Africa’s economic growth presents many opportunities for hotel operators. However, the hospitality sector remains tough and success is by no means guaranteed. One person with significant experience in the industry is Rosemary Mugambi, sales and marketing director of Serena Hotels. The group operates 24 safari lodges, tented camps and city hotels situated in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and Mozambique. How we made it in Africa spoke to Mugambi about the trends she is currently seeing in the industry.
Over the past few years, much has been said about Africa’s stellar economic growth. Is Africa’s rise reflecting on Serena’s bottom line?
We are seeing a definite upward trend as far as the hospitality industry is concerned in Africa. We’ve seen growth year-on-year. This industry is one of the key industries contributing to the economic growth of Africa.
Where are you seeing the most growth, from business or leisure travellers?
It is both. The leisure side of our business has grown significantly and that is as a result of a lot of attention paid by the governments and tourism boards in promoting East Africa.
What we’ve also noted, is that investment into Africa, by the West as well as Asia, has caused the business traveller to really start travelling to the continent. For many years the Nairobi Serena was our only city hotel, but over the years we have grown our city hotels over East Africa. Today we have five city hotels – we are in Dar es Salaam, Kampala, Kigali, Maputo and Nairobi. And this is because for the city hotels our main clients are international business travellers.
We are also seeing an increase in people booking conferences. There is a lot in terms of seminars, workshops and international conferences. Today it has become almost a given that hotels should have conference facilities, because it is quite an important area as far as the business is concerned.
Serena has properties in a number of countries, are there specific territories that are doing especially well?
I would pick out Rwanda as the one country that has come up and turned around in a way that should be recognised. The turnaround and growth that Rwanda has experienced is remarkable, given that just a few years ago they had that dark side of their history with the genocide. I think it is incredible what we have seen virtually in all sectors.
What are the major challenges facing the hospitality industry in the region?
One is inadequate facilities and products of quality that meet international standards. The other challenge I would say is the infrastructure; there could be a lot more done with our roads.
Additionally, which for me is a major challenge, is the negative attention given to Africa by the international media, who often focus on more negative than positive information and East Africa is no exception. At the end of the day this does affect our business, because if somebody staying in the US is given the impression that all that happens in East Africa is violence, theft or insecurity, then they will not feel comfortable to visit. I believe these challenges you will find everywhere in the world. A mugging can happen in Nairobi, just as in the streets of New York and London.
Chinese companies and investors are playing an increasingly bigger role on the continent. Are you seeing an increase in guests coming from this region?
Yes, we are. China especially is going full-blast in investing in Africa, and East Africa is no exception. There is a very heavy presence of the Chinese here. They are investing in many different sectors – roads, construction and so on. For us in the industry, it is not a bad thing. What has also happened is it has opened the Chinese to travel to East Africa. We are beginning to see this in the increase of Chinese leisure travellers to East Africa, which is good for us. It is a new market to concentrate on. We are actually looking at ways and means of getting more Chinese travellers here.