Mehdi Morad, the country general manager of Accor Group, does not mask his excitement. After what has been a tempest-tossed year in tourism, Fairmont Mara Safari Club is reopening this week.
As group GM, the Moroccan-French national is in charge of Fairmont, Ibis Styles and Movenpick hotels. He admits there has been heaps of useful lessons for players in the tourism industry even as he looks into the future with eagerness.
Fairmont Mara Safari Club, one of the two largest tented camps in Maasai Mara, shut down one year ago in what has been a twin tragedy for the brand.
‘‘We experienced the worst flooding in the area in 40 years last year. Most of the camp was destroyed,’’ he says.
Then Covid-19 hit, rocking chances of reviving business.
They had just started rebuilding the camp when the lockdowns were imposed, making it hard to move personnel and materials.
To see the oldest luxury tented camp close down was a low moment for Morad.
“As a business, you’re responsible for hundreds of livelihoods of the people who work for you and the community around you. Our property is in a conservancy and revenues are generated from park fees by visitors. There’s also rent to pay for land,” he says.
International tourism has yet to come out of the woods. Guest numbers in most local hotels remain relatively low. Was this the right time to reopen?
“We had to reopen,’’ Morad says, letting out a reflective sigh. “Kenya has done an impressive job in marketing its domestic tourism in the last year. Brands have a role to market this destination among Kenyan travel enthusiasts.’’
Fairmont’s return to operations coincides with the annual wildebeest migration showpiece that started mid-June. Already, some camps are fully booked.
The pandemic has changed people, their preferences and purchasing power. Has Fairmont Mara revised its repertoire of products to suit these changes? Are there additions?
“People want more of their own spaces. In games drives, for instance, we are doing four people per vehicle. For those who like to watch animals while on foot, we organise that as well.”
The post-pandemic traveller is finicky. He says, travellers will now look for authenticity, remote and more adventurous holidays.
“What’s more adventurous than Mara and connecting with nature?,” he says.
Will Kenya maintain its perch among global tour destinations when the pandemic dust settles? Morad thinks Destination Kenya is as unbeatable now and in the future as ever. “Unlike north African countries where Europeans visit for a weekend, you visit Kenya as a lifetime experience. People plan a trip to Kenya as a main destination. It’s something we should capitalise on.”
He, however, argues that the country must continue to innovate to boost its tourism offerings and use technology to revolutionalise travel. ‘‘We have world-class food menus and hotels in Kenya. And it’s about time tour companies started thinking about electric cars for game drives, for instance. When you operate in a fragile ecosystem such as Mara, fuel vehicles aren’t ideal.”
Turbulent as the period has been, there is a silver lining too. He says the period has allowed local operators to reflect. “We never did enough for the local market. Getting international guests to come and pay double the rates was never sustainable at all. When Kenyans and people around the ecosystem can’t [get to enjoy] the amazing and unique experience, this ecosystem will, sadly, disappear one day.”
During the wildebeest migration last year, camps sprang up across the park as Kenyans descended on the Mara to watch the wonder. Morad argues that while this softened the punch for tour operators, targeting only this phenomenon by businesses is not only unethical but unsustainable as well. “We must interest the public in other offerings. There is a lot to discover in Mara, from rare bird species to plants and their role in the Maasai culture,’’ he says.
Does he think international tourism will resume in the foreseeable future? To him, it’s a question of when. “During lockdown many western households saved more money than they have done before. There’s, therefore, a lot of money available for travel. People are raring to travel.”
It’s up to Kenya to position itself to cash in on this renewed enthusiasm for travel. Is the country ready, though? Hardly, he replies wistfully. ‘‘Our rivals are already ahead with communication on tourism. We are not. But conversations are ingoing with the government and other stakeholders.”
For most of his working life, Morad has been a nomad. He has been on a tour of duty in Russia, Ukraine, UAE and France, working in senior positions at Park Inn by Radisson, Radisson Blue and Address Hotels and Resorts among others.
Travel is his second nature. But if the birding and wildlife photography enthusiast were to choose a destination, Kenya would be it.
“I’m discovering the country and hoping to discover more, from the lakes to wildlife and the migration show.”
Yet in the 20 years of his career in hospitality, Covid-19 is unlike any turmoil he has experienced. ‘‘Hospitality has always been the first to suffer effects of any crisis, but also the first to recover. That was the case in 2007/2008 post-election chaos. During the pandemic, however, tourism has been the last industry to come back.”
Has the industry weathered the worst of the pandemic?
Morad says the situation remains fluid, owing to the variants of the virus. “Hopefully we should be out of it in six months’ time,” he says.
On his aspirations, Morad hopes to continue steering brands under Accor Group and to support livelihoods. ‘‘I’m excited about our upcoming properties Pullman and Gallery which will open next year,’’ he announces with glee. “I can’t wait to present them to the public. Beyond brands, hotels are big employers and these two will create livelihoods for hundreds of families.’’
But the bee in his bonnet is to bring different conservancies to the table for talks on sustainable tourism.
“There’s a lot of fencing and farming happening within the Mara area, which is preventing animals from roaming. We might not have Mara in 20 years if this change of land use continues. Kenyans need to visit the Mara because it’s revenue that will encourage the local community to release land to conservancies.”