Late in 2017, Ms Nabila Almass, a marketer at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC), was going through her photo album when she came across one photo towards which she felt great attachment. It was a picture of her taken outside KICC when she was just three years old.
“I was filled with nostalgia. I was going through my photos and then I saw it and I thought, ‘Who knew I would come to work in such a place where I took a photo so many years ago,’” says Ms Almass, who has been working in the marketing department since 2013.
Overwhelmed with emotion, she rushed to her mother with the photograph, as if to confirm that she had, indeed, visited KICC.
“My mom said, ‘Yes, that is you at KICC. I used to take you there every Sunday,” she narrates, breaking into hearty laughter.
“It used to be a thing, I understand, that you pass by here on your way to Uhuru Park. Those were the good old days when Uhuru Park used to be ‘the place to be’ on weekends.”
Though now an employee at the KICC, Ms Almass’ experience mirrors that of most Kenyans. Here, hardly a minute passes by without a photographer clicking away.
On any given day, there are at least three photographers at the KICC gate waiting to capture people’s special moments, with KICC towering in the background, and print the pictures almost immediately.
Ms Almass even showed us where exactly you should stand so that it appears like you are leaning on KICC.
Meanwhile, if you enter the phrase “Nairobi City pictures” on the Google search engine, the images that appear speak volumes of KICC’s role. The first two photographs by the Standard Media Group and CNN, have KICC in the background.
Interestingly, the next three photos, judging from the angle from which they were taken, seemed to have been shot from atop KICC, probably from the building’s helipad. They capture the aerial views of City Hall, Parliament and Cooperative buildings.
In total, out of 12 pictures that will pop up in your search results, three show KICC in the background, one depicts the KICC grounds, while three appear to have been taken atop the building.
FACE OF KENYA
This can only mean one thing: that KICC, whether by default or design, represents the face of Kenya, and indeed, that of Nairobi city.
When Kenyan architect David Mutiso began working on the design of Kenyatta International Conference Centre, as it was initially known, then the tallest building in Kenya, together with Norwegian architect, Karl Henrick Nostvick in the early days of independence, no one, not even they imagined that the 28-floor structure would become the face of Kenya.
DN2 sought to know from Mr Mutiso how the building, which resembles a traditional African hut, became the iconic building it is today.
“It acquired that uniqueness from use and the fact that it has been used to advertise Nairobi as a conference destination. So people started associating Nairobi and Kenya with a building,” said Mr Mutiso.
For her part, KICC Chief Executive Officer Nana Gecaga, thinks the reason why Kenyans get that nostalgic feeling when it comes to KICC has everything to do with the memories they have created in, on top of, and outside the building.
“A lot of first dates took place here. Many families have come as a group and taken their pictures. Those are memories. Many groups of friends have come here and had a day out. So it is those long-lasting memories in people’s minds that we have been so fortunate to be part of,” she told DN2.
So, Kenyans love KICC? "Yes. When you look at it, it’s just a building but it is the memories that are created here that live long after the person leaves our gates.”
But the tide is shifting. KICC is no longer the tallest building in Kenya, having lost this status to Times Tower in 1997, before the Sh7 billion Britam Tower overtook the latter in 2017.
By December 2019, Nairobi will host the tallest building in Africa, known as The Pinnacle, whose construction is already under way in Upper Hill.
Besides, there are many hotels coming up around the city, with similar, if not better facilities than KICC’s.
To put things into perspective, data from the Ministry of Tourism indicate that some 15 high-end hotels have opened in Kenya since 2013, with about half of them beginning operations in 2016. Most of them are in Nairobi and have added 1,700 rooms to the market.
Some of the big names that have set up shop in Kenya recently are Villa Rosa Kempinski, Radisson Blu, Ole Sereni Hotel, Sankara Hotel and Movenpick Hotel and Residences.
KICC marked 45 years last week, and with the current developments in the hospitality industry, a number of questions arise. For instance, what’s the future of KICC? How will the management ensure that it maintains its iconic status?
For answers, DN2 sought to know how it feels for a young person like Ms Almass to work at KICC, an institution that goes way back to the KANU era.
“I would say we are dynamic. People working here are very receptive to change because we are moving from what we were before — perceived as government people — and right now I think we are at par with everyone in the industry. We are starting to embrace technology, and the market trends in the country and the globe are changing, so working here is actually a lot of fun,” says Ms Almass.
“Back then, we were very rigid in terms of the events we hosted. We did just the normal meetings, conferences and exhibitions,” she says.
“Right now we are seeing that the market has much more to offer in that we are opening our doors to concerts, we are doing wedding fairs and partnering with many institutions to bring events to KICC, which was not there before.”
OFFER FREE SPACE
At 40, Nana Gecaga would be considered part of a young generation of leaders. Asked what she plans to offer young people, she said, “Having successfully hosted the World Cup and WBC boxing, I think it’s a matter of testing the waters to see what young people would like. We have created a mini gallery and we welcome any artist who has not had a platform to warm up to the opportunity. We will offer them space for two weeks for free.”
She adds that more outdoor entertainment like music concerts, fashion shows, arts exhibitions and comedy are in the pipeline for young people, but added that the older generation will not be neglected.
But in the recent past, the Rwandan capital, Kigali, has been giving Nairobi a run for its money as far as hosting international business events is concerned.
But Ms Gecaga maintains that that is healthy competition, but goes on to note that that is all the more reason KICC should be revamped.
One of the plans is to have a new building that can hold about 40,000 people.
Ms Gecaga says, “We are running out of space as a venue, but with the Nairobi regeneration plan, there are plans to have Garden Square come back to us. That, and the outdoor space. With that space you could easily fit in a building to hold 40, 000 people during a concert and still have some green space left.”
But speaking to DN2 atop KICC’s helipad, his brainchild, architect Mutiso, the first qualified African architect in East Africa, said he does not approve of any plans to have an additional building on the KICC grounds.
“Do you see that space running down from Uhuru Park to KICC? That is supposed to be open ground for the city to breathe. It is the reason we decided to sink that Hotel (Garden Square). It is sad that they have even expanded Parliament.”
He adds that people need a place to assemble when they want to make a statement to City Hall, and that there is no better place to do that than outside KICC.
Expressing sentiments from a small group of veteran architects and old heritage enthusiasts going by the name Architecture and Heritage Advisory Committee (Ahac), renowned journalist John Kamau on Sunday said that, after 45 years, KICC is still one of the finest architectural pieces in the country, and the country needs to think about what can be done to appreciate our history, mark heritage buildings and help preserve the visions of architects by respecting the original designs.
During the Russia 2018 World Cup, KICC hosted arguably the biggest outdoor live screening of matches, which saw at least 3,000 visit KICC every day, according to CEO Nana Gecaga.
More recently, the venue hosted one of the most colourful boxing events of our times: the WBC World Super Bantamweight battle pitting Kenya’s Fatuma Zarika against Mexican Yamileth Mercado.
As part of its evolution, Ms Gecaga said, the institution is diversifying to offer more than its perceived traditionally cast-in-stone mandate: conferencing.
“The new term now is business events and the reason why they have changed that from MICE (meetings, international conferences and exhibitions), which was mostly conferencing internationally, is because of all the other different events, apart from convention and exhibition. We now want to add on to our list concerts, fashion shows, cultural food exhibition or shows, everything that needs space; you think it, and we can do it.”
So, is she worried about global giants setting shop nearby?
“No. It’s actually healthy competition. It’s about sharing the pie,” she says, matter-of-factly.
Ms Gecaga envisions a situation where stakeholders will come together and sell Kenya as a single destination in a team effort.
“I would love to see an AGM meeting held in the Mara using our safari product. It’s about selling the destination as Kenya, where you have all of those stakeholders together and then decide where the meeting will go,” she says, in reference to tour guiding services, which include a safari and beach product, one of the new services KICC has in the pipeline.
Through these services, participants attending business events there will get to savour what the country has to offer in terms of tourist destinations, all in a pre-arranged package that includes the business event itself.
Ms Gecaga says: “Gone are the days when a delegate would come and go to the conference venue from 8am to 5pm, then back to the hotel for a karaoke and doing that kind of schedule for three to four days and leave. The country has benefited very little from such routines. Of course, the venue benefits and the event too, but we need to come up with packages where more people benefit from the dollars left by these delegates.”
For Ms Gecaga, who was recently named Deputy Chairperson of the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) –African Chapter for a two-year term, the future of KICC is anchored on delicate experience, and delicate experience, she says, is what KICC will launch very soon.
“We will be pitching to companies or organisations wishing to have events here to include a day’s trip to the Nairobi National Park in the delegates’ schedule. You know, we are the only city in the world that has a national park bordering it. We can exploit that,” she says.