About seven years ago, Victoria Comfort Inn in Kisumu was a small hotel business with 12 rooms. Thanks to its superb services, friendly staff, and quality accommodation, demand for its services has grown exponentially.

According to Dr. Bernard Oduor Olayo, one of the hotel’s founders, the hotel was built to respond to a need for an affordable mid-tier facility. “My goal was to build an affordable and high-quality hotel and conferencing facility to suit the average business traveller,” he says of how the idea of building the hotel was borne.

The hotel is not only popular with corporate institutions seeking to host conferences and seminars in the region, but it is popular with families and individuals as well.

Dr Olayo and his co-founders Josiah Ochieng Olayo and Dr. Eunice Akinyi set up the hotel business in 2013. Mr. Ochieng, a chef by training, has over 25 years of experience in the hospitality industry and is actively involved in the business’s day-to-day running. Dr. Olayo is a public health consultant and entrepreneur and assists Ochieng in managing the hotel. The trio has employed a team of professionals, including a General Manager who assists in running the establishment. In total, there are 48 staff.

As of 2019, the business had 47 rooms from the initial 12 and had a conference facility with a capacity of 150 people. However, this facility was not big enough to accommodate the increased demand for conferencing facilities. As such, Victoria Comfort Inn had to keep turning down business opportunities due to the hotel’s limited conferencing facilities.

This informed the decision by management to expand to tap into the opportunities in the conferencing sector. Land for expansion was not an issue since management had acquired land near the facility.

But just around the time they set out to expand, news of the deadly coronavirus pandemic began to spread like bushfire. Countries began imposing travel bans and lockdowns, schools were shut down indefinitely, and the number of people infected was rising every day. Businesses began to scale down operations to preserve capital. Most companies allowed their staff to work remotely. With such a pessimistic scenario, the tourism and hotel industry was severely affected.

But despite the grim outlook, Dr Olayo says they made the bold decision to start construction in 2020

“We considered the fact that this is a long-term investment, and the COVID-19 pandemic would be short-lasting,” he adds. However, it is worth noting that the pandemic is far from over, and its threat to lives and livelihoods is still real.

Thanks to their bold decision and prudent time management, the construction of the new 200-capacity conferencing facility is complete. The hotel can now attract more business meetings, team building events, and networking opportunities.

The expansion will allow the hotel to host more significant events, giving it more clout to compete with regional rivals and increase revenue.

At the pandemic’s peak, the business had to let go of some staff, and those who remained had to take a pay cut. However, at no time did the company shut its doors. Dr Olayo is confident that the business will normalise soon.

“Things are already looking up, and we will soon be operating at pre-Covid levels,” he says.

“We’re looking forward to increasing the number of rooms from 47 to 80 to boost our already strong conference offering,” he adds. There are also plans to construct a swimming pool and a spa.

And although many business meetings have moved online, Dr Olayo is confident that the business of face-to-face conferencing is still viable for them.

“The bulk of our conferencing clients are government entities and NGOs. The nature of their business will most likely not move online, e.g., training health workers or farmers. We are confident that county government officials will also continue with face-to-face meetings,” he says.

The biggest stumbling block in their quest to expand has been accessing patient and tailored business financing to cater to their needs. The other challenge is security for business loans, which is a requirement, especially when dealing with commercial banks.

To surmount this challenge, the hotel management approached Business Partners International (BPI) in 2019 in search of financing to construct the new conferencing facility. He says thus far, the relationship with BPI has been productive.

“They tailored the loan facility to our needs, and I did not need a lot of security up front to access the business loan. BPI also provided technical assistance in helping us think about the business and how we want to position it, which is critical for a business like ours,” Dr. Olayo adds.

BPI Kenya Country Manager Michael Muthengi is proud of their (BPI) decision to partner with Victoria Comfort Inn when the pandemic was threatening to wreak havoc on businesses.

“We visited the hotel after the government lifted the lockdown restrictions in 2021. We witnessed a hotel business that is resilient despite the negative impact that COVID-19 has had on the hospitality industry,” says Mr. Muthengi. Muthengi continues to note that the business has had a well-conducted credit facility since inception, with performance in 2020 hitting 60% of target despite the COVID-19 pandemic and returning to pre-Covid numbers in 2021. This growth has seen the staff laid off during the pandemic, re-employed.

He adds that the conference rooms financed by BPI are of a high standard and will position the hotel well in the region.

Victoria Comfort Inn approached BPI for additional funding to purchase an air-conditioning system and a foldable partition door immediately after the Covid19 restrictions were lifted in 2021. This enabled the company to host smaller conferences while improving its Covid-19 mitigation standards. “We saw an opportunity to support the business despite the negative impact of COVID-19 to the hospitality industry because the hotel had resumed operations of conferencing above 25% of its capacity in less than 6 months and the air condition was going to improve the health and safety standards in the meeting rooms.” says Mr. Muthengi

Dr. Olayo says thanks to the excellent relationship and assistance the business has received from BPI, he has recommended it (BPI) to other entrepreneurs in need of business financing.

The business hopes to construct a more prominent hotel on land next to Lake Victoria in the foreseeable future.

About the Author: Debbie D'Costa