Ikechi Uko’s Passion For Travel Fair

ADE 3579 Ikechi Uko’s Passion For Travel Fairunquenchable hunger for knowledge, he has signposted the Nigerian travel and tourism landscape with two trademark products, Akwaaba Travel Market and Naija Seven Wonders.

Many people do not like to stand beside Ikechi Uko. At close to seven feet tall, he makes a lot of people feel short and small. For those who lack the audacity of dreaming big dreams, they have another reason to keep their distance.  Perhaps, owing to his height, Uko keeps his ambition in the region of a skyscraper. If the goal is not large and complicated, he does not take a shot at it. Maybe it’s connected to his study of Geography at the University of Ibadan that has bestowed on him the capacity to navigate through tough topography. And the journey of his life has been through a bit of rough patches, but he has soldiered on, always keeping his eyes on the goal.

Arguably, one of the leading travel and tourism enterpreneurs, Uko became involved in the travel trade by happenstance when he was hired to work on a publication of tourism destinations by the late icon of Nigerian journalism, Alhaji Babatunde Jose. This project opened his eye to the goldmine in the sector and he has not looked back or done any other thing since. His love for tourism and travel was further fueled when he worked on the team of Happyland-Happyworld, one of the most promising tourism projects in Nigeria that did not quite take off. It would be the last time he worked for anyone. Between the Jose project and Happyland-Happyworld, Uko convinced himself that he had garnered enough knowledge to launch a solo effort.

His first attempt as a businessman was in publishing. The product, Travellers’ Weekend gave him the platform he needed to explore. A couple of years later, it transformed into African Travel Quarterly to embrace a bigger vision that encompassed the African continent. Uko was becoming better known at what he did, not only in Nigeria, but throughout Africa and around the world. What helped him to rise fast on the ladder of  recognition in the travel and tourism world is his hunger for knowledge. His appetite to consume information is ravenous.

DSC 0198 Ikechi Uko’s Passion For Travel FairThe Akwaaba Travel Market which Uko established  as a platform for buyers and sellers in the African travel trade recently clocked 10 years. Uko recalled the initial challenge. For him, it was exciting because it was a new journey. He had no fear. There was nothing to lose. Organising the travel exhibition is like going to school all over again. It has not been a bed of roses. He learnt many instructive things, particularly about the attitude of Nigerians. “Every Nigerian believes he knows something about something, when in actual fact they have never really interrogated that thing. I see it manifest in so many areas.

We are all football coaches. We are all aviation experts. We are all political experts. We are all judicial experts. If there is a judgment, everybody has an opinion. I was doing something that was not done before. I was also learning how to do it. That was the most interesting thing. Everybody around me was a travel expert, despite the fact that they have never been to a travel exhibition.  That has helped to see how I see other citizens. There is a problem with the coach and I am seeing everybody telling Stephen Keshi who should play. That experience has taught me enough on how to judge some other things in the Nigerian environment. I have learnt from something that there was nobody to learn from. There was nobody willing to teach me. In the process, everybody had an idea on how it should be done. None of these ideas was tested. If you ever want to do anything in Nigeria, you have to take time out to learn it very well. I had no one to understudy.”

DSC02139 Ikechi Uko’s Passion For Travel FairHis travails as a pathfinder aside, Uko loves the life he lives. He loves the travels, meeting people and the surprise of arriving a destination. In 10 years of Akwaaba, the last edition has been the most challenging. There was a lot to lose on account of the Ebola scourge which made countries and businesses that had booked space at the exbition to cancel at the last minute. Happening at a time that he had separated the exhibition arm from the parent company, he needed to make the corporate name stick on the mind of participants. At this time, Uko who has been working closely with his wife, Rita, all these years desires to expand the business beyond his immediate family. But what he refused to do is to copy how the travel fair is done elsewhere. He insists on developing a uniquely African type travel market. “I will enter any relationship that will help in achieving the vision. We are open to that but we have had offers where people want to buy the platform for political reasons and for some other things. That means it is no more a travel exhibition. It is probably an event. We understand this is a critical part of the whole industry which is a travel marketing platform so if there is any collaboration that extends the vision, that is why we join some international organisations like the IITF because we thought these are the sort of collaborations that we need. Locally, we have had some government agencies trying to partner or get involved. We are not interested in just doing events. We are interested in doing things that work.”

The Akwaaba Awards which is a critical component of the exhibition has become one of the most-sought-after and treasured reward plaque in the industry. But Uko does not see why a lot of people break their heads over the award. “If you make the award an event, it takes away from the exhibition, then we defeat the aim. The awards ceremony sets the stage and raises the energy that drives the exhibition. That is what creates the energy. We believe in starting strong. When we do that we can actually concentrate on the exhibition because our strength should be in the exhibition. We are not really interested in people who come for the awards and the glamour. Our concentration is on the business of the exhibition. If we are so focused on that, that’s when we sustain the process. Some of the brands that have won the awards have fizzled out. So we are more concerned about the exhibition and the value we create. We are so committed to that. An award ceremony alone cannot sustain the vision. Most brands built around awards do not survive. “

At each edition of Akwaaba, Uko measures success by the volume of trade transacted. At the 10th edition, he pointed at a hotel group that has sold 10,000 hotel rooms as a first timer. We have another group that sold products to 10-15 HOTELS AND we have some negotiations that I was involved in; an international hotel brand that brought a branch for me to manage. There are many others like the group from Dubai. I have a partner at Sheraton Hotels who had done some negotiations worth hundreds of millions of Naira. Probably, this year was when the business was done and almost every exhibitor told me that this is their best year. There were a few exhibitors and they enjoyed more attention and they could pick from the people that came and most of the people that came were hungry for results. For some of them, there had been no business for three or four months. One hotel investor had approached me that he was looking for someone to help him manage his hotel.”

This boom in business was not just noticeable in the hospitality trade only. The airlines too had testimonies attesting to a successful outing. The next stage for Uko is to gain global acclaim and he knows that he can only achieve this by allowing a measure of transparency in his operations and also to get good feedback. “We were thinking about the return on the investment. If the investor invests thousands of dollars coming to the exhibition, we ask how much they make from the contacts generated at the exhibition. The return on investments for most of our exhibitors have been very high. I jokingly tell them that I will ask for my 10 per cent. Everyone was willing to share with us. We have changed from the model of asking for the return on investment after 12 months to calculating the numbers of done deals.”

DSC 0200  Ikechi Uko’s Passion For Travel FairAkwaaba is Uko’s biggest project yet. The logistics that goes into its planning is mind-boggling and it is a surprise that he works with a close-knit team of family members and staff. To understand the giant leap that project has taken in one decade. “The budget for the first year was less than a million. But taxes and logistics were huge. One speaker’s flight ticket alone cost $10,000, that is business class, from Germany to Nigeria. It cost more to bring international speakers than to organise the event. That was why we didn’t bother to ask for sponsorship because we didn’t want to build the business around sponsorship. We wanted to build it on income and it was a difficult model but that is what will last. We are counting our own breakable points not by the profits we made at the end of the year but by the volume of business that we have done. At the first edition we had two countries, Sao Tome and Ghana. As at last year, we had about 15 countries that showed interest.

One thing that makes Uko particularly happy is the capacity of Akwaaba to attract very distinguished personalities from around the world. “We are the first to honour the guy who organised the World Cup in South Africa. After that, we started getting honours for the other people. When we did the Legends of Travel. We honoured Sir Dauda Jawara, the former president of Gambia and Captain Mohammed of Ethiopian Airline. We have honoured  the biggest Egyptologist in the world. We have two sets of awards. it is a duty for Akwaaba to add value.”

For a man who has set up a credible reward platform for high achievers, it is an irony that Uko has not been recognised in official quarters in his home country. He is, however, satisfied with recognition from folks on the street. “I won’t complain because everywhere I have been in Nigeria, people quickly recognise me and say ‘oh! you are the tourism guy promoting Nigeria’. Nigerians recognise the sacrifice that I have made and I am not in government and I don’t have government backing in this project and I have done it so well. I have also had some hostility from some Nigerians who thought I shouldn’t be the one doing what I am doing. People appreciate the contributions we have made. But to think that other countries have honoured me more. Other people may think I deserve more from home.”

A few years ago, Uko ventured into a major branding and public relations project for Nigeria called Naija Seven Wonders. The project started in 2010 and took two years to complete. Search parties travelled all over the country and members of the public were galvanised to participate in the project. Nothing like that had ever been done in Nigeria! In 2013, Uko returned again with Seven Natural Wonders of Nigeria. The idea is to update it every two years. He spent close to N50 million on the Seven Wonders project. “We didn’t get sponsorship. It was only Cross River state that supported us. For some others, we were even asked to pay them. I don’t own the site, I don’t benefit from the site but I just want to add value to it before the international community because I understand how tourism works. I have been on every major road in Nigeria and in every airline. We have been arrested by JTF and we have been captured by Fulani people in Plateau. We were in the middle of the Tiv riot in Nassarawa.  People sometimes ask who pays us and why we are doing this. This is what I have passion for.”

Where ever there is a travel exhibition, Uko is there. It is his classroom for knowledge. He has been at every World Travel Market since 1998. “I became a travel expert by learning to do what others do- go to travel exhibitions. I have been attending WTM since 1998 and practically every major exhibition. I attend all the workshops. We lack skills in travel and tourism. It is to give people an opportunity to learn from those who have done it well and learn. I read relevant materials. We have created a platform for people to take advantage of but people still come to ask me for help that is available to  them at Akwaaba. They ask for connections that they could have made at the exhibition. Akwaaba has succeeded in the goodwill. There is a group of people who have the knowledge and desire to see something like this. And Akwaaba has succeeded because of these people

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By 9jatravel / Administrator, bbp_keymaster

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on Mar 10, 2015

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