Kenyans Turn Homes into Boutique Hotels

These hotels are not listed on Airbnb, the owners rely on tour firms, word-of-mouth to get customers

Karen Gables, Nairobi. PHOTO | FILE 

IN SUMMARY

  • For years, hotels largely stood separate from home surroundings but now the line is blurring as Kenyans make use of their idle mansions.

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A house that has been turned into a hotel harbours a wealth of stories upon stories about a family.

Besides the home-away-from-home feel, it is the personal details like a souvenir sari wrapped on a headboard, a wall hanging wove with rich history among others that are attracting tourists to Kenyan private homes that have been turned into hotels.

For years, hotels largely stood separate from home surroundings but now the line is blurring as Kenyans make use of their idle mansions.

At House of Waine in Nairobi's Karen, for instance, the Tembo room was built around an elephant painting which was done when two sisters Angela and Wanja Murungi visited Thailand with their late mother.

At the swimming pool, the ceiling has a cross timber which is an old rail reminiscent of their father’s first job which involved climbing electricity posts. To honour their brother Nyaga, the home-turned-hotel has lots of ostrich eggs.

Another brother, Eric, is a lover of the colour green, so they created the parking around trees.

Friends and tourists contribute to the aesthetic of the house.

“We’ve had guests who bring a gift for a room. So we end up with artefacts from many places around the world. We used to have a sari as part of the headboard, a visitor actually gave us one of her saris,” says Ms Murungi.

The name House of Waine was derived from the initials of each member of the Murungi family.

The family acquired the 10-roomed house from a family which had moved to a similar-sized house in Murang’a after the children grew up and left. Then, the Murungis slowly evolved it into a hotel.

According to the Murungis, the hotel attracts visitors who do not enjoy the distant nature of typical hotels that can make one feel isolated. Additionally, some parents who have little children want to replicate a home for them even when they go on vacation.

When some CEOs host business guests, they like to have them stay in a residential area so that they can pick their visitors on the way to work and drop them back.
“We thought we would provide a landing point for guests from Europe. We wanted them to have a seamless experience of small personalised services rather than going to a large hotel,” she adds.

Another investor

House of Waine does not take walk-in guests for meals or rent the garden to wedding parties because they would like to keep the property as private as possible for security reasons and to fulfil their promise to the neighbours to maintain the quiet ambience they enjoy.

For Christopher Benard who turned his house into Karen Gables hotel, this privacy borders on some form of secrecy.

There is no sign for Karen Gables on the road. Upon arriving at the hotel by the grace of Kenyans who direct you to go “there” while pointing at the horizon, Mr Benard intimates that the missing sign and the website in construction are deliberate.

Despite this, Mr Benard says they still get decent clientele especially from tour companies.

He designed his simple six-bedroomed Cape-Dutch-style house in 2008 but lived in it alone until he turned it into a hotel one and a half years ago.

“In this area, {Karen} if you build a three-bedroom house and you want to sell it, people just flatten the house because it’s too small so I built it with a guest wing,” he says.

“I also used it for my friends and colleagues that were coming over from other countries. Guys that were looking for jobs or who have jobs and need time to settle or are working in lodges but have no place in Nairobi,” he adds.

However, as much as privacy is important, the guests also enjoy the shared spaces.
“You find guests roaming outside the whole day and they only go to bed or to their rooms when it’s bedtime. Yet if you go to a hotel people are sitting in their hotel room during the day,” says Mr Benard.

“It’s a bit freer and I think that’s what people like. You can talk to the chef and say I want to eat this or that,” he adds.

Despite this, it does not get congested.

“Even if the house is full, rarely do you have everybody seated here because some are out for dinner, some are going on safari and some are still at work,” says Mr Benard.

As a manager, he continues to live in a part sectioned off from the house which he can access without going into the hotel. His two pet dogs lounging at the front door, however, do not make the distinction.

“People always ask me about invasion on my privacy. I found it actually a bonus because I meet really nice people and I’ve made a lot of nice connections,” says Mr Benard.

To match the old architectural feel, a lot of the aesthetics at Karen Gables are collected over a period of time. He collected stones from Zimbabwe, a bowl from Kitengela Glass and a mirror from Holland. When he has furniture made on Ngong Road, he models it around what his parents had in their house.

“If you know what you like, you also know what fits together. The pool was the first thing that I built. Because I thought for sure if I finish the house I’ll have no money left,” he says laughing.

At the back of the house, the land goes on as far as the eye can see, and the Mbagathi River forms a little pond where monkeys play.

There are speakers in the hotel that were built in 1968 which Mr Benard argues have a better sound than you can get anywhere else. Nearly every room has a story and by the time he tells you Timmy T-Dat shot his last music video there, you can only nod an “Of course.”

Further out in Nakuru, the Birundi family converted their home into Milimani Suites. Adjacent to their home, they had another property which they used to rent out. On completing construction on a new home and moving out, they were torn between renting it and making it a hotel but felt that they could make triple the money gained on monthly rent within a weekend.

Additionally, the family was uncomfortable with losing supervision over the house.

“Somebody stays there and you don’t know the condition of a house so the idea of a guest house was a better idea,” says Nixon Birundi, a director at Milimani Suites.
The initially small establishment of about eight to 10 rooms has grown to 70 rooms.

For Milimani Suites, growth has been driven mainly by repeat guests and by hosting conferences.

On a practical level, turning a home into a hotel is not easy. After receiving regulatory approvals, one still needs to secure permits such as building permits, fire certificates, trading permits and the Tourism Regulatory Authority Certification. As opposed to purpose-built hotels, the homes need renovation to fulfil the requirements.

Physical changes such as plumbing are not only costly but also difficult to design. House of Waine employed the services of a family construction business, Willy Atkins of DMJ Architects and per Geheb as an interior decorator.

A lot of decorative features had to be added in since the house was built in the late 70s. At the front, they installed a pond and a bridge made out of mvule tree.
They combined a little bar and library to create a conference room. They added two terrace areas with a skylight to create a conservatory feel. What was a small kitchenette became a linen room. The rooms were partitioned to create a bathroom.

“An interesting challenge of working in an existing building is most people do a plan, they file with the City Council then make subtle changes on site,” says Ms Murungi.

“We figured we can knock out one of these walls and create space. We went home and came back to the site the next day to find the roof had collapsed,” she adds.

Even deciding what to keep can be challenging. The Murungis considered covering the reception area to create a bathroom but decided instead to maintain the double height ceiling and the gorgeous area mid-section of the hotel is proof that this was a good decision.

For Karen Gables, Mr Benard made the initial physical changes within 10 days. He had to find space to add bathrooms since unlike his friends, hotel guests cannot share bathrooms. He also got uniform bedding to give the house more of a hotel feel. Then he transformed the veranda into an extra bedroom, set aside office space and sealed the connecting doors of bedrooms.

Mr Benard has had to make some concessions. For instance, he had to install Wi-Fi routers in every room which meant he had to find ways to hide all visible wires which he hates.

Under duress, Mr Benard will add bathtubs but is not really a fan, he says as he straightens a mirror.

As a business investment, the proprietors had to make risky decisions when starting off.

“We did this investment in 2004 when nobody was doing; tourism was still recovering and by the grace of God we opened and tourism picked up same year. In the first month we were fully booked the first couple of weeks,” says Ms Murungi.

“It has been challenging with more hotels opening up in Nairobi, its putting pressure on rates and staff costs,” she says.

Turning homes into hotels is increasingly becoming common and not necessarily because of Airbnb — the online marketplace for people to rent short-term lodging.

Mr Benard tried out Airbnb before converting the home into a full-time hotel. Airbnb, he said, was flooded.

Budgets are also often much tighter than for typical hotels.

“It is not cheap. We may think that it’s just a house and it won’t cost much, but when you see the round number of running meters for a house of this size, you’ll be quite amused,” says Ms Murungi.

inyayieka@ke.nationmedia.com

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