Changes in UK army training hit Nanyuki's hospitality industry
By Kevin Oguoko | July 9th 2015
NANYUKI: No other town in Kenya mimics the way of life of Nairobi’s leafy suburbs of Karen and Gigiri as Nanyuki. It is not unusual to bump into 6 foot Caucasian with half of his hands covered in tattoo shopping at Nanyuki Mall.
The unique mix of the big-spending expatriate and a business-savvy local community has led to the rapid growth of the town, which boasts mature residential and commercial developments that have made it the pride of Laikipia County, which hosts its County Government offices on the town. Nanyuki Mall was among the first malls in the Mount Kenya region.
The expatriate community is mostly from the United Kingdom through the BATUK – British Army Training Unit Kenya.
According to the UK army website, BATUK is a permanent training support unit in Nanyuki. It provides the logistic support to visiting units and consists of 56 permanent staff and a reinforcing cohort of 110 personnel.
Under an agreement with the Kenyan Government, six infantry battalions per year carry out six-week exercises in Kenya.
The areas around Nanyuki in the plains of Laikipia provide excellent training grounds, with the harsh conditions similar to the badlands of Afghanistan.
The large deployment of the army personnel has inspired the growth of residential and commercial facilities in the last decade to cater for their housing needs.
One such establishment is Sportsman Arms Hotel right outside Nanyuki town.
Sportsman Arms has a rich history that dates back to the pre-colonial area. It was bought by South-East Asian Kenyan family, the parents of PR guru Gina Din, before independence. Back then, it composed of a handful of cabins and a bar for tourists coming to Nanyuki on their way to climb Mount Kenya.
After the current owners bought the hotel in 1990, they refurbished it.
The hotel had to build a swimming pool at the request of the Batuk clientele who occupied most of the rooms at the hotel in their six-week training, which saw them take up more than 150 rooms at a time.
The guaranteed returns inspired the construction of two more blocks of hotel rooms and additional facilities such sauna, massage and Jacuzzi over the years.
Some hotels such as Silver Springs set up base in Nanyuki to capitalise on the opportunity presented by the high-spending Batuk personnel.
Nanyuki Mall came about around the same time, with Nakumatt Supermarket as an anchor tenant.
However, things changed when the Batuk housing and entertainment needs changed and their administration choosing to provide in-house facilities and restricting movement of the army trainees into Nanyuki Town.
This was after an infamous bar brawl at the Sportsman Arms Hotel involving close to 200 soldiers who had just completed their training and were partying before jetting back home. One of the consequences of the brawl was restriction of movement and the freedom to indulge in the fun, hospitality and entertainment offered by the local facilities such as Sportsman Arms.
The hospitality industry makes a significant proportion of their income from spending by guests on food, leisure and entertainment.
This spelt doom for the hotel industry there almost immediately. The club at the hotel’s grounds got fewer and fewer patrons and competition from other small clubs grew, with some incorporating a stripping section to lure the 20-something soldiers.
“We had to start focusing on the local market. Today, 80 per cent of our guests are from organisations coming for seminars, retreats and trainings,” says Bedford Gitonga, the General Manager of Sportsman Arms Hotel.
Some were not as lucky.
“Other hotels that had come up in the area are now being operated as mere lodges after the industry took a hit with the reduction in the number of guests,” says Gitonga.
Gitonga says some expatriates have opted to use facilities in the nearby Timau farms owned by some of Batuk’s permanent staff in Kenya or nationals from their home country.
The hotel had planned to build a mall on its expansive 17 acres, to compete with the Nanyuki Mall, but was forced to shelve the project after the dynamics in the town changed.
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