In the Eye of the Storm

You will have already seen so many news reports about the economic effects of the ongoing violence – the killing of people and the destruction of property. So you don’t need me to be telling you that that the situation is dire, especially with regard to the hotel and tourist industry, and that at the Coast, for example, the occupancy rate of the beach lodges and resorts is down to 12% or less – and a number of them have already closed down.

Now it’s just one year since I talked with Daniel Szlapak about the launch of his Country Lodge on 2nd Ngong Avenue; I have heard rumours that he and his fellow directors are thinking of building more Country Lodges here in Nairobi and in other cities of East Africa – so I thought it would be an opportune time to talk with Daniel again.

But, first, let me remind you about the Country Lodge concept. It is, like the City Lodges of South Africa, a hotel that is not luxurious but smart and at a very reasonable price. At the Country Lodge, you pay Ksh 5,100 for bed and breakfast – significantly below the price for the likes of the Serena, the Norfolk or the Hilton.

In Nairobi, it was the first ‘limited service’ hotel. Which means that, though it provides breakfast, it doesn’t have a restaurant. However, if you are thirsty, there’s a vending machine. No-one will pick your laundry from your room, but there’s a bag for carrying it down to reception.

The Country Lodge is designed not for the tourist but for the business traveller; especially the one who is paying out of his own pocket or the one who wants to save something on his ‘per diem’. It has everything that such a client needs rather than wants: ample space on which to work, free wireless connection to the internet, a satellite TV to catch up with the news, and a comfortable bed on which to sleep. No fuss, no frills. But I like it – I like its Scandinavian lines in granite, wood and stainless steel.

Over 2007 it did very well: with occupancy in the high 90’s throughout 2007. Even this January it has held to a level of 70%. One reason for this, of course, is that the hotel doesn’t depend on the tourist trade.

‘Tourists are very fickle,’ says Daniel. ‘At the first whiff of trouble, they are gone, but the business traveller says, “Well, I’ll not come this week – but I’ll see how things are next week”’.

Also, like the adjacent Fairview – the Slzapak’s other and first hotel – the Country Lodge is set in a quiet area; and, with the surrounding gardens, it is a place where you feel secure but not locked up.

The Fairview, too, has so far weathered the storm very well. Perhaps because it has a more diversified business than other top-end Nairobi hotels – it has an apartment complex and also five distinctive and popular restaurants.

‘Whatever’s going on in the city, the people in this Upper Hill financial quarter need to eat,’ says Daniel, ‘And so they still come here to our restaurants.’

Not that the Country Lodge or the Fairview haven’t felt the effect of the chaos outside. The staff have had difficulty in getting to work. At times there were about 40 having to sleep in the hotel. And at New Year the management arranged for five staff to be flown out of the troubles in western Kenya. But not one person has been laid off.

When I asked Daniel about his views on what might happen to Kenya in the weeks and months ahead, it struck me that what he was saying sounded very much like the three scenarios I had not so long ago envisaged for development planning in Somalia: One, things stay very much as they are now with a muddling through and sporadic outbreaks of violence; two, things slowly get back to normal; three, things rapidly spiral down to chaos.

I never thought I would be thinking of Kenya in any way like we do for Somalia and as a potential failed state…..

No, I would rather focus on a Daniel, who is pushing on with a massive refurbishment of the Fairview kitchen – and who is still planning to grow his Country Lodges.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation