I love surprises. I go flat when a team conspires and succeeds to create surreal experiences for customers. This I call the “wow experience”. I have probably hopped around Kenyan hotels the most and may therefore have a thing for managers yearning to realize excellence in their service. While some experiences remain too disappointing for documentation, I cannot overstate my abilities to bring out the obvious cues upon which success will rest.
Mid October, this year, I attended an international conference at the Safari Park Hotel in Nairobi and for two days I kept digging for wow experiences. Nairobi is a mythical capital that bathes in tragedy, culture, commerce, a national park, Africa’s largest slum, the UN and a sense of social experimentation. The presence of this 5-star hotel speaks tons of resilience. In these settings, a wow experience would be too sinister to nail. It often pops up. Undeniably, all clients streaming in such a hotel share an erratic degree of surprise. How on earth to formulate a universal wow. Simple tip.
My taxi was flying in the possible 13km in a North-easterly past the ultra-modernism of the Thika superhighway. While I was ushered behind elephant garnished gates to an expansive and electrifying landscape, in particular, I remained afloat to the exact place they had embalmed an elephant. 9 feet below, to the smile-filled reception, it truly struck me. There was the other spectacle of butterflies buzzing in the sea of flowers, a watercourse and purple jacaranda all beaming amazing, awesome and incredible.
On the eve of my arrival, I received a call from a lovely lady, Yvonne, with gracious words, soft as wool. She was eager to confirm whether I had any window preferences for my room (whether I had withdrawal symptoms for sunrise), dos and don’ts for meals, conference furniture, décor…patio. I could tell she had a pen and notebook. I had not given it thought but then it occurred to me that my stay at the hotel would not be an extension of my house or the office. What a genius! Flatteringly, to make sure I didn’t sound uneducated, I told her my obsession for sky blue, and that was it. Shock of my love and chest; my sheets were sky blue so azure were my towels, shower gel and sandals. The rug too, seat cover at the conference, notebook, pen and identification tag. Specification, rather than tragedy is truly a pick for wow.
The discussions were intense and they took a toll on me, at dusk I wanted nothing but a cold Tusker. My butler lounged my bag on a trolley to the room, but then hinted that the hotel had a surprise dinner for the guests. I thought… too tired. He insisted. I dragged myself into the shower and out. Put on a casual and made way to the dining.
The lighting was enchanting and above the neat smiles of the beautiful ladies serving steamed hand-towels, the dark sky was slowly saturating with a white smoke and sweat savor of roasting meat. The tables were set in black and for each were eight white seats. My colleagues had all but few arrived and a tension was building of I-couldn’t-tell-what. I sat.
Upon keener inspection, I noticed that the tables were not all black, but one circular dense mat over lain with eight square bamboo table mats. The geometry was a kill, the eight mats and seats were seeking a line towards a giant porcelain vase at the center of the table in octahedral proportions. I was served chilled beer.
There were no plates and this distressed me, but encouragingly, the cutlery lay in old English. Right in front a stage lit-up to a background of African artwork that ensemble the biogeography of Kenya; the alpine podo, acacia, cacti and the majestic coconut palm. Creatures such as the crocodile, birds, the lion and the iconic elephant were meticulously rendered together with the trees and birds giving the canvas the suspense of “frozen in time”. A troupe of performers in leopard-patterned gear, drums, shouts and endless gymnastics issued and tore the stillness of the graphics on the stage. There was panic in the audience as the effect of the lights and tumultuous dancers animated the still graphics in the background suspending a sort of luminous 3D resurrection. The Safari Cats, for so were the performers called, and the surreal background offered a fusion of southern Abantu, Asian, Aegepti, and modern day Kinshasa. The first row were already on their feet, crawling on the wooden floor and I could sense a willingness to join-in among the seven that sat by me but for lack of a daredevil, only flashings issued of cameras and smartphones.
A gentleman clad in a white jacket and a black bow-tie boldly rose to the stage and declared sight to the blind. It was dinner time. The performers crossfaded with waiters and waitresses and they seemed to stage even bolder theatrics in hauling hot hot-plates on the mats I had just described. They were in their hundreds and by sheer swarm intelligence transformed into chefs wielding hot skewers in hot poles. It was the fastest delivery of nyama choma I had witnessed and no one urged me to start my dinner. I engorged. Beef sausages were next, I ordered two, and then desired two more and two rounds. The mutton was amazing but so was the chicken. Out of respect, seeing that the fillet was cooked right in, yeah out of respect I had one huge unsevered chunk, you know like a bite from a great white shark. Damn the sausages. What I needed was more choma… crocodile is amazing. What was I to do with all this flesh and a sense of privacy?
I always believed that there was magic to so much meat, but this night, in full glare of the flaming BBQ, I opened up and all this gibberish was pouring out of me. Very silent table it was.
My pace was waning. The gentleman seated next to me was Ethiopian. He wasn’t about to concede supremacy at the hot plates. Despite years of experience, the meat was taking a toll on him. We were losing him. Such a nice guy, he was under a spell to explain how the Nile had the power to reverse false prophecies of dwindling resources, a narrative that had trained radicals. Terrorism, he offered, is worse when elephants are accorded more humanity than the citizens. Esther sat on the next table but the chit-chatting and some meat had pulled her to ours. She is a senior official in an African think tank and strongly believed that had Africans been brave to accommodate new diets, the continent could pull out twice as many farmers out of poverty. There was a fellow Kenyan on the table, Simone, he swore to have talked his Governor into creating a fish-eating week in Meru’s calendar. How true his allegation were lay only in the secret powers of the meat. He was a show-off and swore he had cut by half the statistics of stunting among under-5yr.
As I lay there dazed by the mood lighting, within the king-size deluxe, I gathered these stories into some perspective, including one from a Nigerian girl who was opposed to a pan-African youth forum and had instead proposed a 50-20-10. I really wept over dormant potential.
There were hard questions. Kwame, the guy clinging to the very last brown slice of fillet, was curious to ask why in a forum on agriculture, there wasn’t a single farmer. We shared business cards and ordered for more beer. I suppose, this was the most effective networking strategy and probably outdid the plenary to consolidate a continental hope. For me, the fiesta is a secret passage into the heart of Africa and allowed me to stare at opportunity and although the complexity of our people clouded the solutions, in that full belly I recognized problem-solvers. My Safari Park wow.