Tragic end in sight as once-iconic five-star hotels in Nairobi close

There was a time when five-star hotels in the central business district (CBD) dominated the city skyline.

This is no longer the case for the iconic hotels Hilton, Sarova Stanley, InterContinental, Norfolk and Grand Regency which became Laico Regency. The landmarks, which for decades remained the face of the city’s upscale lifestyle, have lost their luster.

Only The Stanley, the oldest hotel, has weathered the storms to stay afloat. The other four experienced operational difficulties. The Stanley opened in 1902, having been created by businesswoman Mayence Bent.

Unlike the Stanley, Hilton, InterContinental, Norfolk and Laico Regency faltered. In their heyday, these hotels attracted the crème de la crème of society.

The hoi polloi could only imagine and marvel at the five-star hotels that added to the splendor, beauty and modernity of the city.

Unfortunately, their elegance is fast disappearing, thanks to the emergence of more sophisticated hotels, biting economic conditions and fierce competition. The situation has been aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

With a struggling hotel industry, the days of the CBD being filled with visitors thanks to Hilton, Sarova Stanley, Intercontinental and Norfolk are over.

These iconic hotels have drawn tourists to Kenya from other parts of the world to sample the dazzling city life and its history.

The allure that attracted visitors is gone, and the InterContinental Hotel is a perfect example. Founded in 1967, the hotel is now only a shadow of itself.

Yet it is here that visiting presidents among other high-ranking dignitaries have dined, drank and slept. In its heyday, the hotel was a hive of activity.

The once bustling life has been replaced by an eerie silence. The place is deserted. Only two security guards man the hotel building, with public car parking being the only visible activity.

From a distance, a guard guarding the main entrance to City Hall Way looks bored. From her posture on a plastic chair, it appears that the sitter is not expecting visitors.

No wonder that even after our vehicle stopped at the security gate, the woman didn’t feel like establishing the mission of the car’s occupants.

Such a cold response is a departure from the past when she could have jumped to her feet at the sight of an approaching car. The abstract pose speaks to InterContinental’s fall from glamor to gloom.

We ask the guard if we can go through the gate. She turns us down with the disappointing response that the place is off limits. “This place has closed; there is no more activity,” she says irrevocably.

Just a few months ago, the place was full of life and teeming with visitors. There was a 24-hour front desk, valet parking, butler services with concierges and bellmen rushing from one end to the other to assist guests.

Run by InterContinental Hotels Corporation, the hotel was closed by management last year, citing financial constraints associated with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The Kenyan government holds a 33.8% stake.

“InterContinental Hotels Corporation Limited is considering, for operational reasons, a permanent closure of the Intercontinental Nairobi and the liquidation of all its operations in the Republic of Kenya,” reads the notice of intent to close the business.

Prior to its closure, the hotel was reeling from debts to a local bank and had been declared insolvent the previous year. The permanent closure has left hundreds of employees laid off, with auxiliary services also suffering.

It has almost become common for five-star hotels in the CBD to struggle to survive. For a long time, these hotels have focused on congresses, tourism and events.

Although Norfolk has since resumed operations, the sad state of InterContinental is reflected in Laico Regency. On a positive note, Radisson Blu in Upper Hill, which closed following the coronavirus pandemic, reopened a few days ago.

It was only recently that Hilton management issued a closure notice, adding to the industry’s woes. The signature hotel has remained an imposing and unique edifice for decades.

The hotel began operations on December 17, 1969 and was officially opened by President Jomo Kenyatta.

When it opened, the hotel was the tallest building in the city. It quickly became a favorite with leisure tourists seeking wildlife adventures, government officials and influential business people.

According to author Kojo Bentum Williams, the hotel has hosted various celebrities over the years, including American actor Sydney Poitier, sixth UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, famous Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie and musician SeanPaul.

Hilton was the first hotel entity in Kenya to sponsor safari rally driver Patrick Njiru, who regularly parked his famous Subaru there.

“The hotel was also the first property in the city to introduce the concept of the Executive Lounge for its VIP guests in 1994 and it was also the first hotel to establish a leading patisserie in the city known as the Hilton Patisserie,” says Williams.

It has 287 rooms, three restaurants, an American-themed cafe, two bars (indoor and outdoor) and a fully equipped gym with a spa and heated pool to meet the needs of its registered members. and his guests.

It is understood that the hotel will redeploy some staff to hotels in its Hilton portfolio in the city. There is the Hilton Nairobi Hurlingham and the Hilton Garden Inn Nairobi Airport. Apart from Covid-19, the hotel, which is 40.57% owned by the government, was struggling to stand on its own.

An official from the Kenya Tourism Board (KTB) told our sister newspaper The Standard that the agency had received a notice from the hotel, warning it would cease operations at the end of the year.

“I can confirm that the Hilton hotel will be closing in December. We received the notice. I don’t know what prompted the decision, but I do know that business has not been looking for the hotel, especially after that Covid-19 hit,” the senior official said.

Across town, fond memories linger at the sight of what was once elegant, the Laico Regency, which struggled before closing due to the effects of the coronavirus.

The hotel offered understated luxury, exquisite cuisine, ideal conference facilities, as well as an exclusive private club and all-weather swimming pool. It was a favorite haunt for high-flying individuals.

It has since closed and renovations are currently being carried out by the next owner.

“We expect operations to resume early next year following a change in management,” said a caretaker overseeing the renovation.

After closing for over 20 months due to Covid-19, Norfolk, a hidden gem outside of the CBD, finally got back to business recently.

It opened its doors to its first customers on December 25, 1904 after being established by Major CGR Ringer and R. Aylmer Winearls for the use of early settlers who ventured into the Maasai Mara, Coast and Rift Valley .

It was also a meeting point for white hunters who founded the East African Professional Hunters Association there in 1934.

Some of its famous guests were Major General Robert Baden Powell, founder and first chief scout of the Scouting movement who stayed there in February 1906 and Theodore Roosevelt who camped there in 1909 before later becoming the 26th President of the United States.

The hotel was featured in the 1985 film, Out of Africa, starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. It has 27 luxurious suites and 143 rooms, a heated outdoor swimming pool and a health club with a fitness center and pleasant spa facilities.

However, he had his fair share of challenges. On New Year’s Eve 1981, it was bombed by Muradi Akaali, who had booked a room there. Many people died and the entire west wing was destroyed.

It was rebuilt and normal operations resumed until a dispute over pay cuts forced Accor, the hotel’s owners, to close operations indefinitely, laying off all employees following the disruptions and low income caused by Covid-19.

Over the years, InterContinental, Sarova Stanley, Hilton, and Norfolk have provided breathtaking views of the city’s landscape for leisure-seeking guests.

It is for this reason that veteran hotelier Mohamed Hersi shudders at the thought that these elegant monuments with such a rich history intertwined with the constant growth of the city are on the brink of extinction.

“Since the Nairobi Expressway has become a reality with the potential to decongest airport traffic, the next step should be to revive the KICC to attract conventions. This will lead to the revival of activities needed to support the hospitality industry and save our heritage hotels,” Hersi said.

However, Mike Macharia, the chief executive of the Kenya Hoteliers and Caterers Association, has a different view. He says it is no longer necessary to have five-star hotels in the CBD since the city has become a metropolis.

The city, according to Macharia, is growing vertically and hotel facilities should also follow these developments. He said that so far the city has more than 30 five-star hotels located far from the city center.

“Overall, if both hotels (InterContinental and Hilton) are closing due to business decisions, it’s not a disaster. There are more good hotels outside the city center and after all it’s not the first time hotel chains have moved – a similar decision was made by the Sheraton Hotel,” Macharia said.

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