When the history of the British Royal Family is fully recorded, an iconic hotel in Kericho should feature as one getaway savoured by the longest-serving monarch, Queen Elizabeth, and her husband, Prince Philip, in 1952.
Kericho Tea Hotel was barely two years old when the queen, then a princess aged 25, visited it during her tour of the country with the Duke of Edinburg.
They stayed in Room Seven at the facility built in 1950 by Brooke Bond Tea Limited (now Unilever Tea) as a club for its senior management staff, mainly British expatriates.
The castle was designed with royal regalia: long-lasting wooden floors, vintage furniture that the hotel has maintained for decades, huge fireplaces and exquisite chandeliers fixed on the walls.
All these, together with large ballrooms that hosted evening parties by the high and mighty, and the green rolling gardens, earned it the name ‘The Grand Hotel of Kericho’.
It was during the last leg of this royal visit that Kenya earned an important role in the history of the British Royal Family, as the couple would afterwards tour the Sagana Lodge near Mount Kenya, where the princess was pronounced the Queen of the United Kingdom and the Dominions of the British Commonwealth, following the death of her father, George VI.
In years that followed, Tea Hotel would attract hundreds of international tourists, generating hundreds of jobs for locals, owing to this royal visit.
But while it would easily leverage on this rich history to sustain the hospitality business, it has been entangled in endless boardroom wrangles that have left the premises in ruins.
The management, which is divided right down the middle, has been embroiled in several court cases over, among other things, ownership of shares and the running of the hotel, matters that have soured their relations to the extent that annual general meetings have at times been skipped.
After the hotel’s construction in 1950, its management remained under Brooke Bond until 1975 when the company sold it to the defunct Kenya Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC), in compliance with the Africanisation policy.
The KTDC bought 60 per cent of the hotel’s shares while the remaining 40 per cent went to Yasang’wan Holdings, which comprised 363 prominent farmers and business people from the larger Kericho district (Kericho, Bomet and Transmara).
In 1993, KTDC sold all its shares to Sololo Investments Limited, a company associated with former Kenya Medical Research Institute chief executive Davy Koech, in a deal that has been challenged in court by Yasang’wan, who allege the process was irregular.
With the case pending, the boardroom wars escalated with one faction accusing the other of taking all the profits.
The worst came to the light in March 2018 when workers went on strike demanding salary arrears amounting to Sh23 million. The go-slow crippled its operations, leading to its closure.
Addressing the press at the time, Mr Charles Koros, a shop steward and representative of the workers, said the management had time and again made empty promises that they would settle the arrears in vain.
“The entire management has now gone into hiding, yet we have not paid our rent and our children no longer go to school because of lack of money,” he said.
Mr Musa Lang’at of the food and beverage management section blamed mismanagement and internal wrangles among directors for the hotel’s downfall.
“The problem here is not occupancy. Visitors always come, eat and sleep, but the profits disappear at the accounts section. There is also bad blood between directors, who have split the office into two. Same thing applies to the managers,” he said.
Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (Kudheiha) official Alice Ngeno said the workers were demanding their right and “not begging to be paid”.
The hotel has 45 rooms and a bed occupancy of 77. From an initial bed occupancy rate of between 80 to 85 per cent on average, the figure had dropped to about 20 per cent before closure.
Of this, almost 60 per cent were foreign tourists and 20 per cent were business travellers.
When their strike yielded no fruit, Kudheiha workers proceeded to obtain an order from the industrial court to auction the multimillion-shilling property to recoup the amount.
Hegeons Auctioneers placed an advert in the local dailies saying they had been duly instructed by their principals to sell - by public auction - the property (Kericho E & LRC No. 10 of 2-16) together with all the improvements thereon.
This was a dawning moment for the warring factions.
Whereas their wrangles were the prime reason for the downfall of the venture, the threat posed by the auction forced a temporary unity between them as both frantically found ways to protect the property.
Through Orina and Company law firm, they obtained an injunction from the Kericho Law Courts stopping the sale of the property until the matter was determined inter-partes.
Mr Henry Belsoi, one of the directors of Yasang’wan, which stopped the sale through the order, said the workers’ move to claim the land was defective was based on two major factors: that their court battles were with the management and not the hotel, and secondly that the title deed is under a different name.
“We respect the fact that the workers have a right to be paid. Davy Koech failed to do so as he had promised, but on Monday we will start a new chapter and do the necessary to see the workers get their right,” Mr Belsoi had told the Saturday Nation on phone.
The hotel’s chairman and shareholder William Kettienya, who is allied to Mr Koech, said the salaries matter was before the court and that they had agreed on how to settle the matter with the workers and other debtors, having accepted the liabilities.
He, however, said they were surprised to learn of the plans to auction the premises through the media.
“Some people are trying to buy Tea Hotel through the backdoor, but we are saying this is a Kipsigis emolument and cannot be sold to individuals under any circumstances,” said Mr Kettienya.
No solution was arrived at, and the old gem remained closed until three months ago when Sololo Investments reopened it under new management, even though the case is yet to be concluded.
Mr Belsoi said the reopening was irregular. “Our partners opened the hotel without consulting us. They wanted to benefit from hosting delegates during the county games. The matter is still in court but we were not opposed to the move (to reopen) because it was lying idle anyway,” said Mr Belsoi.
They are also mulling a plan to settle the matter out of court and have Sololo pay pending arrears so they can usher in a new investor with the capacity to renovate the facility.
But as things stand, Tea Hotel is bereft of its former glory. Only a section of the facility is running.
The gorgeous, rich flower gardens and the rolling manicured lawns are still well-kempt, but the chirping birds sound more lonely than enchanting. Structures are begging to be renovated.
A hotel of many firsts, it had the only swimming pool (still has) in the larger Kericho district and was the first in the entire South Rift region to be listed by the World Tourist Organisation (WTA).
Its history cannot be complete without its political significance, having been a perfect rendezvous for stalwarts of independence party Kanu.
Kanu secretary-general Nick Salat and former Bomet Governor Isaac Ruto used to host President Jomo Kenyatta during his visits to Kipsigis land.
“For some of us who were born and raised in Kericho, Tea Hotel was our first encounter with a very modern hotel. It was something you would brag to your peers in the village about,” Mr Salat says.
“My first encounter there was a full breakfast, which was a highlight of prestige then,” he recalls.
He says there were rooms set aside for founding President Jomo Kenyatta and later another for his successor, Daniel Moi, which were named Kenyatta and Moi rooms.
Mr Ruto decried the poor performance of what was once a premier facility in the region.
“Tourists from Nairobi would stop over at Tea Hotel before proceeding to Maasai Mara, which was hardly accessible through the Narok route,” recounts the Chama Cha Mashinani party leader.
“I only started patronising Tea Hotel after 1995. Earlier in the early 1990s when I was a registrar at a university, I found the Sh3,500 charged at the facility to be high considering that I earned about sh7,000 per month then,” he says.
He said it would be tragic for such a monumental facility of sentimental value to the Kipsigis people to go down the drain.
“It started going down after the death of former Provincial Commissioner Isaiah Cheluget last year, but I am sure the remaining stakeholders can do something to revive it. If not, let them sell some shares to some of us who are willing to revive it,” said Mr Ruto.
A peek into Room Seven, where the Queen whiled time away, paints a dull picture of a poorly lit square, maybe due to the gloomy creamy walls needing a new coat.
The once white tiles, especially in the bathrooms, have darkened, so has the toilet bowl.
The hotel had in 2018 announced that it had secured funding from an Italian company that operates a chain of hotels across the globe to awaken the sleeping giant.
It was welcome news for locals but that was not to be as it was closed before the planned upgrade, dimming the residents’ hopes for jobs and a ready market for their farm produce.
Each time it tries to roar back to life, greed and wrangles seem to be holding the facility back.
Is Kericho’s iconic hotel in the irreversible path of ruin, or will this new effort to resurrect it work out this time? Only time will tell.