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Blending business with leisure at airport hotels


Airport hotel and park tour. (Courtesy)

Perched on a lofty stool, I watch as the wind causes tiny ripples in the swimming pool nearby. On the opposite end, two gentlemen excitedly carry on a conversation, their feet just a few feet from the edge of the pool and with drinks at hand.

Below us are 144 immaculate rooms on four levels where suave merchants, airline pilots and cabin crew members call home for several nights every week. The rooms are soundproof and cancel the loud noise from plane engines landing and taking off from the nearby runway. They are also furnished with black-out curtains that ensure complete rest even with full daylight outside.

This is the daily repertoire at Crowne Plaza Nairobi Airport, one of the three hotels located within the vicinity of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. The other two are Four Points by Sheraton and Hilton Garden Inn.

Here, I met a familiar figure in the industry. I first met Barnabas Wamoto at Hotel Intercontinental, a hotel whose better days are gone by. Then he had a stint at the Villa Rosa Kempinski and counts among his guests, former president of the United States, Barack Obama. At Crowne Plaza Nairobi Airport, Bernie, as we call him, still has to deal with high end hotel guests.

Before my evening rendezvous at the hotel, I had embarked on a game drive at Nairobi National Park. I was in the company of yet another industry veteran and a driver at the airport hotel. Philip had undergone a tourism and wildlife management course at the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya along Langata Road. His knowledge of the wild runs in his blood.

Upon graduating in 2005, Philip hit the road, literally, working with top tour establishments such as Leopard Rock in Meru, Mpata Safari Club and later, Olare Mara Kempinski. I first met him during his sojourn at Kempinski in 2016 where we struck a bond that was reawakened during our Nairobi tour.

To renew our friendship, Philip offered to take me on the brief safari in the park. Taking to the new extension of the Southern bypass, we pass a myriad of trailers marking their time at the internal container depot. Through an underpass, we leave the busy city behind and enter the park through the Eastern Gate. It is interesting how one can leave the confines of either the airport or a Five-star hotel and be in the wild within minutes.

A journey of giraffes welcomed us to the park, craning their necks for a brief inspection of the intruders. A secretary bird with the quill feathers on the head flipping in the wind sauntered along the dry grass, looking for an occasional drifter-a snake, a frog, a rodent-anything to ward off the afternoon heat.

We drive further south, egged on by the vast array of animals sheltering under the railway line that skirts this side of the park towards Ongata Rongai. It was interesting to see how the animals have become accustomed to this piece of infrastructure.

A little further south, we chanced upon a pride of lions lazily letting off the heat by sprawling themselves under the shade of an acacia bush. Did you know lions can sleep for 20 out of 24 hours? Whoever named them as the king of beasts may not have taken in this small detail.

At the lower reaches of the park is Mbagathi river that marks the boundary between the park and the local community. Looking across from the hippo pools, a Maasai boma stood forlornly in the midst of wild creatures.

On the way out, we came across more rhinos than we could count. Nairobi Park is proving to be a safe haven for the endangered creatures. Having lost so much of their natural range due to human encroachment, their only hope of survival lies in such protected areas.

The tour done, I needed to catch up with my friend Bernie at the hotel. I needed to know how different such an establishment operates compared to the leisure hotels within the country. Waiting for Bernie was...well, quite a wait. My lofty stool at the Rooftop Pool and Bar became my "waiting room" for some hours.

A few weeks earlier, the rooftop bar staged the launch of a tapas menu to complement the current offering. "It is about catering for the leisure guest as well," said Prinita Modasia, the hotel's sales and marketing executive. "An airport hotel is more than just business. You have the national park across there, and you have planes landing here. That is an interesting combination, don't you think?"

For Prinita, working at an airport hotel raises her adrenaline a notch higher. "Each day here is unique," she says. "An airport hotel is unpredictable. A serious airport disruption, say a flight cancellation requires an airport hotel to be ready, always. You cannot drop the ball."

She speaks from experience. An airline crew walked into the lounge as we talked, looking exhausted. I have always wondered how pilots and other airline crew members deal with time differences whenever they fly, which is to say every two or three days. "Now you see. The hotel could be empty one minute and full the next. The lobby is calm one minute and full of suitcases from stranded passengers the next. They need food, clean rooms, and lots of love. We operate like the emergency services. Actually, we are."

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