Off Marula Lane in Karen, a corner of Nairobi characterised by quiet and an abundance of green spaces is Cold Springs Boutique Hotel. Its gates open up to a colourful, outdoor urban oasis that flanks the entrance of the house.
If being here awakens within you a sense of belonging, of homeliness, it’s probably because it used to be a home; the retirement home of Stephen Ndong’s parents that was later on converted into a hotel. If it feels paradisiacal, it’s simply reflecting the owners' love for nature and the outdoors.
“My Dad’s an architect and is actually the one who designed the house 15 years ago,” Mr Ndong’ tells me. We are seated by a large window overlooking a primped lawn, dotted by handpicked trees that are as old as the house itself - save for one, an acacia – and a thick strip of outdoor foliage and flowering plants surrounding the walls of the house.
Potted palm trees line the large pool on one side and day beds on the other. On one end of the pool is a grass-thatched bistro. Behind it is one of the spaces Ndong’ loves on this property that sits on 0.6 acres of land.
“My thinking corner”, he calls it. Venturing into hospitality in this manner wasn’t exactly a plan for this family. But neither was it strange or surprising. They were well travelled and from their experiences knew that they had something to offer.
“As we left to build our own lives away from home, the silence became louder, the rooms colder and the house a little large for the two of them [parents],” the 32-year-old explains. The Ndong’ family dipped their feet into the hospitality waters by first running their home as a guest house. With the positive response, Cold Springs was birthed in 2013.
A short distance from here is Karen Gables. Owned by Christian Benard, it’s a cheerful and spacious Dutch-style house that sits on a gradient garden whose end is a small slice of the Mbagathi River.
Describing himself as a builder by nature, Benard built the house in 2008 as a family home. “While schooling in Holland, I lived in a house that was 900 years old. We had to fix something here and there, every now and then to make it habitable. That’s where my passion for building started. I went on to build bars and restaurants later on in life,” Benard says of his design and build origin.
Being hospitable, the Dutchman always had people staying over, some for months at a time. Noting the potential in the sharing economy, he began giving up parts of his home to guests who ended up becoming friends, and now lives in “a little nice corner" of his home” with his young family.
“I wanted to create a home-away-from-home. A space where the only time you’re indoors is when you’re sleeping,” he says. And he has achieved this. The 1.5-acre plot is designed to ensure guests spend quality time in the fresh air, under the huge trees in the garden.
With several fireplaces and cozy corners to sit in, it has a welcoming vibe. By the rectangular-shaped pool, he’s decked out a small bar which makes the outdoors extra inviting no matter the weather.
There are several reasons why homeowners are converting their residences for the hospitality industry. Some are looking to utilise the empty rooms once their children leave. Others, because of the minimal investment required, it’s a convenient way of jumping into the business.
Additionally, it’s a wonderful way to travel the world by hosting people and also an opportunity to earn passive income.
It took two years and Sh15 million to transform Ndong’s family home into a hotel that met international standards. Working with local craftsmen, they created headboards for all the beds, planted the gardens, chose and pinned up the artwork displayed in the rooms, shined the tiled floors and installed a water feature with a small garden that’s seen from all the corners of the ground floor.
Out of this, nine ensuite rooms emerged, each with a different expression of what it means to be home. "The honeymoon suite was my favourite. It boasted a Jacuzzi, sauna, massage shower, and a sunbathing room. We plan to have a bespoke outdoor shower installed."
The hotel also has a modern coffee lounge, fashioned with stylish chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. The pillars inside and outside the house and the verandah rails were moulded over with fiberglass for forest-like columns and trails.
There’s a 40-pax conference centre, a small gym, a bar and restaurant and a kitchen that serves mostly continental food and internet connectivity. To finance this endevour, the family used their savings.
“Running the hotel has also allowed us to create employment opportunities. Currently, we’ve employed 18 people,” the graduate of Hospitality and Tourism adds. The family has a similar set-up in Homa Bay, the Cold Springs Homa Bay.
Cozy, quirky, inviting, and full of character are the words to describe the eight ensuite rooms fashioned at Karen Gables. All around the luxurious lodge, Benard has created a rustic look using a mahogany ceiling and bespoke pieces has chosen personally.
The indoors are filled with antiques, furniture and artwork from West Africa and Asia, while the outdoors carry pieces from East Africa.
He points to two seats on the verandah which occupy a special place in his heart. “They’re an exact replica of the seats my father sits on back home in Holland,” the former professional farmer says.
Further down over Mbagathi River is the spa treatment area and a small kitchen garden that serves his guests fresh vegetables. The beetroot and celery pump him with energy every morning. The investment runs into millions of shillings but being able to do most of the things saved him some money.
Sense of belonging
Karen Gables has grown in popularity purely through word of mouth, with guests coming from all over the world.
“One of the advantages we have is the ability to create a sense of belonging. Today’s travellers want to stay in places that give them an opportunity to engage with the locals. We’re also able to provide personal service experiences for guests,” Ms Carys Ashley, a manager at Karen Gables shares. The luxury lodge employs 17 people.
“We don’t host any events. Only stays and it’s a deliberate choice,” she says. Room charges start at $231 for bed and breakfast. Over the years, because of their intimate setting, location and high levels of privacy they afford their guests, Cold Springs has hosted weddings, functions for the who’s who, bridal and baby showers, photoshoots and conferences.
“We engage our guests in a personal way from the time they walk in through top-notch service, sights and sounds, food and drink and the use of design to create Instagram-worthy spaces,” the entrepreneur explains. There are risks associated with changing homes for alternative uses. Just like the rest of the world, Covid-19 impacted these two businesses greatly.
“We got back our return on investment in 2014, largely driven by our aggressive marketing approach. The pandemic has changed how we do business and we’ve had to make some painful changes. Fortunately, the fog is clearing,” Ndong' says.