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When the church means business it pays off

NAIROBI, Kenya, July 2 – Society has evolved in the last few decades and with this change has come different challenges for all organisations, including faith-based ones. Everybody is looking for ways to survive the hard economic times and churches have not been left behind.

Capital Business recently sought audience with the General Manager of The Presbyterian Guest House in Nairobi’s South C and Milele Beach Hotel Meshack Mwangi who shed some light on why his church and other related organisations have broken away from tradition and ventured into business.

Q: When and why did the church decided to go into business.
A: We were coming from a scenario where most of the churches were depending on donors or foreigners to sponsor them in terms of funding the projects which the church was carrying out. There’ve been other issues that have been quite controversial in the sense that when you are being funded by somebody you have to go by the decisions they make or what they deem to be right. As a church (PCEA) that’s when we decided it’s about time that it became more independent. That is when the business wing was created to generate funds for the church’s projects.

The money generated from these projects goes to help the needy in the society and the less endowed areas in the country.

Q: Why did the church decided to specifically go into hotels?
A: As Christians, Jesus taught us to be able to serve the other person and (to) do that wholeheartedly and that’s why we chose the hotels. Also, we identified a big gap in Kenya where so many Christians and Christian organizations look for an environment they are comfortable in. This is the gap we wanted to fill and that’s why we went into hotels.

Q: Tell us more about your two facilities?
A: We have two guest houses; the guest house in Nairobi’s South C which was opened in 2005 and runs like any other hotel in Kenya offering the best of facilities and we have Milele Beach Hotel in Mombasa. If I was to classify them like any other hotels, they would be ranked as three to four star hotels because they offer rooms’ en suite with bathrooms, showers and toilets so you don’t have to go out like the traditional hostel kind of treatment.

We have 95 rooms inclusive of two apartments. We can accommodate about 180 people in the Guest House.

We have the best and reasonable rates in the market. They range from Sh6500 double full board to Sh3500 single. In the normal market scenario, we would be charging more than that but we understand that Kenyans are going through a strenuous time in terms of expenditure and it means that we have to be sensitive as well.

Q: Are the two facilities any different from the other conventional ones?
A: We are coming from an understanding that the present day Christian is not as financially disadvantaged as was the case before. I think people are now demanding for quality service. So we have come to the level where we feel that we should be able to provide the Christians community and the rest of Kenyan society with a facility that is compared to any other. The only thing we are not able to do is provide people with alcohol, smoking areas and things like that because we are a Christian organization and it is not the right thing to do. Our doctrine states clearly what we should believe in.

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Q: As a Christian Guest House, do you cater for visitors from other faiths?
A: Yes. We are very popular among the Muslims and the Hindus because we prescribe to the same kind of doctrine of being non-alcoholic and non smoking. Everybody wants to be in that environment where you don’t get the without feeling that you are demanding too much when you tell someone that you are not comfortable in a place where there are drunk people.

Q: Is the church involved in the running of the hotels?
A: The hotels are managed specifically by the church. The church recruited the management and staff from an open pool in Kenya and looked for the best professionals in the market.

Q: Are there any unique challenges that church-based hotels face?
A: A lot of the times people have been used to hotel facilities offered by church organisations being cheap and not understanding that they are cheap for a reason. But we give services close to what a 4star hotel would give you and that comes with a cost but that is a challenge that we are having.

In the real sense, we charge less than the market rates but the main challenge has been to convince people. The other problem we have is to convince non Christians that we will not discriminate against them.

Q: The tourism and hotel industry have suffered over the last one and a half years due to the ongoing global financial crisis. How were you affected particularly in the Coast?
A: Milele Beach Hotel took a very big beating for us. We took over the hotel in August 2007 and by December we had the tribal clashes and the effect has been felt up to date. So definitely the downturn in the tourism industry has had a big impact on us in the sense that the five star hotels at the coast which have a given rate that they charge  have now lowered their rates to levels that are competing or comparable with the two and three star hotels. Based on that it means that we are actually fighting for that limited business and that in itself has given us difficulties.

Q: With that kind of competition are you able to stay afloat?
A: I can assure you that we are doing much better than the hotels at the coast because we are offering a unique product. We have our own niche. By being non-alcoholic we have been able to attract a lot of Muslims, we are the preferred choice for Christians and  the fact that we have also concentrated on locals as opposed to focusing on foreign tourists has given us a good response.

Q: What are your future plans?
A: We want to expand to other areas. In the next two months, we will have a Presbyterian guest house and conference center in Nakuru and there’s one we are looking at in Nyeri. We want to revolutionise services offered to the Christian community to such a level where they don’t feel like they have to go to a hotel that has alcohol or discos.

In the long run, we want to make it affordable and valuable for not only Kenyans but also Ugandans and Tanzanians.

In the existing facilities, we plan to increase the services so that we can offer an all round family weekend outing, sporting and conference outdoor activities.

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Q: What is the rationale of expanding in these hard economic times?
A: We want to continue offering a different and unique kind of service and also ensure that you can get this kind of service will be available in many parts of the country

Q: In your view has the government done enough to support the hotel and tourism industries?
A: I think the government should do much more in budgetary allocation but depends on how you look at it. Tourism has been the backbone of our economy and it should have been supported more. We should have put more in the development of the Western Kenya circuit and other areas that are not so well developed.

Q: Has the government being responsive to church institutions such as yours that are providing a service?
A: They haven’t. We put in an appeal last year just before they introduced Value Added Tax saying that a lot of the business that we get is dependent on donor organisations which are Christian-based and these people get funding from outside. The funding is very limited and they need to achieve given programs so by adding VAT it means that they will cut many programs because it becomes very expensive.

That is one area that we thought the government would have been more reasonable to allow donor organisations to be able to channel more in funding more programs. But with the inclusion of VAT, it’s made this more difficult and more expensive and we are now realising that it is cutting back on the numbers of programs being sponsored. So this is one area we would like re-considered.

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