It is difficult to talk about the evolution of the hospitality industry in Kenya without making reference to Mohamed Hersi, the director of operations at Pollmans Tours and Safaris.
His contribution to the sector is not in dispute. At least five general managers in leading hotel brands in Kenya went through his hands, a badge he wears with pride.
In hospitality, where he has worked for three decades now, he is a champion of a harmonised industry.
Besides his day job, Hersi is the chairperson of the Kenya Tourism Federation (KFT) and a corporate governance trainer. What is his centre of gravity, and how do these three roles tie together?
“My heart is in the hospitality sphere. As a director at Pollmans, I’m always on tours and safari. My role at KFT (for two years now) has been pro bono. It’s my contribution to the growth of the industry,” says the father of three daughters and two sons aged between 20 and seven.
From the terror attacks of 1998 and 2002 in Nairobi and Kilifi respectively, Hersi has seen the industry during its lowest moments. On the scale of devastation, however, none of these raids quite compares to Covid-19.
“The attacks were one-off. This pandemic has lasted longer, grounding tourism for seven months now. Our tour vans haven’t left the yard since early March,” he says.
So, what will it take for the industry to spring back?
Hersi steadies himself and exhales.
“We must be flexible and abandon our rigid way of doing business. Investors must come on board and help to propel the industry.”
Incentives, he stresses, are vital.
To him, an open sky policy would lend the tourism industry the much-needed thrust. “By starting direct flights between Mombasa and Kisumu, for instance, Jambojet, has paved the way for increased local tours.’’
“To bounce back, hoteliers must put their best foot forward. Hotel managers and staff must commit to reviving the industry,” says Hersi.
On recovery timelines, Hersi notes that operators should not expect fortunes to look up before the second half of 2021.
“July and August is the safari season in Kenya. We expect to see a rise in the numbers. Full recovery is likely to take about two years.”
This will coincide with 2022 when Kenya goes to the polls.
“The volatility of our politics is the unfortunate part,” he says, likening the country’s business environment to the game of snakes and ladders.
“We thrive for four years only to undo it all during elections. Politicians and their supporters must exercise civility for the good of business.”
He sees the pandemic as a wake-up call to hoteliers, most of whom he says were not saving for a rainy day. It has also brought to the fore the delicacy of the industry.
“Barely two months into the pandemic, hotels, including big brands, threw their employees under the bus because they couldn’t pay salaries. They couldn’t hang in for at least six months,” Hersi says.
Covid-19 has a silver lining too, particularly in the sphere of hygiene, which has improved significantly, he observes.
“This is usually the flu season in Kenya, but the infection rate has been lower than before in 2020. This is largely because there’s less shaking of hands and hugging. People are also washing hands and sanitising.”
Guests are also enjoying “royal services’’, thanks to the pandemic. “Waiting service, which is more superior, has replaced buffet after most hotels withdrew it to minimise contact,’’ he says.
In terms of numbers, he notes that domestic travel has kicked up. But to what extent has this eased the hit?
“Not much,’’ he says. “Hotels are making just enough money to pay their bills and salaries. We need volumes to create traction in demand and supply.”
In practical terms, these volumes are possible only if hotels reviewed their pricing to suit the domestic traveller, he asserts. The government must also provide the right support infrastructure.
“Hotels don’t need handouts from the government. They need facilitation.”
A hands-on manager, Hersi readily steps into the kitchen during crises to help with the meals. ‘’I can whip up different soups, Mediterranean salads, and dessert,’’ he says with poise. “I can also prepare a tasty rack of lamb.” At home, he offers to shop for his family.
I wonder how differently he plays his fatherhood role. “Fatherhood has been a realisation that I don’t live only for myself anymore. I’m more responsible and tolerant. When I was a single man, I’d drive at the highest speed possible.”
In a recent tweet, Hersi argued that doing business without advertising is like “to wink at someone in the dark” adding that “you know what you’re doing but nobody else does’’. I ask him what the business import was.
“Life is about being known,” he replies quickly. “Make your values known and sell your solutions to people. Never assume that the market will find out if you don’t.”
By cutting down on marketing and training expenses in the face of dipping fortunes, Hersi argues that business raided the wrong purses. “I think this is the best time to sharpen axes in readiness for the business’s uncertain future.”
Among his strongest beliefs, the self-styled optimist and realist say appreciating “the small gifts in life” ranks the highest. “We tend to look for help from elsewhere instead of within ourselves. Unlike many countries in the world, Kenya is blessed with rare resources such as diverse wildlife and good weather.”
The passionate advocate for sustainable tourism argues that if life on the planet were to start all over again, humans “deserve to be blacklisted for their misbehaviour.”
“Why do we mow down trees and destroy our environment while we should be tending our resources with responsibility?” he wonders and warns that “when it hits back, Mother Nature strikes where it hurts the most.”
A minimalist by choice, Hersi tells me that, when well maintained, he could drive one car for 10 years. “You can only have so much in life,” he says with a laugh, adding, “I’m grateful for who I am and what I have.”
Having worked for so many years, I’m eager to know if there are aspects of his career that he has not quite figured out. “Work-life balance,” he says. “Sometimes I’ve dinner in bed way past midnight. I’ve struggled a lot with trying to do so many things at the same time.’’
Whenever his diary permits, Hersi whiles away his time quietly at home. “I’ve more than 1,000 books in my library. I don’t read from cover to cover, but just sections that are interesting to me,” says the Rotarian who has multiple subscriptions to international magazines.
When I ask him how Kenya’s luxury offerings compare to the rest of the world, he erupts with animation. “Kenya isn’t a run-of-the-mill destination. From butler services to room stewards, breakfast in bed, and flying safaris, we have it all.’’
For Hersi, who has met dignitaries, among them presidents and Hollywood celebrities “who often use pseudonyms in their bookings”, an ideal hotel experience constitutes an efficient booking process, prompt response, and minimal bureaucracy.
“It’s intrusive to keep asking for the guest’s ID or passport because you failed to capture their details. A guest needs attention and pampering.”
Is the industry at a better place with him at the helm of KFT?
“All of us are given a small window to improve ourselves and others. While I may not have a vacancy for everyone who walks into my office, I always spare some minutes to mentor them,” he says.
Three decades later, his motivation to work has shifted from himself to others, he tells me.
“At this stage in my life and career, my fulfilment comes from supporting young professionals to grow in the industry.’’
His secret for longevity? “Doing genuine business and having a conscience not to shortchange others.”
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