Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Woos of Kampala's Hotels

By Opiyo Oloya

IF you build it, they will come. The quote is credited to the 26th US president, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. at the time of the building of the Panama Canal in 1904. I thought about this quote as I strolled along Speke Road in Kampala last Thursday afternoon.

Starting from the older and greyer Grand Imperial and Speke hotels, I walked past the regally imposing and renovated Sheraton, toward the Serena hotel, turning slightly left onto the spectacularly crafted work of poetry that is the Grand Imperial Royale Hotel.

Awed by the imposing landmark, I entered through the lobby, past security, and to the impossibly engineered rotunda furnished with soft leather sofas and a view that allows you to gaze straight into the stars above. My exploratory journey took me across the Golf Course of lower Kololo to the serenely elegant Kampala Protea, where beautifully latticed cobblestone met me in the driveway. After pausing long enough to inquire about the inviting menu, I retraced my steps and walked to the Golf Course Hotel.

Without overstating the facts, these are world class hotels that would nestle comfortably anywhere in Europe or America. Indeed, the sheer number and closeness of Kampala hotels reminded me of Las Vegas—although Kampala hotels garner better sense of exclusivity due to the leafy greenery around them. However, while Las Vegas hotels are besieged by visitors day and night, Kampala hotels are mostly quiet and empty. So much so that one wishes that Roosevelt’s vision was true for these beautifully appointed hotels.

Set in prime locations, they were the fields of dreams hatched in the feverish months preceding the four-day Commonwealth Head of Government Meeting last October.

Driven by the promise of huge influx of officials accompanying their leaders to the summit, Kampala hoteliers had spared neither money nor creativity to mould a tapestry of emotional oomph. Yet, there was an uneasy eerie feeling that I was witnessing the crumbling of dreams. The feeling was confirmed the next day by an article in the latest edition of The Independent ,/i>news magazine. Entitled “CHOGM hotels fight to find guests and keep banks away”, the article catalogued the woes facing Kampala hotels that had feverishly expanded in the days and weeks leading to the CHOGM. According to the article, many hotels are struggling with poor occupancy rate, some as low as 5 percent.

The reason for the drop is attributed to a glut of available rooms in these four and five-star hotels. But I sense that there is more to this than just pure oversupply of hotel rooms in Kampala. Foremost, simply saying Uganda is an attractive vacation destination is not enough to bring in planeloads of pleasure seeking tourists.

Part of the problem of course is that Uganda remains a less attractive destination for tourists from Europe, America, and the Far East because of the unresolved peace process in the north. It makes many would-be tourists uneasy and, therefore, eager to find alternative peaceful destinations like Tanzania, Madagascar, and the southern African countries of Mozambique, Botswana and Swaziland.

Moreover, the political unrest in Kenya early in the year that would have pushed some tourists to Uganda has stabilised, and the tourists are beginning to tiptoe back to the beaches of Mombasa, and the wildlife of Masai Mara. Furthermore, big Kampala hotels must now compete with the growing popularity of bed and breakfast alternative accommodations like Makerere University Guest House and Banda Inns in Muyenga Hill.

This niche market is more attractive to European travellers seeking adventure in the exotic, with the combined intimacy and charm of a country manor. Banda Inns may not be a four-star hotel, but buried deep in a banana plantation, it offers a rugged reassurance that the sterile glazed tiles of four-star hotels do not.

Consequently, it is a struggle to find a spot in the inn which was at full capacity this weekend with more guests expected from America and Europe later in the week. However, the most urgent problem facing Kampala hoteliers can be summarised with this observation: Las Vegas has a hotel every 100 metres which are almost always full. But then Las Vegas has a product to sell—namely, a fun good time, gambling, relaxing and vacationing. What are Kampala hotels selling? What is the product, and how will the product excite European and American vacationers to buy the product?

One quick way to get recognition is to rebrand Kampala hotels by linking them with internationally recognised hotels. Sheraton and Protea are already known international products, but Imperial Royale, Africana, Speke, Equatoria and the bland-sounding Golf Course Hotel are not. By working out partnership arrangement with established chains such as the Marriott, Hilton, Hampton, Delta, Holiday Inn and so forth, Kampala hotels will get instant recognition worldwide. There is also the need to market directly to specific clients using tried ways such as time-share where vacationers buy in advance a specific period of stay in the hotel every year.

The advantage is that the hotels are assured of clients regardless of the time of the year. There is also the less attractive but lucrative business of marketing Kampala as the crown jewel of casinos in East and Central Africa. While this is already being initiated, there would need to be a uniform action by all the Kampala hotels for a more organised marketing where each hotel offers a specific theme.

Let them send a joint-marketing team to learn what Las Vegas is offering in casino products. Naturally, casino in Kampala will bring the unwanted social ills that include gambling addictions, sex trade and serious crimes. These would need to be considered before a final push for such a product.

Essentially, Kampala hoteliers need to aggressively adopt the motto—be seen or perish.

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