Holiday getaways: The hidden gems on Rift Valley floor

Lake Elementaita Mountain Lodge in Nakuru [David Njaaga, Standard]

Out there in the countryside, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, the food and hospitality industry is exorcising the demons of Covid-19 with aplomb.

As house owners push developers to put more effort into building outside the increasingly expensive and congested Nairobi, hotels far from the city are thriving.

Superior Homes’ Lake Elementaita Mountain Lodge is one such beneficiary of what some may call an “unorthodox” location. The lodge is perched atop a hillock that overlooks Lake Elementaita on the Nairobi-Nakuru highway.

A seven-kilometre drive from Soysambu, which includes navigating a dry weather road uphill (now raining), lands one in the resort and once there, it is almost impossible to understand why the developers chose the slow, remote neighbourhood, tucked far away from the urban.

The lodge sits on 15 acres on a slope that could easily have been dismissed as a wasteland.

“We have a very good and relaxing view of Lake Elementaita which only gets better during sunset,” says the lodge’s General Manager Mr Charles Muchangi.

“We offer people the rest they need out of the busy city.” And it seems that after a brutal shellacking by Covid-19, the business has blossomed. On normal days, the average occupancy at the resort is 80 per cent.

On weekends, public holidays and during conferences, it is fully booked, the GM says. Retreats in the countryside favour many company employees. A time away from the noisy confines of a city helps to reflect and rebuild.

However, in previous rankings by Kenya Tourism Authority, many regions, especially in the rural areas, did not have five-star hotels or even any decent hotels. Most of the prime hotels are in Nairobi.

With the city hosting the biggest number of the upper-middle class and visitors into the country, it would be possible to think that those who start hotels outside the city are landing themselves in a ditch.

“It really does not matter if the hotel is in the central business district (CBD) or elsewhere, what matters is the business model that is used in running a hotel,” Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers Chief Executive Mr Michael Macharia recently told Real Estate.

Mr Mohammed Hersi, a seasoned hotelier and former chairman of Kenya Tourism Federation, however, said location is one of the biggest contributors to the success or failure of a hotel.

This is especially because some clients can only be found in certain areas and putting up where the target market is likely to access it easily is a huge advantage.

One knows with certainty what services to offer. “You profile your clientele before you build. And because you cannot serve everyone, you have to make a choice,” said Mr Hersi. “Once you have that, set up where they can access you.”

Resorts outside the city now offer a reprieve to guests who want the ambience of a countryside that has previously struggled to convince it can deliver on the promise of luxury and comfort.

Lake Elementaita Mountain Lodge in Nakuru [David Njaaga, Standard]

Customers seem ready to travel far and wide in pursuit of luxury.

Lake Elementaita Mountain Lodge, for example, offers accommodation, meetings and conference facilities, gardens for events and team building and a restaurant and a bar.

The resorts also bring development into the areas and jobs for the local communities. “Many of our staff members come from Kasambara, which is our neighbourhood,” Mr Muchangi says.

The lodge employs 50 workers, who had been reduced to 20 when the pandemic hit hardest. Since its inception in 2020, Lake Elementaita Mountain Lodge has supported schools in the locality by donating stationary, the latest being a consignment to Kasambara Primary School.

The lodge sits in a relatively dry area that receives business and leisure guests. Many come for sightseeing, with the floor of the Rift Valley not short of tourist attraction sites.

Superior Homes Brand and Marketing lead Mr Elvis Onchwari says in the last two years, the conference business has been booming and has been one of the pillars for the hotel.

“People have been coming from Nairobi and further to have conferences here,” he says. “It is becoming an interesting business venture.”

For some, the attraction of resorts in the countryside is not only pegged on the serenity and breathtaking views of nature but also on price. At Lake Elementaita Mountain Lodge, bed and breakfast double goes for Sh15,000, with the half-board going for Sh18,700. The full board goes for Sh22,600.

For the luxury, many tourists would fancy such rates, which Mr Muchangi calls “fair”, with the bonus offered being serenity. Two conference rooms, 50 suites, a restaurant and bar, infinity pool and a gym give the ultimate experience as the urban blends with the rural.

The lodge, in spite of having to work harder to attract guests than competitors in Nairobi and other cities, did not close down during the thick of the pandemic. Few resorts remained open.

The staff number was reduced as traffic waned, and some sections of the resort were shut down for renovations but as many other people in the food and hospitality industry collapsed under the weight of the moment, the lodge kept going.

A report by the Tourism Research Institute in January indicated that at least 1.1 million people employed in the hospitality sector lost jobs in 2021. The sector suffered a collective loss of Sh152.4 billion.

The industry, however, improved in 2021, registering 302,617 more visits into the country compared to 2020.

Mr Muchangi says that as the hospitality sector recovers, there will be more opportunities in the industry, with the trajectory promising.