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Tourism guru bows out

NAIROBI, August 28 – For many stakeholders and tourism industry watchers, the name ‘Rose Kwena’ has become synonymous with the Kenya Tourism Board (KTB). In just six years, as the Corporate Affairs and Public Relations Manager, she managed to stir up interest among local and foreign journalists on Kenya’s tourism potential and interesting destinations; thereby becoming a ‘reliable contact’ on matters tourism in the country.

So, when I received a call from her notifying me that she was leaving the Board, I, obviously, could not resist the urge to dig out the details; how, why, when and where to?

Rose Musonye Kwena, is a confident, outgoing, hardworking single mother of a son.

I sought to find out how she manages to balance all these aspects of her life.

Q. What is your education and career background?
A.  I have a Masters degree in corporate affairs from the USA (more than 10 years old) and a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations and Arabic from University of Nairobi.

I started practicing Corporate Communications in 1996 in the USA and then came back in 2001 to teach Business Communication at USIU for one year. I joined KTB in April 2002 to set up a Corporate Affairs department.

Q. How was your first experience on the job?
A: My first experience with the media was a lesson that taught me a lot. When I joined KTB the focus was to sell the destination using foreign media and tour operators. As much as this was a good strategy, it had shortfalls; while the foreign media was writing about this beautiful destination ‘Kenya’ the local media was very busy churning out negative stories which were drowning the positive stories from the foreign press.

Local journalists didn’t know tourism; they didn’t understand it and since they had been left out in the communication strategy it was really defeating the whole purpose of promoting Kenya abroad as they were writing the story exactly as they were seeing it locally without realising the impact. So I had to take up the challenge to sensitise the local media to appreciate the tourism industry.

Q. Would you say the new strategy worked?
A. Yes! In fact for me, local media has been the first and the most important stakeholder for the local industry and it does not matter how much money you spend selling a destination. All your work would be in vain if they are not with you. You have to remember, in this day and age of electronic communication, foreign media and correspondents based in Kenya rely on the local media as their source for various story leads. I must say the local media has played a key role in selling the Kenyan destination as a brand.

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Q .What do you think has made you stand out in the tourism sector?
A: I don’t think I have stood out but my first challenges were massive. When I was hired the only budget available was to finance familiarisation trips for foreign journalists through exposing them to the destination and then letting them go back to their country to write about it. However, one thing we must realize is that the relationship between a journalist and a destination ends immediately the story is published. So establishing contacts with the local media, I must say, was a plus for me.

Q. What’s the future of the tourism industry in the country?
A: It is very, very fickle whether you are in Kenya or Europe .Its an industry affected by everything be it environment, health, or infrastructure. We have learnt this through previous events in the country and that’s why we had anticipated the post-election violence and held meetings with our ambassadors in our key markets on how they should handle any problems that may arise during or after the elections.

However, you cannot say that because we had post election violence the industry is going under. From past experiences industry players in the country have learnt the art of crisis management and that’s why tourists are streaming in. Obviously, not in the usual numbers since you know tourism booking patterns are within a year. But the fact that they can come back that quickly after the crisis we had late December, early January, means we are doing something right.

We are not running but we are on our feet. I’m seeing the industry growing from strength to strength because of the uniqueness of the Kenyan destinations.

Q. What, would you say, have been your achievements through the time you have worked at KTB?
A. Looking back, I have managed to raise the profile of Kenya’s tourism and the Board. (Grinning) when I was joining KTB people kept on asking me, where is this you are going? What do they do?

Another thing is that the public is appreciating tourism more, the local media is too, and now individuals and journalists are always using the Board as a reference point.

In my short experience in this sector I think I have acquired experience that my colleagues in the industry have not. I have managed crises of great magnitude; terrorism, travel bans and even political clashes.

I think so far I have given the industry my all and it’s time I stepped out and let somebody carry the mantle to the next level.

Q. What challenges did you experience as a woman, mother and career woman?
A:This is not an industry that you can survive when you’re not committed, because you are on call 24 hours. If you have a responsibility like the one I had in KTB, and a crisis comes up be sure even the most senior people in the industry will call you to ask what you are doing about it. Truthfully, I think I have survived by the grace of God because many times it was a struggle considering this is a very demanding career. Remember I’m the contact person for KTB and so both local and foreign media call me as they please.

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As a mother

I have a son who is asthmatic and I remember during my initial years at KTB you would find me at work during the day and then later at night, at hospital with him. People would keep calling me even then  but  I couldn’t explain to them  that I was in  hospital and so not in a position  to respond to their  questions. So I had to come up with a way that would ensure I was in the office during the day to attend meetings and go to hospital at night.

As a woman

As you well know this is a male-dominated society and usually men want to look at you ‘head – down’ so if you were to make them look at you ‘head – up” you have to work extra hard.

Q. Where do you go from here?
A.I am heading to the Retirements Benefits Authority; ironically to do the same thing I did with KTB (Hearty laugh). I’m going to start a Corporate Communications office. I think am specialising in start ups.

It’s amazing that despite the fact that all of us know we will retire one time or another we really do not prepare for it. I have met people who have held very senior positions but once they retire they are still at a loss on how to go about it and don’t even have enough savings to live through it. Saving for the future among Kenyans is almost a foreign culture.

Q. What do you intend to do about this issue?
A. I want to inculcate s savings culture when I get there and to educate people how they can survive retirement gracefully.

Q. Any mentors you would like to mention?
A. My mentors in this career path in KTB were Betty Buyu (who was her first boss) and currently Dr Ong’ong’a Achieng. They were amazing bosses; confident enough to give me the opportunity ‘to soar’ by letting me be the best at what I was employed to do .For example, anytime journalists called me to ask about anything I had an answer or opinion on the issue. Many of my journalists’ friends say they really appreciated this, knowing that most of my peers in the field have to refer to their bosses before responding to queries.
Q. Your advice to a young person interested in the corporate affairs industry?
A:Focus on what you are trying to do. Give it your all and don’t let anybody derail you. You can be anything you want to be despite your background and even education.

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