Are Kenyans ready for luxury hotel brands?

General Manager Villa Rosa Kempinski Nairobi and Olare Mara Kempinski, Roberto Simone.
Last year, Italian national Roberto Simone took over the reins as the general manager of luxury hotel brand Villa Rosa Kempinski Nairobi and its high-end Olare Mara Kempinski tented camp. 

Mr Simone, who has worked for some of the world’s leading luxury hospitality brands such as JW Marriott and Anantara Hotels and Resorts, took over at a time when the hotel is facing stiff competition from both existing and new luxury operators. 

He spoke to Financial Standard about his latest assignment and Kenya’s hospitality industry in general.

You have been in Kenya for a while now. How has the journey been since you took over?

Kenya is not new to me. I had previously worked here in 2011 as the general manager of Diani Reef. I had also been visiting the country regularly, and when I got this job offer, I didn’t hesitate.

I was really excited to be posted in Nairobi. I like the people and the food, and the weather is fantastic.

What are your plans for the Kempinski brand?

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Kempinski is a market leader in innovation and quality, but we can never be in a comfort zone. The plan is to always improve our service and our one-on-one touch with customers.

We want to stay ahead and be ready for new competition. We are always investing in people and the quality of our products.

Every new boss comes with their own rules. Have you had to make any changes so far?

I’ve worked all over the world – Europe, Asia and the United States. I never go into a place and assume they need to change everything. The first thing I do is assess the human capital – which I found to be excellent here in Nairobi.

There’s plenty of young talent here up for promotion. We’ve actually promoted one of our doormen who got his diploma.

My approach is very cautious; I prefer to study what the market needs, what is possible and importantly if it’s sustainable.

Our primary goal is to be competitive because we want to maintain job stability. We have over 420 employees counting on us to support their families. These people depend on the reputation of Kempinski to go to the banks and get loans.

How can you describe the Kenyan luxury market?

Kenya’s luxury market has some very interesting elements. Kenya has one of the most vibrant millennial generations in Africa together with Nigeria and South Africa.

There’s an incredible entrepreneurial spirit that helps develop a lot of start-ups. This then is important because it builds wealth and an affluent class. There’s demand for luxury products from people who want to recognise their own success, which was not the case 10 years ago as options were limited.

International brands seem to be thriving more in Kenya compared to their local counterparts. What is your comment on this?

The story of local hotels that fail because they belong to a big international company is both true and not true.

Nowadays there are technological tools that allow local hotels to access international distribution. With the right business model and access to a worldwide network, they can also be successful.

Are apps like AirBnB and furnished apartments eating into the hotel business?

Yes, but it depends on what you want. Corporates need additional services, which they can’t provide. About 90 per cent of our clients are corporates.

They come to Nairobi with expectations. They know there are many things to sample in Kenya. For example, we offer excursions in Nairobi National Park or fly them to the Mara. 

The economy has not been doing very well recently. How has this affected business?  

Room revenue has not been affected, but on the food and beverage side, we are suffering because it is heavily exposed to the local demand. Our various restaurants cater largely to local demand.

We are in a period where the economy is a matter of concern not only in Kenya, but around the world. There’s a consolidation that started even before the coronavirus.   

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