel, like all other hotels, was in trouble.

For most of us locals whose use of the hotel is limited to the restaurant, the bar and the occasional meeting room, there might have been some warning signs but for as long as the restaurants and the bars were opened, the hotel was operating.

But a hotel depends on its rooms being occupied and the restaurants and bars are dependent on paying guests in the rooms.

Things moved rapidly in March, no guests in the rooms, introduction of social distancing and prohibition of public gatherings, closure of borders and partial lockdown.

The hotel has about 150 full-time staff, with contractors and casuals taking the number to about 200. It runs three shifts to ensure it is a 24-hour operation, and as they used to put it, “we never close”.

Suddenly, it had no guests and nothing to do and it shut down. Closing down a hotel has consequences far, far beyond the staff and their dependents.

Consequences

There are those who supply goods and services to the hotel. Someone supplies the chemicals that are needed to keep the swimming pool going, to clean the bathroom, to fumigate the storerooms to spray the garden.

Someone supplies the dry foods, someone, or more likely some people supply the vegetables, someone supplies meat, someone supplies fish and the prawns that are so popular on the buffet table, someone supplies the fresh flowers, and the pianist and choral groups, plus all these “someones” in the supply chain are all suddenly out of jobs.

Maybe they are owed money, maybe the person who supplies the meat had just found this new source for pork who happens to be the young man who left his public service job a year ago and started a piggery.

This was his first big contract, now he has been suddenly told they wouldn’t be purchasing his meat and he has no idea when it will resume.

To borrow our Finance Minister, Ken Ofori-Atta’s anguished question, so what does a hotel proprietor do in these circumstances? How long can you keep your staff on furlough?

All good business people turn to their bankers to make arrangements for the unexpected turn of events. The banks, or maybe I should say, the surviving banks have all just emerged from a difficult ‘banking crisis’ and they are not minded to be generous; they might freeze your payments for six months but they won’t be freezing the interests, and so when December or January comes, your facility would have swelled with interests.

And since you have no idea when this COVID-19 crisis will be over, how are you making your calculations? Supposing Mr President opens the borders and eases the social restrictions at the end of the month, does it look likely that there will be many business people getting onto planes to come to Ghana and occupy hotel rooms?

You would hope the local business would pick up when the restrictions are lifted. The government has announced a package to help businesses and you have applied in the hope you would get some.

In the meantime, you sit amidst your covered furniture and have to deal with those who work for the government and its many agencies, and are , therefore, assured of their salaries, come lockdown, come social distancing.

The taxman wants to know how you intend to pay your taxes, all the various arms of the local government who come to demand something or check on one thing or the other, still come through.

At any other time, a letter from the Ghana Standards Authority announcing the imminent arrival of a team to come and inspect the elevators in the hotel, and with it, an invoice of more than GH¢7,000 might be mildly irritating, on this day, it feels almost like a deliberate attempt to rub salt in the gaping wound.

Hotels in this country did go through a very difficult time during the period when Ebola ravaged three countries in the West African sub-region, 2014-2016. Even though there was never a single case in Ghana, we suffered from a dramatic drop in tourist and business travel.

Indeed, many of the hotels have just recovered from the Ebola effect and were hoping to build on the success of the Year of Return. Now silence reigns where there used to be joy and frenetic activity.

In trying to resurrect businesses, the hotels must rank near the top; too many things and people depend on them.




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