NAIROBI, Kenya, Aug 13 – You may have heard his family name before, though I am sure not in the hotel industry. The new General Manager of Tribe Hotel, Mark Somen, is part of the Somen family that is synonymous with the ICT industry – but unlike his siblings he plies his trade in hospitality.
Mr Somen, a soft spoken man who oozes a lot of passion for his trade, left the country at the tender age of 22 to explore a career in the hotel industry abroad. He spoke to Capital Business News on why he left the fast paced New York hotel industry to return to Kenya.
How did you get into the hotel business?
My passion for the trade developed from an early interest in the industry that saw me first work in a number of hotel kitchens before venturing out in the wild. The first place I trained at was the Norfolk kitchen; I also worked at Kichwa Tembo and at the Serena hotel. I further ventured into doing Safaris all over the country, which was a plus for me. I actually trained in the field as opposed to going to class or college.
Why did you choose to come back to work in Kenya despite having had a quite illustrious career abroad?
Yes I did work in some great hotels in New York but despite that I could not resist the deep urge to come back to Kenya where I was born and had grown up.
The main reason I wanted to come back to Kenya was because it was my home. I got married 11 years ago and my wife had made it clear that though she loved the country, she had no intentions of coming back. But I knew somewhere at the back of my mind that I would have to come back.
They say home is where the heart is. Even though I had been coming to Kenya on holidays when the plane landed I began to cry. I recalled how while in New York I would meet a Kenyan and I would breathe easier just because I had spoken Kiswahili or shared a Tusker beer with this individual.
New York is fast, crazy and exciting but coming back to Kenya is an experience that is so deeply satisfying, it’s a fantasy come true. When I walk down the roads, and I read a Nation or Standard newspaper I have to pinch myself to believe I’m back home. It’s the smells, it’s the sounds, it’s the scenery, and it’s the people.
What is your view of the industry in the three months you have been here?
I think tourism is such a huge part of Kenya. Kenyans have this innate warmth, they are gracious and they are hospitable. When you are out there you can meet a waiter or a driver whom you have to teach how to be a nice person, something that is so hard to do. However in this country the warmth of the people emanates from within.
How would you compare the tourism product in Kenya to abroad?
I think it’s important that everyone is struggling to do better. Our raw materials are just unique. We have the beaches, the mountains, our culture, the game parks and a wide array of wildlife. I mean who can compete with that? The developed nations may beat us in things like infrastructure and a more technologically advanced product but we have nature on our side. We have an advantage because Kenya is so beautiful; our products are so superior that we should have millions of tourists.
There are many amazing places in this country that someone from New York would die to work in. Places like Shompole, Borana lodge, are just fantastic. More so there are some great hoteliers in this country; I think Utalii Training College is doing a good job.
What piece of advice would you have for a young person interested in pursuing a job in the tourism industry?
I would ask them to travel a lot and see what is being done out there. Go Asia, New York, and Hong Kong and see how things are done in other countries. This kind of exposure allows you to see and learn a lot of things that you could put to use in your career growth. Remember this is a creative field and the more exposed you are, the better. It would also be good to see what kind of standards are being upheld in these destinations.
When was Tribe Hotel constructed and at what cost?
The major construction of the hotel was completed in Sept 2008 and it began in May 2005.The hotel cost Sh1.5 billion to construct.
What do you have to say about allegations that the hotel could have been constructed on a wetland and so, may be in line for demolition according to a recent government directive?
Tribe is constructed on deeded land and does not infringe in any way on the wetlands. In fact, before construction we consulted all the relevant ministries to ensure compliance and preserve the sanctity of the natural habitat. We feel strongly that the wetlands and the view it offers our guests should be protected at all costs.
What would you say is unique about Tribe hotel?
Let me start by explaining the origin of the name TRIBE. It means there is only one tribe in this planet and it’s the human tribe. Consequently we are looking at ways of embodying this in our hotel. Either by creating our own foundation for education, orphans or so many other things that we can do to represent the tribe concept.
We have 140 bedrooms, four boardrooms, a swimming pool bar, and two roof decks among other things. In three months time, we are looking to open a spa.
The Feedback from guests is that this place is homely despite being intimidating. Most people says that they look at how beautiful the place is and imagine it must be expensive but are pleasantly surprised to realize that that’s not the case.
What are the future plans for the tribe hotel?
There are plans to construct more tribe hotels within and out of the country.
We are looking at the coast we are looking at the parks; people have approached us for Uganda and Tanzania.
Who is your clientele?
Most of our business comes from the UN, embassies and NGO’s. We are also looking at pushing more business in tourism because we could charge more from that kind of business. Currently we probably only attend to 20 percent of business tourists.
What are your rates and how is business doing so far?
Our rates range anywhere from 230 dollars per night upwards. The hotel can be pretty busy when they are major conferences taking place in the country especially during the week, but the weekends are slower.
How do you intend to survive competition?
We want people to feel like they are getting value for what they are paying. We are thinking of introducing a complementary mini bar in the rooms so that a client may feel that though he or she may be paying more than other hotels are charging, they are getting value. This should further include complementary wireless.
How do you intend to keep the place going as the new General Manager?
I want to run this place like it is my house; I don’t want people coming here just because it’s their birthday or a special occasion. I want my clients to come here any time they feel like. Be it twice a week or everyday I want tired couples to leave their kids at home and come and spend a night away from the kids because the hotel is so nourishing for the soul.
What has been your biggest challenge as a hotel manager in Kenya?
The biggest challenge after coming home has been in terms of standards. I have noticed that some little details necessary for the workforce in a 5-star hotel that people have not necessarily been imparted during training. For instance, you find that some of the barmen don’t have the basic knowledge on wines. For example there are some little things you would take 10 waiters off the street in New York and they would know, but that is not the case here. However one thing you have to appreciate about employees in Kenya is that they are so open to learning.
You have worked and travelled wide in the industry, any memorable celebrities?
I don’t know whether you would term her as a celebrity or not but she is in the country as we speak and she is my most memorable encounter; US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.
I was working at Sohos in New York and she was hosting a dinner party there when she was the senator. I met her at the entrance of the hotel and walked her up the lift and when she left about 3 hrs after, she remembered my name and some of the things that I said to her on the way up. I was so impressed.
Any celebrities that have stayed at the Tribe hotel?
Lorraine Bush (George Bush’s niece) a ford model has stayed here, a singer called Senita from England, and a friend of mine that is managing musician John Legend could be coming over soon. He is yet to confirm.