LEAD CONFERENCE HUB

Rwanda conferencing no threat to Kenya

In Summary
  • Rwanda may have a superior convention centre, but we have the Nairobi National Park which is just an hour’s drive away from the KICC
  • Above all we have the Maasai Mara Game Reserve (just a two-hour flight from Nairobi) which even when visited outside the wildebeest migration season, is still a wonder to behold

Ever since the iconic Kigali Convention Centre opened up for business in 2016, its mere existence has caused some anxiety within Kenya’s hospitality sector.

And we have nobody to blame for this but ourselves. Kenya’s equally iconic Kenyatta International Convention Centre was built way back in the early 1970s. So even though the KICC was a genuine marvel of architecture at the time of its official opening, enough time had passed for ideas on what constitutes a great conference to have changed substantially.

And so, the glittering Kigali Convention Centre came along to show us what we should have built at some point in the 1990s or thereabouts if we really wanted to retain our status as “the premier conferencing destination in Eastern Africa”.

In the hospitality industry – of which such conferencing is a part – it is gospel that regular and extensive renovation is necessary if your establishment is to enjoy continued success.

That is why in some of Nairobi’s 5-star hotels, every three or four years there will be signs of renovation in one section or another. One year it will be the swimming pool, the gym, and the ubiquitous “health spa” that will be completely rebuilt. Another year there will be brand new carpets and exquisite wood panelling in the reception and lobby. Later still it will be the guest rooms that are rebranded with new furnishings. And so on.

Nothing of the kind was done at the KICC all these years. No major renovations. Same old building.

And so here we are: Kigali now has a far better convention centre than Nairobi.

The real question however is this: Does Kigali’s supremacy in convention facilities mean that Rwanda will inevitably overtake Kenya as the regional conferencing hub?

And as it happens the answer to that is No. Despite all our shameful mistakes and unforgivable short-sightedness, Kenya will continue to be the top priority for most organisations thinking of holding a conference in this region.

Rwanda has the incomparable niche tourism attraction of the “gorilla trekking” excursions in its Volcanoes National Park. But this only allows for a tiny group of visitors on any given day. And it is also incredibly expensive.

Allow me to explain.

Long-time readers of this column will know that at an earlier stage of my career in journalism I travelled the globe quite a bit, mostly to attend conferences.

And one thing I saw over and over is this. After the final conference session, the African and Asian journalists invariably packed their bags and headed for the airport. But for those journalists from wealthier nations as well as for the many brilliant VIPs who had made presentations at the conference, the fun was just beginning.

To give an example of what I saw once in Cape Town, after the conference was over, the VIPs set aside their designer suits and wore cargo pants and sweatshirts. In the lobby, and by the swimming pool, they could be heard discussing with their friends plans for Kruger National Park.

They had not come all this way only to return home without first unwinding comprehensively at a high-end lodge inside this world-famous park. Many had even paid from their own pockets for their families to join them.

With time I came to understand that if you want to host a really top-level conference, with the absolutely top brains in whatever field in attendance, you must actually start by asking yourself what unique tourist attractions your proposed venue offers. There are many leading thinkers who will not attend your conference unless you lure them to it, with an offer of memorable side-trips.

Only after you have satisfied this vital precondition, can you then consider what the conference facilities are like.

Well, Rwanda may have a superior convention centre, but we have the Nairobi National Park which is just an hour’s drive away from the KICC.

Above all we have the Maasai Mara Game Reserve (just a two-hour flight from Nairobi) which even when visited outside the wildebeest migration season, is still a wonder to behold.

Rwanda has the incomparable niche tourism attraction of the “gorilla trekking” excursions in its Volcanoes National Park. But this only allows for a tiny group of visitors on any given day. And it is also incredibly expensive.

So, I think Kenya’s place as the lead conference hub in the region will be secure for some time to come.