Interview with the CEO of SUNBIRD TOURISM PLC

Interview with the CEO of SUNBIRD TOURISM PLC

Yusuf Olela


February 2017 – Current
Chief Executive Officer, Sunbird Tourism Plc, Malawi

June 2015 – February 2017
Group General Manager, Alisa Hotels North Ridge, Ghana

December 2014 – May 2015
General Manager, Capital Hotel and Spa, Ethiopia

February 2010 – November 2014
Operations Manager, Voyager Beach Resorts, Kenya

March 2009 – December 2009
Food and Beverage Director, Fairmont Hotel & Resorts, Kenya

January 2004 – June 2006
General Manager, Korta Company Limited, Tanzania

August 1998 – December 2002
Brand/Area/Complex Manager, Innscor Kenya Ltd, Kenya


Hochschule für angewandtes Management, Master of Business Administration

Cornell University, Professional Development Program Strategic Management in Hospitality

Kenyatta University, Bachelor’s Philosophy Tourism and Hospitality

Kenya Utalii College, Diploma Hotel Management


Interview Date: September 20, 2021


Could you introduce yourself?

My name is Yusuf Olela.

I am a hotelier by profession currently serving as the Chief Executive Officer of Sunbird Tourism Plc.

What was the driving force for you to be a part of the hospitality industry?

My entry into the hospitality industry was by accident, having qualified to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in one of the public universities in Kenya.

I stumbled onto an opportunity to join Kenya Utalii College for Hotel Management Course largely due to the influence of a relative who was already in the industry and recommended it considering my outgoing nature and my love for making connections.

What is your background in education and working experience?

I hold a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA), a Degree in Hospitality Management, and a diploma in Hotel Management.

Other trainings include Certification in Hospitality Strategic management- Cornell University, Diploma in project management and certified life Coach.

I have been in the industry for 23 years in various positions.

In 2017 you became CEO of Sunbird Hotels and Resorts, in some quarter’s people were uneasy about your appointment given that you are Kenyan. Did that ever affect you, and what qualities enabled you to be considered for the role?

I believe the board considered my qualifications, being a trained Hotelier, business acumen, hotel management experience and exposure as some of the primary qualities for the job through a process that was competitive and professionally done.

On the unease of being Kenyan, we live in a global world and Malawi is my 5th Country after having worked in Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Ghana apart from my home country Kenya.

Kenya has a lot in common with Malawians and it was very easy for me to fit into the social and professional discourse since we all had a common agenda of moving the brand forward from good to great and what we have achieved is a team effort, and while any change always brings unease I have really enjoyed working with my colleagues who are very professional, progressive and receptive to change.

Sunbird Hotels and Resorts is a market leader in the hospitality industry in Malawi. Historically, how could you describe its growth and what it has achieved since its inception till present day?

We continue to be the leading brand in the hospitality industry through our product and service positioning.

In the past four years, we have been focused on ensuring that our products are aligned to our guest expectation and that we deliver guest experience that is unique and personalised.

This explains the product improvement and expansion drive that we have delivered to ensure that we remain competitive and offer value for money that is superior to the competition.

Our main achievement on this front has been the full refurbishment of Sunbird Lilongwe, Sunbird Livingstonia, and Sunbird Nkopola, the expansion of conference capacity with Soche International Conference Centre at Sunbird Mount Soche, improvement of guest experience with construction of swimming pools at Sunbird Mzuzu, Sunbird Ku chawe, construction and upgrade of gyms at Sunbird Nkopola, Sunbird Ku chawe, and Sunbird Lilongwe to name but a few.

These milestone have seen the company grow its share price and profitability save for the period of 2020 to date where due to the COVID-19 pandemic we encountered a loss making position.

Very soon, we will unveil a luxury resort, with all lake facing rooms- Sunbird Waterfront.

This elegant beach resort on the shores of the magnificent Lake of Stars, demonstrates our strategic intent of providing excellence to our most discerning customers.

Since last year the world has been at a standstill due to COVID-19, with the tourism and hospitality industry being the worst hit sector. How well do you think Sunbird Hotels & Resorts approached the change?

As a company we have a business continuity plan that addresses some of the risks caused by the pandemic.

We have also put measures in place and reviewed our operation procedures to ensure that the safety of our colleagues and guests are paramount at all times.

These measures have created confidence on the market hence despite low demand, we have been able to stay open and ensure we continue to offer services to our guests, and this has kept us afloat.

Cost management measures were also put in place to ensure that our expenses were aligned to our level of activities where possible, and this included reducing the number of our employees through retrenchment.

The COVID-19 pandemic led organizations to make difficult decisions to survive, was there a time you had to make tough decisions (e.g. budget cuts, organizational restructuring, market withdrawal, etc.). What did you do and what was the result?

We retrenched staff, reduced salaries and benefits for a period of 5 months, clustered some of the shared roles to reduce cost but most importantly we were able to offer services at the prices that motivated those in essential travel and on low budget to stay with us.

We also as a company together with Sunbird staff members donated to support the very noble effort towards the fight against the pandemic through the supply of essential oxygen.

Sunbird Hotels & Resorts has over seven hundred employees. What’s your biggest challenges when it comes to management?

The biggest challenge in people management is achieving a balance between demanding results, bringing people to account and still being a people centric person, a pre-requisite in any organization but more prevalent in the hospitality industry.

The balance is a challenge to achieve due to human nature.

You need to be more of a leader, an influencer and someone who inspires others to achieve a perfect balance as opposed to being a Manager.

What do you think are the biggest challenges the hospitality and tourism industry will face in the next coming years in Malawi?

With the global recession, travel restrictions and since the hospitality industry depends so much on corporate and donor funded activities, tourism recovery in Malawi is going to be slower than in other regional countries that already have solid infrastructure and tourism activities that are well funded as opposed to Malawi.

Any meaningful recovery is going to require significant investment in destination marketing and access to affordable funds for those organizations that closed for business to be able to re-open.

Reduced frequency of flights into Malawi and SAA grounding will pose serious connectivity challenges to Malawi as a destination, and will have direct impact on tourism arrivals, on top of the restrictions that have been put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is the vision for Sunbird Hotels & Resorts?

Our vision is to be the preferred brand in hospitality by ensuring that we achieve excellence through provision of exceptional experiences in accommodation, catering and hospitality related service.

We continue to bring our vision to life by providing unrivalled experience to our guests by focusing on value and unrivalled services in our uniquely positioned hotels while aligning our redevelopment and upgrade plans to exceed those expectations.

Since you don’t have physical addresses in rural areas, how have you worked around that?

Our services are door to door. In cases where we can locate their physical address, we contact the receiver to make an arrangement to meet them at the closest place so that we can deliver the package. 60 % of our parcels are delivered door to door, while more than 30% of parcels are collected at the shop.

What advice could you give someone, who is in top level management or is an aspiring CEO?

It can be lonely up there, but make sure you achieve respect by providing solutions to the business challenges and learn to work with and through people.

The goal post keeps on changing, invest in knowledge and optimize on your experience, emotional intelligence will take you far.



While I greet everybody and I make sure that I’m ever punctual, I don’t have myths in my approach to leadership and management.

My work ethics are guided by the 5 principles namely:

  1. Living and breathing your brand standards
  2. Always do something, be proactive.
  3. Be well balanced and seek knowledge.
  4. Focus on people and lead by example.
  5. Know your product.
Interviewed on September 20, 2021