An insider’s view of hotel development in Kenya

Everyone’s talking about Chinese outbound tourism to destinations like Paris and the Maldives, and now we’re beginning to have conversations about Chinese business travel to areas like Angola, Nigeria and Kenya. A good friend of mine said, “Africa is probably to China what Asia was to the U.S. While the U.S. leveraged Asia’s labor, China is leveraging Africa’s commodities.” In addition, Africa is becoming a source of interesting next-wave technology development. For example, I came across a recent Economist article saying Nairobi, Kenya, is THE place in the world to go for innovative cell phone development these days, because African users have largely skipped the PC-stage of connectivity and have gone straight to cell phones as their primary way of connecting to data. Amazing stuff.  

Because of this and other press on tourism in Africa, including a Reuters article on hotel development in Kenya, I thought I’d introduce my new business partner at Craft House and native Kenyan, Mark Somen, to everyone here at HOTELS. Mark and I worked together at Soho House in New York before I moved to Asia. He was previously with Four Seasons for eight years, St. Regis for two, and worked with China Grill Management before joining Soho House New York. After I left New York for Asia, he was promoted to president for North America, overseeing not only the New York location, but the opening of Soho Beach House in Miami, the Soho House Satellite Clubs in L.A., and Cecconi’s restaurant in West Hollywood. He returned to Kenya to open Tribe Hotel, and after four years returned to New York with his wife and three lovely daughters. If anyone knows what’s happening in Kenya, it’s Mark. 

Yvette Jong: Mark, you were born and raised in Kenya. What was your first experience with hospitality there?

Mark Somen: I have been around the hospitality industry for as long as I can remember. Tourism has been a huge part of the Kenyan landscape since well before I was born! But my first direct experience was working in the kitchen of the Norfolk Hotel — a famed Nairobi hotel — when I was 16.

YJ: After studying and working in the U.K. and U.S. for 20-plus years, you decided to return to Kenya. What was your motivation?

MS: I had been wanting to go back home to work ever since first leaving Kenya. But it was the opening of Tribe that really gave me the push. Tribe is the first “authentic” boutique hotel in Nairobi, with incredible interior design and product and extraordinary artwork, and I felt it was worth leaving New York for. Beyond that, hospitality in Africa as a whole is about to explode, and I wanted to be part of that as it happens.

YJ: What were some changes you noticed in the last four years?

MS: Nairobi as a business hub is going from strength to strength. Large multi-nationals are flocking to Nairobi and investing heavily. Nairobi as a cosmopolitan city is on fire.

An interesting example I like to share: There was a dynamic art/food/cultural event at Soho House in New York called Slideluck Potshow. A year later we were hosting that same event at Tribe in Nairobi. Fifteen years ago I would never imagine a cutting-edge event that you might find in the Meatpacking District in New York City or Berlin or London would be in Nairobi. Nowadays it’s not that surprising. And Kenyans are starting to travel a lot more these days than before.

YJ: What’s driving the changes there? 

MS: The world becoming smaller. The Internet and social media are connecting us all. I think a lot of change in hospitality is being driven by your average Kenyan, who epitomizes hospitality, warmth and graciousness. Economic change is being driven partly by international corporations having faith in Kenya and starting to invest. And a massive Chinese investment in infrastructure — especially roads — is making Kenya more attractive.

YJ: As for hotel developments in Africa, what or where do you see major opportunities?

MS: Well, within Kenya, Nairobi is definitely a very good bet. Tourists will always pass through and are actually starting to spend more than their first and last nights of their safari in town because of the great cultural, music, art and nightlife options that Nairobi now offers. And as I’ve said, business travel to Nairobi is increasing tremendously. In Kenya as a whole, I think the opportunities in the bush are getting more off the beaten track — going to places where you are not surrounded by mini-buses and throngs of other tourists, going to places that are environmentally friendly and authentically committed to working with the local community. There is a place called Campi ya Kanzi in the Chyulu Hills that I think is setting the standard for what the new wave of tourist is going to be looking for.

Outside Kenya, developing markets like Rwanda, Tanzania, Angola and Ghana are all great bets in Africa.

YJ: Who’s benefiting from this?  

MS: The whole country benefits. In New York, every dollar spent in New York restaurants generates an additional US$0.86 in sales for the state economy. I imagine in Kenya for every dollar spent an additional US$0.50 or more is generated for hotel owners, suppliers, the labor force, etc. The way I see it, as multinationals invest in Kenya, international chains move in and boost foreign confidence in the country, and more multinationals come in to invest. It’s a positive growth cycle that keeps going.

YJ: What could derail the process? What’s the biggest barrier?

MS: The government needs to get with the program! Corruption needs to be addressed immediately, especially for international hotel brands considering coming in. There is some anxiety about our upcoming election (in 2013) as our past is haunting us from the violence from the last election. But 90% of the country feels a lot more confident about a positive outcome this time around.

As for cultural misunderstandings, I think you will get those anywhere, but Kenyans are very well educated and quite worldly. And as I said before, hospitality staff is one of our best commodities!

YJ: We’re going to Nairobi in a few weeks to kick off a project for a client developing a hotel in Nairobi. I discussed this and other opportunities with some developers, and they seemed skeptical about Kenya, and Africa in general. Are they making a mistake?

MS: I do think they are making a mistake. Let’s face it — there are definitely risks involved. But the fundamentals for Africa in general and Kenya in particular are encouraging: an emerging middle class, strong demographic profile, rich natural resources and a general trend (albeit with exceptions) toward better governance. But there are risks in entering any emerging market. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Kenya has a long history in tourism, there are incredibly dynamic and forward-thinking operators in the country, and there is an openness to new ideas and thoughts.

YJ: Any last points?

MS: As with any new projects, especially in the developing world, you need to do your thorough research. I would strongly recommend getting local expertise to assist in the project to help navigate your way. And finally, keep responsible tourism in the forefront of your plans.