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Clay on Moulding His Hotel’s Future

Stuart Clay
Stuart Clay, the general manager of Ibis Styles Hotel. PHOTO | COURTESY 

Every night when his head hits the pillow, Stuart Clay, the general manager of Ibis Styles Hotel, has one constant apprehension: how to keep the payroll intact for one more day. Such has been his life for the last three months.

Retaining his workforce of about 150 against the backdrop of near non-existent business though isn’t the only concern Clay has to ponder. What if? What if not? When? How?

Clay has a striking presence, and when he talks, it’s not just his words that drill into your consciousness. His penetrating eyes hold you captive. With his crisply articulate style and typical British courtesy, listening to him is a delight.

He has excelled at many things in his 30-year career, managing multiple hotels in the UK before coming to Kenya five years ago. As it is with many business managers, Covid-19 is the most nerve-racking experience for him, only it hasn’t dulled his enthusiasm.

As the cataclysmic virus continues to devastate the global hospitality industry, major local hotel brands have been forced to shut down indefinitely and to send their workers home –some without pay.

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While other captains plunged those on board to the sea to keep their vessels from keeling over, Clay elected to steer his through the turbulence, with the hope that it would get to the shore unharmed.

In its business model, Ibis Styles handles 50 percent corporate clients while international and leisure bookings cater for the other half. With no people checking in for leisure and with international flights suspended, this segment has effectively snapped.

With 200 beds, occupancy at the hotel has toppled to slightly over 25 beds. At one point, occupancy fell to four percent.

I ask Clay what it’s like to manage a non-essential business during this time.

‘‘I get stressed when I look at our bank accounts,’’ he reveals, steadying himself in his chair. ‘‘Having to protect my team’s livelihoods has been my biggest headache.’’ It’s not difficult to see the weight of this responsibility on his shoulders.

For how long can he keep his workforce aboard with hardly any business coming in? Is this plan sustainable?

‘‘I think we’ve seen the worst of the pandemic. But,’’ he shrugs, ‘‘it’s still unclear what the future looks like. We’ll wait and see how the situation evolves.’’

While still exquisite, the reception of the hotel looks like the waiting area of a chemical plant. Masked attendees behind plexiglass barriers, sanitiser dispensers at every point and social distancing signage are now part of the interior décor.

The sitting arrangement too has dramatically transformed. A space that would normally sit 60 for breakfast can only accommodate about 10 patrons.

With dwindling numbers, I wonder if the menu has survived this overhaul. ‘‘The first one to go was buffet as food options became leaner. Diners can still get all the offerings under à la carte,’’ he tells me.

To minimise contact, customers now have to scan menus through QR codes in place of the usually tedious booklets.

When the government allowed hotels and restaurants to reopen under strict safety and hygiene protocols, the industry exhaled with relief.

In the new arrangement, conference rooms that ordinarily hold 150 participants can now only accommodate 15. But these have now adopted a virtual model that supports video-conferencing and other digital fittings.

When curfew rules were eased last week, there was a semblance of hope for local hoteliers. Ibis Styles opened its doors to the public on Wednesday. I ask Clay what his immediate expectations are.

Carefully choosing his words, he ventures: ‘‘We opened to lessen the hit.’’ If truth be told, the business can’t be profitable in the short-term. ‘‘Even if we suspended operations, we’d still incur electricity, security and maintenance costs.’’

Clay wants more. ‘‘We continue to pay the two percent levy to Kenya Utalii College yet there’s no training taking place at the moment. The government should consider suspending this fee until we’re back on our feet.’’

He says Magical Kenya, under the Ministry of Tourism, must aggressively market Kenya as a tour destination. To lure more visitors to Kenya, he suggests a reduction of park fees.

‘‘If we’ve new hotels coming up every year, we need to think of ways to increase the volume of our international visitors. That’s the only way to fill up hotel beds,’’ he argues.

To survive the storm, Clay says re-imagining the hotel business model is inevitable. And rightly so, Ibis has had to look farther afield: to tinker with home deliveries. This strategy may be transitory, but come to think of it, takeaway isn’t something the so-called ‘‘core hotels’’ in the world are known for.

‘‘It’s messy,’’ he remarks bluntly. It’s easy to see why. ‘‘The rider could get lost or be stuck in traffic. The food may also break before arrival.’’

The current crisis though knows no norms. ‘‘We’re considering the model,’’ Clay concedes. ‘‘We’re in talks with several delivery companies.’’

He insists that hotels must also rethink domestic tourism as a priority area. ‘‘Kenya has a very big domestic tourism market. Hotels should come up with packages that suit the local traveller.’’

All aspects considered, assuming that economic activity picks up soon enough, how long would the industry take to spring back? ‘‘The earliest is 2022,’’ Clay projects. ‘‘Next year will be a year of recovery. We expect airlines to continue to enforce social distancing rules after resumption of flights. Even so, few people will feel safe enough to travel.’’

Any important lessons for him? Planning for the unexpected is key, he notes. ‘‘Having a business that’s unique and a model that’s cost effective is the best way to survive crises. Having the right team through training is invaluable.’’

His face registers amusement when I suggest that we move away from the agonies of Covid-19, to talk about his other passions. The Briton is a nearly fanatical traveller and an adrenaline junkie. ‘‘I’ve driven to Mombasa twice with friends. It was an exhausting but amazing expedition. Whenever I’ve time, I like to drive to Nanyuki. It’s very cold out there.’’ He also enjoys boat riding in Lake Naivasha and watching hippos.

When he isn’t pushing his limits on the wheel, Clay entertains his guests at home where he cooks for them. ‘‘I love to prepare steak. I don’t know my way around goat though.’’ On easy days, he stays at his balcony all day.

On what fascinates him about Nairobi, Clay says the city has done well to maintain its green spaces. ‘‘It’s ever green, which is beautiful.’’

‘‘There are thousands of eateries in Nairobi with good food. You can’t exhaust Nairobi’s food scene. I eat out with friends very often. I love mbuzi choma and wet fry,’’ Clay says with relish.

As he guides me to the lift, he stops abruptly. ‘‘We can only hope that more restrictions will be lifted,’’ he says gazing at me as though to size up the unfathomable mystery of a hazy future.

Even as uncertainty envelopes the business world, one thing has remained alive among hoteliers. Hope. And Clay doesn’t stop hoping.

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