Conservation remains a key component in Serena’s corporate philosophy


(Posted 24th May 2015)

If I were to ask any of you ‘Which is the best butterfly resort on a Kenyan beach?’, almost all would probably scramble to their smartphones and tablets and frantically Google the topic and most perhaps still come up empty handed.

My last trip to the Kenya coast, soon to be ‘reloaded’ again, was as much dedicated to fact finding as to exploring.

Fact finding vis a vis the challenges the Kenya coast tourist industry is faced with, to establish the true extend of hotel and resort closures, to interact with both managers and staff, talk to taxi drivers, tour companies, curio sellers and those offering trips along the beach, on camel back or in glass bottom boats. Fact finding about local initiatives to boost the coast’s reputation, from such novel ideas like #WondersOfWatamu, inspired by e-Tourism guru Damian Cook to expanding domestic holiday packages to the market segment travelling by bus instead of flying. But the trip was also dedicated to explore the often extraordinary corporate and civil society conservation efforts, see projects dedicated to turtle conservation, beach clean ups and more. But butterflies? Even I could not have thought of that and yet has Serena Hotels taken on this low publicity, certainly low key but scientifically high value conservation project.

Kenya’s coastal forests have being relentlessly decimated over the past decades to make space for all sorts of developments, for farms, for posh estates, for an endless list of purposes including producing the wood gobbling charcoal. In the process however has the cutting of forests also greatly reduced the habitat for the once rich flora and fauna found along the Kenya coast. Less forest habitat means less space to breed and prosper for the plenty of butterfly species found along the coast.

I pride myself in knowing a lot of what is going on in the wider region, especially when it comes to Serena Hotels, but this slipped by me, and for a good twelve years it seems.

In 2002 did Serena take the first steps to establish a butterfly hatchery unit which then opened, not far from the Mombasa Serena Resort & Spa’s reception, in September 2003. Over the years have many tens of thousands of butterflies hatched and were released to help boost the dwindling populations. Visitors to the resort, and I made sure I finally joined those ranks during a recent stay at what remains one of my most favourite resorts along the Kenya coast, can take a guided tour to the butterfly farm where they are getting a boost on conservation knowledge. Who, honestly answered, would know that like bees do butterflies fulfill a role as important pollinators and that their existence and numbers a crucial yardstick to determine environmental health of a region?

David Olendo, who is retained by Serena as a consultant for the butterfly project, was kind enough to spend a little time with me to explain what his work was all about and then promptly made good of his promise by sending me all the background information he was able to share. Separate enclosures of a butterfly display house, pupa and egg display, egg and caterpillar hatchery and female unit allow guests, and interested visitors from outside, to better understand the natural processes from egg to the beautiful butterflies, which then restart the cycle.

(Sammi Ndunda of the Mombasa Serena seen here in the ‘hatchery’ adding food plants into the containers)

Besides the butterfly project does the Mombasa Serena also engage in the more widespread turtle conservation and I can only say the more are engaged in that conservation effort the merrier as many of the turtles today are on the endangered species list. Serena’s turtle project involved protecting nests from both careless guests and from predators, which is a key to ensuring the survival of the various species. When the young turtles, fresh out of their eggs, make a run for the waters of the Indian Ocean, they get that last element of a protective cordon before they are then left to their own destiny once they reach the surf.

While business even for Serena’s Mombasa property, one of Kenya’s top ranked five star resorts, has taken a downturn, have corporate social responsibility programmes and projects like butterfly and turtle conservation received continued funding, a sign how deeply rooted in the company’s corporate philosophy conservation is and how highly it does rank. Of course, with the largest number of safari lodges and camps on their portfolio in Kenya and Tanzania among any major hospitality group it is absolutely essential for them that wildlife based tourism rests on a sound foundation. Our generation, faced with deforestation on a massive scale around the globe and experiencing the most relentless wildlife slaughter for ivory and rhino horn ever, must conserve for future generations to ensure that visitors can even in the ten, twenty of fifty years still experience those prizeless moments in the Kenyan wilderness for which they spend thousands of their Dollars, Euros, Pounds and other currencies to come to East Africa to see the migration and more.

The resort’s General Manager Tuva Mwahunga narrated the challenges the tourism industry along the entire Kenya coast is facing, talked about the impact of lower occupancies and lessened cashflow, the need to keep up standards and service levels and build yet further on past accomplishments to ensure Kenya’s top resorts compare favourably with those in other destinations. I sensed the almost impossible position hotel managers, and of course their owners, are faced with at the Kenya coast today, with dozens of resorts closed or facing closure, tens of thousands of jobs in the hospitality industry and down the value chain lost and yet did Tuva and all others I spoke to put a brave face on the situation. ‘We need to look forward, be ready when business picks up again and it will, sooner or later’ did he at one stage say before adding ‘Until then it is our job to keep the resort in the best shape, retain our high service standards and provide our faithful clients with a perfect vacation’.

And truth told, after looking for three days into every nook and cranny, strolling around the resort’s public and not so public areas, was it evident that Tuva had not bragged about keeping the resort in ship shape. The sprawling gardens were perfectly manicured, the walkways meandering through the Swahili style buildings regularly swept, the buildings themselves looking crisp and of course my room not giving rise to even one call for maintenance. All equipment worked, doors and drawers opened and closed smoothly, the hot kettle did not spill when pouring water to make a cuppa – there were plenty of choices of premier brands of teas, herbal infusions, full strength and decaf coffee and enough creamer and sweetener to last a tea addict for a day. The towels were fluffy, the robes in good shape and the range of quality toiletries in the bathroom impressive by any standard, especially for a beach resort.

But my snooping did not end there of course as the resort prides itself in a range of animations and watersports, many of them free of cost for guests.

The watersport centre in fact provided possibly the best pointer as to how even at such hard times maintenance is not neglected, and all the equipment hanging from the walls, packed into shelves and standing on the floor ready to be picked at a moment’s notice showed how it was being cared for.

The conference rooms were subject to some heavy housekeeping attention after a central government conference had just ended to get it ready for either being shown to other conference organizers on a buying mission or else for the next meeting already booked and confirmed.

Serena’s own in house Spa brand ‘Maisha’ too made a good impression, even though there was no time to sample any of the many treatments offered.

But, that all said, it was once again the food and the service where the resort excelled.

The beachside grill room, named Jahazi Grill, was reasonably busy with both inhouse guests as well as local residents, who as I did, no doubt realized that they had a culinary gem at their doorstep. Service was excellent and our server, Naphtali, knew his trade and practiced it to perfection, appearing at the table when he sensed that something may be needed. From relevant suggestions when making the menu choices to regular refills of drinks, he made me and other guests feel like not just treasured guests but as friends.

Large enough for groups is the setting, right at the beach, second to none and a perfect fit for a corporate lunch away from prying eyes or for evening cocktails followed by a seafood extravaganza prepared by the resort’s chefs. In fact I connect the dots between a state of the art conference centre, an excellent a la carte restaurant and a five star resort setting per se catering for those international tourists who are not bothered about anti travel advisories, local and regional guests taking advantage of rates which belie the quality they can expect and a growing MICE business which finds all organizers need under one roof.

Why am I going to such lengths to talk about conservation, CSR projects, industry challenges and the undisputed quality one can expect when choosing the right places along the Kenya coast for a vacation?

For much of the past four decades I have been in Eastern Africa was tourism in Kenya one of the main locomotives of economic growth and – apart from a few relatively short downturn periods, mostly caused by global events beyond Kenya’s doing – on a sharp upswing having the sector compete for the top ranking with tea and coffee exports.

This however has changed over the past years. Security issues have dogged the tourism sector and hapless government officials slept on the job as far as security oversight is concerned, this not being just a personal observation but commonly acknowledged. Misguided tax policies and an almost callous indifference towards the sector vis a vis marketing funding and the failed launch of proactive counter measures were until recently the hallmark of the present and immediate past governments. Job losses in the hotels and resorts which were closed, but also among the ranks of the tour and safari operators, now run into the tens of thousands and those still having jobs only hang on because many of the companies have for financial reasons discontinued any form of bonuses, in many cases cut salaries and benefits and still hardly manage to make ends meet.

Latest forecasts by PwC, a global financial advisory and audit group, in fact suggest that a full recovery of Kenya’s tourism industry may only now take place in 2018. This is not universally accepted among Kenya’s tourism industry but it is clear that few will argue that it will probably first get worse before it gets better. The recent rather scandalous cancellation of the 2015 Skal International Congress which was due to take place at the North coast of Mombasa in October this year, is just one more case in point. While the Skal leadership in Kenya is putting on a brave face and seeks to mitigate the decision with diplomatic language and perhaps hopes to rescue the congress for 2018, is the outspoken feeling among the ranks such that like Brutus knifed Caesar in the back, so were they abandoned by their peers from abroad who showed the proverbial cowardice before enemy lines.

Serena Hotels, as a publicly quoted company on the Nairobi Stock Exchange, as are all other privately owned companies, face stark choices how to survive the drought of clients coming to the Kenya coast. Notably has Serena not laid off staff, not as yet anyway, but new recruitment has all but been halted. Other companies though have laid off staff, left with no choice, to reduce their cost burden to stay afloat. Besides the trigger effect down the value chain are the lodges and tented camps in the parks nearest to the coast also affected, as their pool of potential clients has shrunk as occupancies along the coast reduced.

On the upside, if there is any, have domestic, regional and continental tourism promotions been stepped up sharply and latest news from Nairobi suggest that the meagre 1.1 billion Kenya Shillings promotional budget of last year has been increased more than six fold for the coming financial year to 7 billion Kenya Shillings. Government now has an extensive report from the private sector, which if fully implemented, will no doubt bring relief sooner rather than later, but changes and reform are needed to create an enabling environment to accomplish that.

In closing, from fresh experience it is clear that Kenya’s leading beach resorts all maintained their standards and are willing and ready to weather the storm. All of those resorts visited in recent weeks, the Mombasa Serena Resort & Spa included and admittedly one of my all-time favourites, showed that they still got what it takes to deliver those holidays of a lifetime to guests who defy anti-travel advisories and visit Kenya’s beaches. Those I spoke with while at the Mombasa Serena, for sure did not regret their choice to come to Kenya and to have selected this particular resort. Said a German tourist by the name of Heidi, when asked as we scouted the breakfast buffet: ‘Also wir fuehlen uns sehr wohl hier. Das Personal is absolut auf Zack und das Essen is ja echt super. Uns macht es nichts aus dass vielleicht nicht so viele Gaeste im Hotel sind, im Gegenteil, man kuemmert sich um uns als waeren wir Prominenz’ which translated into English means that they were thrilled to be there, the staff were pulling out all the stops and the food was described as superb. Heidi and her family did not mind to have less guests around and were made to feel like royalty. Quod erat demonstrandum – if you don’t believe me, believe her!