How to Host a Head of State From a Hotel Manager Who’s Been There, Done That

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The most exciting talk in Kigali right now is the World Economic Forum on Africa. Rwanda’s capital city will host the landmark event from May 11-13, 2016. Every effort has been made to ensure that the event is not only successful, but also very memorable. The organizers have done their part, but one of the most important aspects of the event remains — hosting the visiting heads of state and their entourages.

So far, the host, President Paul Kagame (Rwanda), President Ali Bongo Ondimba (Gabon), President Alpha Condé (Guinea), President Uhuru Kenyatta (Kenya), President Macky Sall (Senegal), and President Faure Essozimna Gnassingbé (Togo) have confirmed their participation in this big event. They will also be joined by an impressive list of vice presidents, prime ministers, diplomats, top businessmen, and world economic leaders.

The big question is: What does it take to successfully host a head of state? I have previously had the privilege of playing host to a good number of presidents and top government dignitaries while working in different hotels around the world, and I would like to share some insights on what it actually takes to care for the most important person(s) in any country. There are many key issues to address, but in this particular case, I will focus on four of the main considerations.

1. Security

This is arguably the most important aspect of hosting a head of state, and it begins days, or even weeks, before their actual arrival. It usually starts with a simple tour of the facility by a designated team. The intensity of the visits and security activities grows as the travel date approaches.

Two days or so before the official’s actual arrival, anything to do with security is usually taken off the hands of the host property and everything — pathways, lobbies, and public spaces — are closed. Everything is swept by security dogs, and the dignitary’s security personnel must clear all staffers, though only a handful will actually have direct contact with the visiting official. Once cleared, special badges and tags are usually provided and must be produced at every security point.

Security arrangements usually force us to change a number of things in the hotel. The biggest consideration is traffic and incoming guests because we always have to close down the main routes to the hotel, forcing us to post managers on the corners to pick guests up when they arrive and bring them inside.

2. Protocol

Protocol is the art of creating a distraction-free environment that permits the free and open exchange of information to resolve issues and build relationships in international business and global diplomacy.”

The key part of this definition is “creating a distraction-free environment”. Heads of state and government officials expect their ranks and official titles to be respected, their religious values and practices to be honored, and all logistics to be flawlessly executed. They expect any distractions to be resolved quickly. Distractions take a very, very important person’s (VVIP) focus off of business and result in him or her feeling uncomfortable. This must be avoided at all costs.

Not knowing the answer to protocol questions can also greatly undermine your first meeting with a president or head of state. If protocol is not part of your competitive mix, then you’re leaving yourself vulnerable. Allow me to illustrate protocol’s importance with a personal story.

A while back, we got information about a VVIP from the Middle East who was expected to stay in our property. We had everything prepared for the visit, and on the date of his arrival, we had a team stationed at the entrance ready to welcome him. His chopper landed, and his convoy was on standby to receive him and drive him to the main entrance of our hotel.

As part of protocol, one has to wait for his aide-de-camp (ADC) to open the car door. But since the ADC, who is usually seated in front, took a while, I decided to open the back door myself. I greeted the man inside with my characteristic welcoming, smiling style and addressed him as “Your Excellency”. In total amazement and confusion, the person I opened the door for shoved me aside and rushed to open the front door. It then dawned on me that the VVIP was actually seated in front and not in the back as I had assumed. As you can see, it is imperative to consult the ADC and other personnel as frequently as possible to avoid any protocol errors.

It is important to remember that each dignitary has his or her own tastes, preferences, and special needs, and every need must be catered for.

3. Customization

It is important to remember that each dignitary has his or her own tastes, preferences, and special needs, and every need must be catered for. Some of them take particular drinks and eat specific kinds of food. Dietary needs form a big part of customization, as does serving protocol. We use a relay system where we pass food and beverage to the VVIP’s team, which then brings it to him or her.

VVIPs also expect customization in their living quarters. Many times, alterations have to be made to rooms, toilets, bathrooms, and other areas of the hotel to accommodate special requests. Some dignitaries even carry their own sheets and towels with them. The team of people that accompanies the VVIP may also require specific equipment and space, so you have to be ready to provide these.

4. Schedule

A head of state’s schedule is taken very seriously during official visits and travels. The hosting team must work very closely with the dignitary’s team to make sure that everything follows the schedule like clockwork.

This is particularly true at an event like the World Economic Forum for Africa. If a president is expected to speak at a keynote ceremony or attend a plenary session, you’d better make sure that he or she arrives on time. Meals and activities are also expected to run on schedule, and delays aren’t tolerated. You’ll have to brief your staff in advance on the importance of timeliness and ensure that everyone provides service as quickly and expertly as possible.

The writer is the general manager of Nyungwe Forest Lodge. 

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