It’s been a difficult couple of years for Kenya, with the knock-on effects of the 2013 Jomo Kenyatta International fire and Westgate shopping mall attack, further terrorist activity in Mombasa and Nairobi, and the spill-over from the Ebola outbreak. But Kenya is bouncing back, and remains East Africa’s biggest and most advanced economy, with serious business travel clout.
Kenya is one of Africa’s more powerful nations, and the economy has seen much expansion, with strong performance in the services sector – which contributes about 63% of GDP. Tourism remains a key element, which makes the events of the past few years even more important, in the context of the effect on the country as a whole.
Industrial activity concentrated around the three largest urban centres – Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu – is dominated by food-processing industries such as grain milling, beer production, sugarcane crushing, and the fabrication of consumer goods, whilst the oil and gas sectors are also growing significantly.
Yet all of this counted for nothing in 2014, when much of the international community applied the brakes to their travel into Kenya, in the wake of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and persistent terrorist activity in Mombasa and Nairobi.
“We noticed a big freeze on business travel, which resulted in cancellations and lost business,” says Ghulam Samdani, General Manager of the Ole-Sereni hotel on the airport road between Jomo Kenyatta International and the Nairobi CBD. “We just couldn’t pacify the traveller and get them to change their minds, since the scare was everywhere.”
And it wasn’t just the hotels who suffered.
“Kenya was tarnished as being ‘too close to the source’ of Ebola, so we did see a decline in passengers travelling,” says Rosemary Adogo, Area Manager Southern Africa for Kenya Airways. “And that was business, holiday and even transit travel.”
It was a ‘double-whammy’, with the threat of terrorism doing nothing for Kenya’s image as a safe African travel destination. There were eight terrorism-related incidents in Nairobi and Mombasa between March and May 2014, before June saw at least 48 people killed in the town of Mpeketoni, near the coastal island and popular tourist resort of Lamu, when militants from Somalia stormed into the town and launched a major assault on a police station, hotels and government offices.
That was followed in November and December by two suspected Al Shabaab attacks in Mandera County, which claimed the lives of 64 people.
“There was a point when we had no control on the occupancy forecast, as it could change at any point given the ongoing terrorist activities and moreover the constant travel advisory alerts,” says Samdani. “There was more scary news flowing around than anything positive, and the traveller was convinced that Africa was a ‘no-go’ destination.”
“Terrorism affects tourism in any country,” says Adogo. “Fortunately, recent efforts from the Kenyan government have had a positive impact and terrorism has decreased, giving Kenya the desired credibility for tourists to return to the country with confidence and enthusiasm.”
There was definitely a shift in approach, with many Kenyan operations having to re-look their offering, in an attempt to convince the international community that it was safe to visit and do business in the country.
“We further enhanced our security systems,” says Moshi Perera, General Manager of the Sankara Nairobi in Westlands. “Sankara Nairobi also received accreditation from Safehotels for its excellence in safety and crisis management. We were actually the first hotel to receive the Premium level accolade.”
Safety and security weren’t the only areas that were re-looked.
“We went back to the drawing board to reinvent our offering,” says Samdani. “The first step was to reinforce our focus at ground level with the local clientele. The rooms business was taking a dive, but not our food and beverage. We put together some exciting packages that included a room element and, given our unique location, we added game drives to Nairobi National Park. This did the trick to get the footfall going.”
2014 may have been a year to forget, but the prevailing feeling out of Nairobi – Kenya’s premier business travel destination – is that things have turned, and the country is already being seen in a whole new light.
“We are glad to see business stabilising,” says Samdani. “The travel portals are opening up and the business traveller is much more receptive to travel to Kenya.”
Despite the difficulties of 2014, Nairobi remains a hotbed of hotel development, with many of the world’s top brands either strengthening their presence in the city or initiating one.
One of those is South Africa-based City Lodge Hotels, which in 2014 took full ownership of its two joint ventures in Kenya – the Fairview Hotel and adjacent Country Lodge in Upper Hill. The latter has been rebranded as the Town Lodge Upper Hill. City Lodge is also developing a 170-room City Lodge Hotel within the upmarket Two Rivers mixed-use development that is currently under construction.
Another new entrant in the Nairobi hotel market is the 5-star dusitD2 nairobi, which opened in 2014 and offers 101 rooms, three restaurants, and four meeting rooms. Dusit International is a Thai hotel brand.
Mid-2014 also saw the announcement that budget hotel group Tune Hotels will open its first property in Kenya in 2015. The group will open a 280-room hotel in the Westlands area of Nairobi. The hotel will reportedly not have a swimming pool, meeting facilities, gym, or spa, and will concentrate purely on the room and food business, at prices said to be in the $100 bracket.
2014 also featured reports that Simba Hospitality has established the ‘Acacia’ brand. Within the next two to three years, Acacia will develop and build at least three mid-priced hotels in Nairobi, Naivasha and Kisumu.
Also in the planning stages, the Accor hotel group has its eye on a Pullmans-branded hotel in Nairobi, and Wyndham is keen on establishing a Wyndham Hotels & Resorts property and a Ramada property.
“The Nairobi hotel market is growing, with the emergence of new, branded hotels in the city,” says Perera. “This shows that the trend for business travel and MICE will be positive and grow, as Nairobi has become the main hub for many international companies.”
The revamped Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is the main entry point, and offers domestic, regional and international flights and connections. The Mombasa Highway runs adjacent to the airport, and is the main route of access to the city.
The airport has numerous taxis and car rental services that operate 24 hours a day. A taxi ride to the city centre will cost you between $25 and $40. You can use your Visa, MasterCard and Maestro cards to draw money from the numerous ATMs available at the airport. There are also 24-hour banking services and forex bureaux.
JKIA enjoyed a better year in 2014, following the devastating fire in 2013. In July the airport opened Terminal 4 – now Terminal 1A – which was under construction at the time of the fire. But further work is underway to upgrade and improve JKIA. That includes construction of a new $64 million terminal, which is expected to be completed by 2017.
“There has been a much-needed facelift at JKIA, especially with the new terminal, which offers a product and service of international standard, and I believe more vibrant developments are on their way,” says Samdani. “Today the business traveller is looking for ease of travel, and I’m glad to see that JKIA understands these demands and is addressing them.”
There seems to be consensus that JKIA now offers a much-improved experience to that experienced in the past by travellers.
“The changes have been positive and this has made the business travel experience much more smooth and efficient,” says Perera.
November saw JKIA open two new lounges – Pride and Simba – in Terminal 1, for Kenya Airways (KQ) and SkyTeam passengers. Both lounges offer free Wi-Fi, a sound-proof transit passengers sleeping area, dining lounge, washrooms and showers.
“The two lounges are for the exclusive use of Premier World passengers flying from or transiting through Kenya Airways’ JKIA hub,” says Adogo. “They will also be made available to Sky Priority passengers from the airline’s SkyTeam partners. “It’s been dubbed the ‘new KQ customer experience’, encompassing lavish and world-standard facilities, coupled with a brand new look, and the objective is to focus on offering excellent service to our passengers.”
The Simba and Pride lounges aren’t the only lounges on offer.
“Ole-Sereni is now managing a world-class lounge in partnership with Swissport,” says Samdani. “It’s called Aspire Lounge and is located at Terminal 1B opposite Gate 10. We cater for the major international carriers. This lounge is the new trend setter at JKIA, offering well-designed facilities with well thought out food and beverage options.”
In 2014 Kenya Airways received the first of nine 787 Dreamliners from Boeing, and shortly thereafter deployed the aircraft on its first flight to Paris. The second Dreamliner arrived in June, and was deployed on the Nairobi-Johannesburg route. It also launched flights to Abuja (Nigeria), and reinstated flights to Zanzibar (Tanzania).
KQ also signed a codeshare agreement with South African low-cost airline Kulula.com, and reached an agreement with Delta to offer connecting flights between Monrovia (Liberia) and Accra (Ghana), before suspending operations to Liberia and Sierra Leone in August, in an effort to stem the spread of the Ebola virus out of West Africa.
Kenya Airways also revised its baggage policy. Premier World passengers are now allowed up to 64 kilograms of free checked-in baggage and 46 kilograms in Economy. All passengers are permitted up to 12 kilograms of hand luggage.
Jambojet, KQ’s low-cost subsidiary airline, began operating in April 2014, and now flies between Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, and Eldoret, with special offers for transport from the airport to the city centres of Kisumu and Eldoret.
In related Ebola news, Korean Air suspended flights to Nairobi, with those flights only expected to resume around the middle of 2015.
Nairobi offers a selection of high-quality hotels including many international brands, such as InterContinental, Hilton, Best Western, Fairmont, Kempinski and Crowne Plaza, as well as a number of very highly-regarded local chains, such as Serena and Sarova Hotels.
Fairmont’s The Norfolk Hotel has played a leading role in Kenya’s colourful history, and continues to be one of Nairobi’s finest and best-known hotels, boasting 170 guest rooms and suites, eight conference rooms, a heated outdoor swimming pool, health club with gym, sauna and steam room, gift shops, and its own private tropical gardens.
The InterContinental Nairobi is ideally located for business, close to the parliament buildings and CBD, and adjacent to Kenyatta International Convention Centre, as is the Laico Regency in the same area.
The Nairobi Serena is very popular and one of the old, established hotels in the city. It has a colonial feel, but has also kept pace with the times, and still offers a quality 5-star experience, along with a great location, should you need to be in close proximity to the city centre.
Also in the 5-star category are the Villa Rosa Kempinski and the dusitD2 nairobi, both of which opened in the past two years.
There are a couple of ‘modern’ hotel options, in the form of the Tribe Hotel, which has received great reviews and looks to have some stunning facilities and rooms. Then there’s the Sankara Nairobi, which opened a couple of years ago and has become the standout hotel in the suburb of Westlands, where a lot of international businesses are relocating. The Sankara offering is nothing short of 5-star, with an eye-catching pool area and modern rooms. In a similar category is Hemingways in Karen, offering an exclusive, boutique 5-star experience.
Just a few hundred metres away from the Sankara is the Southern Sun Nairobi, a member of the South African Tsogo Sun Hotels group.
In the Upper Hill area, there are two hotels that catch the eye – the Crowne Plaza and the Fairview, which is a homely 4-star family-run hotel that recently sold out to City Lodge. The Fairview also has what was previously known as the Country Lodge attached to it, and this hotel has been rebranded as a Town Lodge, which is City Lodge’s 2-star brand. These Upper Hill properties will soon be joined by a Radisson Blu around mid-2015.
The Best Western Premier opened in 2013 – the international group’s first property in Nairobi – and offers 96 4-star rooms in Upper Hill Estate, with free Wi-Fi, a health club and three restaurants.
Another hotel worth noting is the Sarova Stanley, whilst the Ole Sereni is arguably the best hotel on the airport road, and just 10 minutes from Jomo Kenyatta International. It overlooks the national park, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see game roaming on the other side of the fence. It also has a bar and pool area overlooking the park, very comfortable rooms and stunning food.
Also on the airport road are the Panari Hotel and the newish pair of the Eka Hotel and The Boma.
The main business travel destination in Kenya is the capital city Nairobi, which is surrounded by kilometres of plains, cliffs and forest that make up the city’s Nairobi National Park. It also features modern skyscrapers, quality restaurants, fully-equipped hospitals, modern shopping malls, and a number of schools.
Mombasa, the second largest city, is Kenya’s main tourist destination. It is located on the eastern coastline of Kenya bordering the Indian Ocean, which has made it a popular destination for its beaches. Mombasa offers a diverse marine life, good quality hotels, and a friendly atmosphere. The tropical climate experienced all year is what makes it so popular with tourists.
Credit cards are widely accepted in all major hotels and establishments, with the most recognised cards being MasterCard, Visa and American Express. Don’t forget to keep some cash in hand, because smaller shops will only accept cash.
Visa exemptions are applied to nationals of the following African countries: Botswana, Burundi, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. South Africans are limited to 30-day visa-free stays, and longer visits require a visa.
For citizens of other countries, visas may be obtained through a Kenyan embassy or consulate prior to departure, or are available for purchase on entry at international airports, at a cost of $50.
In Kenya, internet and mobile technology is the order of everyday life.
Safaricom is the leading mobile network operator, followed by Airtel and smaller players such as Orange Wireless.
It is much cheaper to get a local sim card if your phone is unlocked and takes an ordinary sim card. Sim cards cost approximately KES50 and airtime about KES250. Scratch cards are available everywhere. It won’t cost you to receive calls from abroad, and local calls are extremely cheap. For instance, Safaricom charges approximately 15p a minute for calls and approximately 5p to send a text message to the UK.
Wireless internet is widespread and most hotels will offer it to guests. There are also lots of internet cafes, and you’re looking at around KES20 for the first 15 minutes and KES1 per minute thereafter.
It’s advisable to take precautions against contracting malaria. So, protect yourself from mosquito bites, and if you travel to the coast, it’s recommended that you take anti-malaria pills.
It is equally essential that you carry some form of medical insurance.
There are good, well-equipped hospitals, including the Nairobi, Karen, and Aga Khan hospitals in the main cities, whilst there’s also an excellent Flying Doctor service, in the event of a medical emergency while on safari.
It is advisable to drink only bottled mineral water.
Nairobi has a reputation for being dangerous, so exercise caution. Don’t flaunt expensive jewellery or cell phones, and avoid walking the streets alone, especially at night.
Smoking in public, except in designated areas, is prohibited. Taking photographs of official buildings, including embassies, is also not recommended.
Tipping is not compulsory, but it’s certainly not forbidden. Some hotels will include a service charge to your bill, but otherwise use your discretion.
Christianity is the dominant religion, but there are areas with major Muslim influence, which are more conservative. In these areas, it is considered indecent to wear short dresses. Major displays of public affection are frowned upon in most areas, and overt displays of homosexuality, which is illegal in Kenya, may result in open hostility.
Population: 45 million
Time zone: GMT+3
Plugs: UK-type square three-pin
Dialing code: +254
Currency: Kenyan shilling – $1=92KES
Language: English and Kiswahili
General Manager: African Partner Network
American Express Travel Services South Africa
Of the many African cities I have visited, Nairobi is definitely in my top two. It is an exciting and vibrant city with extremely friendly and patriotic people.
Nairobi offers visitors a range of luxury accommodation and fabulous restaurants, as well as cultural and safari experiences. Nairobi National Park is only seven kilometres from the city centre, with only a fence separating the city from the park.
On arrival, travellers get to experience a very new, world class airport Terminal 1A, which has only recently been partially opened after almost four years of construction. Amongst other modern touches, the airport has an abundance of check-in counters, boarding bridges and automated baggage handling, which allows for a speedier and more efficient experience.
The airport is about 18 kilometres from the CBD, and you generally find yourself in heavy traffic about eight kilometres from the city. As in most African cities, traffic can be a challenge, and it is advisable to make allowances for traffic delays at all times.
Accommodation is world class and hotel prices are not as exorbitant as in certain other African cities. If you are looking for an exclusive, boutique hotel experience, I would recommend Hemingways. It is slightly out of the city centre in a very fast-growing suburb called Karen, and the hotel offers sophistication, tranquility, superb service and a fine dining experience.
When driving on the roads on the outskirts of Nairobi, the streets become a market place and you can purchase anything from plants to furniture to fruit and vegetables. The markets are worth stopping at, even if it is just to experience the friendly atmosphere and vibrant street life. There are also a few modern shopping malls in Nairobi, and these centres offer a variety of restaurants and shops. Nairobi has some of the best dining experiences, so I suggest taking time to explore.
Nairobi is a global city with friendly people of various cultures. It truly is a pleasant experience travelling there, and besides the traffic, whether you are on business or a leisure trip, it is a lovely destination.