Serena: Taking Africa’s Hotel Industry By Storm

February 29, 2012 by  
Filed under Working Abroad

In case you hadn’t heard- Serena Hotels are those little doses of luxury that are popping up all over South Africa recently. And with hearty safari lodges, sparkling city hotels and water cuddled lodges all being stamped under their name- chances are, they won’t be staying little for much longer.

We speak with the man at the soul of Serena’s passion, Mr Jan Mohamad- who is based at the busy, but brilliantly breath-taking branch in Nairobi, Kenya. We are on the edge of our seats, even before we dial through the International digit barrier; and so we should be. Having previously nosed around the website, we had a slight idea of what was in store. And we were right- the man is a professional; phones ringing from all directions, and an overly sweet personal PR inviting us to converse with him about his work and his creations. Page upon page of luxury packages waiting to be snatched away; clean-cut photography that causes us to break out into mid-winter holiday blues. It was all we could do but imagine the sight that Mr Jan Mohamad could see out of his office window- bushy oak trees, gaping greenery and oh- Nairobi’s Central Park. That’s something we’d all very much like to see, and not just because we are huddled inside coffee shops tasting our way through the seasonal pies and pastries as of late. Now you can imagine our excitement when the call was connected and Mr Serena himself began to speak to us, at Endeavour magazine.

“Serena Hotels began here, in Kenya; in the early seventies,” Mr Jan Mohamad says with a nostalgic swoon. “By the year 1993, we owned four properties; and by 2003- we had expanded into Tanzania, Zanzibar- and then onto Uganda and Mozambique. We are constantly expanding,” And rightly so. With three diverse styles of accommodation, ahem, resorts- all rocketing into success with impeccable urgency, there is no direction but onwards and upwards for Serena.

So what’s the story with Serena- when did the hotels, lodges, spas, camps, and even the forts of Africa become so… so, serene?

“When Serena began in Kenya, the tourism industry was very small,” Mr Jan Mohamad says with a comforting level of bona fide. He goes on to explain that as the industry grew and the demands of guests altered over the years, Serena had no choice but to grow along with it. Although Serena primarily focused on safari; Mr Jan Mohamad expresses the importance of strengthening the city and resort circuit; which has helped to keep them one step ahead in the ever increasing hotel industry. Not only were the Serena hotels expanding and still are; but they are in the midst of reinvestment, re-branding and refurbishment as well. And by this coming December, Serena are aiming to have a few more under their belts, too.

Mr Jan Mohamad says he recognises how important it is to have well-trained employees; and that is exactly why time and money is heavily invested in the sector to make sure this happens. With every department from restaurant, to spa, to safari being immersed into rich on-duty education; it is unavoidable that Serena’s nurturers are to be rising stars along with their resorts. Mr Jan Mohamad goes on to say that “All of the staff within our hotels are of African origin, apart from one expiatory member; who is our French pastry chef,” Serena loves to keep things local; this can be seen in anything from their close-knit family of employees, freshly sourced ingredients at breakfast time and lustrously brewed wines and beverages; making every branch laced with refined rustic culture. Serena only turns to importing when necessary; these are features that simply cannot be obtained from a local source- such as machinery, decorative plants and spa products by Elemis, which are flown in from the UK. This again, ensures that Serena upholds the best standard of quality as well as preserving the natural beauties of a true African resort.

Although the first branch in Kenya, which has been running safari experiences since the very beginning, was a success- it became apparent that Serena needed to expand in order to captivate a broader range of guests. And that’s exactly what they did. Serena’s opulent accommodations began to develop within an array of different destinations; these included lodges by the river; intricate camps in the mountains and spas near to the ocean, to name a few. I can tell by the tone of Mr Jan Mohamad’s voice that this is a vital factor for Serena- to be diverse. Whether the packages were crafted for business conferences, a honeymoon or even an elephant seeking trail during a student gap year- every inch of the company’s effort has been squeezed into making each one is brilliant in its own way.

Allow me to introduce another of Serena’s on-going focuses, and in Mr Jan Mohamad’s words, their `philosophy` – value for money without loosening any of the luxury. One of the main ways the company is able to do this is by offering something for every budget; so whether you are booking into `Deluxe` or going all out with `State Suite’, you’ll be hard pushed to disappointment. Mr Jan Mohamad goes on to say how important guest feedback is. “28% of our business is repeat business; (areas that guests have commented on positively again and again) so this is what drives us”.

Okay, so many hotels in Africa can do a safari experience or provide `x` amount of space for a wedding ceremony. So what does Serena have that the others simply do not, we hear you say? What is it that makes their guests return again, and again… and again?

It’s the little extra details that other companies would not even consider that makes Serena worth spending that little extra.   For starters, they offer the safari experience, but without the added stress of organizing the separate accommodations, major sight-sees and travel- they’ll do it all for you. Imagine choosing your dream safari, and then watching it all come to life before your very eyes- without having to think about a thing? Well, apart from which colour knickers you should bring and whether a baby giraffe will be close enough to pet. We were sold on this already. And as for the packages- where else in Southern Africa can businesses join inside charming gardens that are bursting with floral displays, vibrant cultural music, invigorating spa treatments and even a flute or five of champagne? Forget stuffy, overcrowded conference rooms and still table water. These things are unheard of as far as Serena is concerned. Or perhaps you will see a traditional wedding taking place next door, complete with a full themed banquet, blooms that would put a Victorian garden in the shade and a harmonic choir… and not a finger sandwich or piece of dry pineapple on a stick in sight. Ultimately, where else in Southern Africa, will you find so much class mixed with so much authenticity? Give us a minute while we take all this in.

Hmm- nowhere we care to think of, that’s for sure.

The air outside is thick with mist, and the typical British weather has us tucked up in our blankets with a seasonal mocha and a hot water bottle already. We’ve opened our carry-ons, thrown in a bunch of light cotton garments and located the whereabouts of our promising and well used passports. We’re off to the warm swathe of Africa; all we have to do now is decide on a pretty lodge in fairy lights, or a hotel with an explosion of glitter shed décor. We love Christmas here at Endeavour, don’t you? How about we save you a seat on the plane. Leonie Ann Garlick

Traditional Brit, travel Journalist and romance extraordinaire

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