If you want to visit Kenya in true style, you want to visit Sarova Hotels and Resorts. A name with a rich history within the country, Sarova set the bar for luxurious accommodation within Kenya. Tourism may have slowed to a challenging stand-still in recent months, but Sarova’s hotels’ rich legacy remain a glittering part of both Kenya’s past and its future. We spoke with Jimi Kariuki, Managing Director of the Sarova Group of hotels, to learn more about these hotels’ history and how the Group has responded to the pandemic.
Pushing accommodation in East Africa to new heights, Sarova says of its hotels: “The ultimate standard in design, comfort, facilities, food and leisure come together to create a blend of quality and opulence rarely seen at any five-star hotel in the region.” We spoke with Group Managing Director Jimi Kariuki, who had this to add about the Group’s reputation: “Sarova Hotels and Resorts is not only one of the largest chains of hotels and lodges in Kenya and East Africa, but also one of the most unique and innovative, offering guests diverse experiences that are simply unforgettable through refreshing African Hospitality.”
Sarova’s hotels are in highly select company: to this day, there are not many five-star locations in the country, and within this pool, Sarova has a claim like no other. Not only is it a leader within the 5-star sector, it was the trend-setter, having opened the very first 5-star hotel in the country – a hotel that is still alive and opulent today. We are of course referring to the jewel of Sarova’s collection, the first-ever five-star hotel to open in the country: the Sarova Stanley.
It is impossible to talk about Sarova’s place in Kenya’s tourism history without talking about the Stanley. With guests such as Clarke Gable, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra in its ledgers, it can truly back up its claims to offering a slice of glamour to its guests. World leaders, authors, celebrities; the hotel has hosted countless famous faces, and has even named several of its conference rooms after some of these famous guests, including the Hemingway and the Baden Powell rooms.
The Sarova Stanley (then the Victoria Hotel) opened in 1902. With simple beginnings, it would be some time before it become the country’s first five-star hotel, but it was the first-ever hotel in Nairobi, giving it yet another claim to fame! It was established by an English businesswoman called Mayence Bent, who, depending on who you ask, either eventually named the hotel the Stanley after her husband (William Stanley Bent) or after Welsh explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley who famously explored central Africa and found missing explorer David Livingstone. It was a love of this admittedly Anglo-centric view of Africa that inspired the Stanley’s name, and some of the world leaders it has hosted are not now known for their inclusivity (Winston Churchill, for example, even has the ballroom in the hotel named after him), but the hotel has come a long way since its early beginnings. Granted, there is a sea of white American and European faces dominating the rich and famous who have enjoyed the luxury it has offered over the years – including, along with the ones we’ve already listed, Ernest Hemingway, Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Elizabeth Huxley, Colonel John Henry Patterson and even Princess Elizabeth – but now in the hands of Sarova, this hotel is proudly Kenyan-run and Kenya-centric.
However, its history is still as fascinating as it is stylish. A central surviving piece of history in the hotel is the Thorn Tree Café. As well as supposedly having been the spot where Hemingway wrote during his stay there (a 1936 short story by Hemingway, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”, is set at the hotel, and he also made notes for his novels The Green Hills of Africa and The Snows of Kilimanjaro during his stays), the café’s name derives from another, older piece of history. The open-air café exists around an acacia tree that, according to the stories, was once used as a makeshift postbox of sorts by travelers who passed through. This ‘tree mail’ is still left pinned to the tree to this day, keeping the tradition and this taste of history alive.
As well as the Thorn Tree Café, the Stanley also boasts the Exchange Bar – named such because it was originally the site of Nairobi’s first Stock Exchange. The bar remains decorated in a classic 1920s fashion, with wood paneling, Chesterfield sofas and dark red drapes, the bar is a moody and relaxing vibe from another time. You can relax in its low lighting and classic atmosphere, savouring the knowledge that the great and glamorous have drunk here before you whilst they were on the hunt for adventure.
Adventure has long been the name of the game at the Stanley, as it is at many of Sarova’s hotels and resorts. It is said that Hemingway first introduced the word ‘safari’ into the English language after his stay at the Sarova, which was a popular spot with the glitzy crowd as a must-do stop on their way to or from another attraction – Kenya’s incredible wildlife.
The Stanley Hotel has belonged to the Sarova Group since 1978, and whilst deservedly prominent, the it is but one of Sarova’s many hotels and resorts. The company runs hotels that offer city stays (Sarova Stanley Nairobi, Sarova Panafrica Nairobi; Sarova Woodlands Nakuru), beach holidays (Sarova Whitesands Mombasa) and even game resort experiences (Sarova Mara Game Camp, Massai Mara; Sarova Shaba Game Lodge, Samburu; Sarova Lion Hill Game Lodge, Nakuru), bringing you all the closer to those destinations that the Stanley’s old guests were all passing through to experience.
Whilst known as Game Resorts, this latter group of course do not offer hunting, but rather an up-close look at Kenya’s wildlife, whether on safari tours or from the comfort of your own window. For example, the Sarova Mara Game Camp, located near to and helping to protect a Maasai village, is situated within plains filled with wildebeest, gazelle and zebra during the migration season. Every one of Sarova’s game resorts offers a similar up-close view of surrounding wildlife, dropping guests right in the thick of what Kenya has to offer, whether that’s the plains, nearby lakes or natural springs. From there, of course, guests can head out on a safari proper, as well as other activities such as bird watching and sport fishing. Camps even effort an ‘Ozone Rangers Club’ a kids’ club that will take your children out to do activities that teach them more about the incredible nature around them. At the Sarova Mara Game Camp, this club will also teach kids all about Masaai culture, including fire making, club throwing and storytelling. That sounds like a great holiday for adults, too! This Ozone club is also a feature at Sarova’s coastal location, Sarova Whitesands Mombasa, where it offers supervised beach walks, nature trails and other activities that teach kids about Kenya’s shore.
This impressive slate of hotels needs to be lovingly maintained if it is to stay at Sarova’s standards, and the Group knows the importance of this investment. “In 2018 and 2019,” Mr Kariuki told us, “We embarked on major refurbishments on three of our properties including Sarova Whitesands Sarova Mara Game Camp and Sarova Panafric. We completed Sarova Whitesands earlier this year and we are committed to finish the other two in the course of the year. This period has provided us the opportunity to do so.” Some companies would have responded to the slow, challenging year we have all had in 2020 by battening down and reducing spending as much as possible, but forward-thinking Sarova saw a window to prepare for a better tomorrow. “The hospitality industry in Kenya is very competitive. As a result, we need to strategize and find innovative ways to keep appealing to the market.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be the full Kenyan experience without the food. As eclectic as their guests, the catering at Sarova’s hotels offers a delicious and creative fusion of Swahili, African, Western and Asian cuisines. As well as serving this to their guests, the company also offers a catering service that brings this zing of flavour to parties and events. Known as the ‘Kitchens of Sarova’, this service caters to both events hosted by a Sarova hotel and events at other locations, sending a full waiting team and bar service along with their caterers.
Another service that Sarova’s kitchens has recently added to its operations is quite different. As a company, Sarova Hotels has long been vocal about its commitment to being involved in the communities around its hotels – a drive known as #SarovaCares – as well as showing dedication to making its operations greener (which it has achieved through moves such as composting, water purification and the safe recycling of waste oil into Bio Diesel). This emphasis on CSR came into play during this global time of need. As none of us can forget, this year has been one of change and challenge, and one of the industries hit hard has been tourism. Mr Kariuki told us:
“Before the advent of Covid-19, the hotel industry in Kenya and beyond was at its peak. The hospitality sector was projected to increase with the number of international arrivals growing by an annual appreciation of 6.7% to approximately 2.3 million in 2020.
“However, when the pandemic hit, everything came to a standstill. This was largely due to travel restrictions, flight cancellations and fears of community spread through travel and group dynamics. In addition, the curfews and lockdowns also affected the business climate for hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes and other businesses dependent on guests.”
“Covid-19 has posed major challenges virtually to all sectors and our company was not spared. In August, the number of tourists visiting Kenya dropped by over 90 percent according to the statistics released by the Ministry of Tourism. Covid-19, therefore, has been one of the greatest challenges in this sector.”
However, that hasn’t kept Sarova from thinking about others. This aid came in the form of a Meals for Medics initiative, launched in April this year. As Sarova stated, “As the Coronavirus continues to disrupt life as we know it, Sarova hotels has embarked on shedding a little love to the front-line health care workers.” Joining many other companies who chose to salute and support these heroic workers, Sarova committed its kitchens to preparing and providing daily meals for health care workers in two of Nairobi’s major hospitals – Kenyatta National Hospital and Mbagathi Hospital. As the company explained: “Sarova hotels saw that there was an opportunity to help provide hospital staff with food to keep them energized as they work tirelessly long shifts. We are here to serve in the only way we know; by getting in the kitchen to create and serve nutritious food.”
Mr Kariuki continued: “The program ran for 40 days, where Sarova provided daily lunches to 250 healthcare workers who are providing the most critical services to patients at the facility. We also provided teas and snacks to the Emergency Operation Centre. The move was a gesture by Sarova to say thank you and recognize the commitment of the heroes and heroines in the facilities who have put their lives on the frontline to lead the war to eradicate the virus.”
This move is may be described as a gesture by the hotel, but would feel like more than a gesture to a health care worker at the end of a long day, without the time or energy to fuel up at home before they do it all over again. This kind of outreach is the sort of all-for-one spirit that has been helping people to get through 2020, with other hotels in Kenya also offering support in the form of either food, linen or even beds.
Fortunaqtely, although the future is uncertain, things are starting to pick back up. “The economy is slowly opening up,” Mr Kariuki shared, “And we have begun receiving guests in our properties across the country, which is very positive for the industry. Countries across the world are opening up and airlines are beginning to fly in and out – there is hope of going back to normalcy, albeit gradually.”
In the meantime, Sarova is not simply sitting and waiting. As well as responding to the year’s crisis by providing aid, Sarova Group also adapted the ways its hotels did business, making use of the facilities they have even when tourism itself had slowed. The company used the opportunity to move all of its bookings online, and its kitchens once again found a new use for their skills: “We have, for the first time, been doing takeaways. We have given an opportunity to our customers to order their favourite dishes and we deliver them to them within the shortest time possible.”
As this year slowly draws to an end and the world looks to 2021, unsure what we can expect, let us look forward to when we can travel freely and without fear once more. Sarova’s hotels have existed through so much that one day, this will just be another story in their rich history.