Is Umubano ‘Zero Star’ hotel?

Thirty hospitality facilities were last week unveiled as ‘must-go’ places after they successfully passed through an intricate grading and classification exercise – which allows them to gain ‘starship’.

One common and well known hotel was nonetheless missing from the star-studded cast: Novotel Umubano Hotel Kigali located in Kacyiru, an upscale Kigali suburb.

Government-owned Umubano Hotel has changed management often. The change of ownership has equally been accompanied by that of names. But even with such changes, it seems Umubano Hotel was not ready to join the competitive race to gain regional and global recognition of either a five star or less.

According to international standards, five star means that the facility’s reception is open 24 hours with multilingual staff, a doorman, valet parking, a concierge or page boy, a spacious reception hall with several seats and beverage services. It also means a guest would receive a personalised greeting – probably with fresh flowers or a present in the room. The room should have a minibar, and food and beverage offer via room service during 24 hours.

Personal care products in flacons, wireless Internet, a PC in the room, ironing service (return within one hour), shoe polish service – are some of the other requirements a 5 star hotel must have. Having anything less than such amenities mean a hotel gets a less rating.

And the winners are…

Serena Hotel Kigali and Nyungwe Forest Lodge in Nyamaseke District (Western Province) were unveiled as the only Five-Star hotels in Rwanda. Serena is owned and operated by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED), while Nyungwe Forest Lodge belongs to the troubled United Arab Emirates holdings firm, Dubai World.

The classification names little-known Relay’s Gorilla Hotel in Musanze District (Northern Province) as a One Star hotel in the country, in an exercise where only 31 hospitality facilities were graded. 130 hotels had initially been identified in the country for the review process, that cost the government some Rwf120 million.

Mr. John Gara, the RDB’s chief executive officer said the star grading – the first ever in Rwanda, was based on East African standard certifications, and collectively developed by all East African Community (EAC) partner states. With this grading, he said, Rwanda becomes the second country in the EAC region to classify the accommodation establishments using the EAC criterion after Tanzania.

Rica Rwigamba, the head of Tourism and Conservation at RDB, said that the star classification commonly used to rate hotels, largely depends on various factors including food services, entertainment, room variations – such as size and additional amenities, spas and fitness centres, and ease of access. Quality of service and location were also considered in establishing these standards, she said.

What happened to Umubano hotel?

Speaking on the sidelines of the elaborate Hotel Star Awarding Ceremony on Thursday at Serena Hotel Kigali, some hoteliers who preferred anonymity considered some of the requirements as disadvantageous to smaller hotels. They said the quality of accommodation could fall into one class because of the lack of an item such as an elevator.

The hotel rating systems was also criticised by some others who argued that the criterion are overly complex for Rwandans and difficult for lay-persons to understand.

But for Umubano Hotel, the process did sound worth the effort. Before 2009, Umubano, located about a two-minute drive away from the Office of the President, was referred to as Novotel Hotel Umubano, owned by – Accor Group, a chain of global hotels such as Sofitel, Pullman, MGallery, Mercure and Ibis. Government still holds a minority stake in Umubano.

The Libyan African Investment Portfolio (LAP) acquired a 60 percent stake in SOPROTEL, the holding company of the hotel. The Rwandan government retained a 40 percent stake. After the Libyans took over management, the hotel was renamed under the brand ‘Laico’.

In February last year, trouble erupted in Libya resulting into international sanctions including a freeze on billions worth of cash and assets belonging to the regime of ousted Libyan strongman Col Mouammar Kadhafi (RIP). In Kigali, government was also obliged to join the move.

In late April last year, the Finance Minister John Rwangombwa said that government had found it prudent to take full custody of Libyan-owned shares in the then Laico Hotel. The decision was followed by the removal of all Libyan influence in the management of the hotel and halting of any transfer of resources to the Libyan government or its beneficiaries.

‘We want 5-star’!!

LAP also owned majority shares in defunct telecoms firm Rwandatel, whose licence was revoked last year for failure to meet obligations.

Asked why Umubano was not classified and yet it is in the process of attracting a strategic investor to take over its management, Clare Akamanzi, RDB’s Chief Operating Officer said on her twitter account that the hotel was not ready. “We hope to include them in the next round when they are ready,” Akamanzi said.

Rosemary Mbabazi, the hotel’s caretaker confirmed to The Chronicles that indeed the hotel had been approached in 2009 for the assessment “…we didn’t think it was time for us to participate before major renovations are done on the facility,” she said.

“We want to be a five-star before an investor takes over. The Libyans promised to renovate but there were no major changes since 2005,” Mbabazi added.

Not worth US$200 a night!!??

An online search of the hotel takes us to http://www.umubanohotel.rw/. It describes itself as 4-Star facility. “Perfectly suited for today’s traveller, Umubano Hotel offers quality service, to ensure guests’ comfort at all times within a warm and welcoming atmosphere,” reads a post on the hotel’s homepage.

While some professional on-line hotel reviewers have rated Umubano a four star hotel, others say the hotel is way below international standards claiming it lacks even air-conditioning facilities and malfunctioning bathrooms.

One review of Umubano Hotel on Trip Adviser, a top on-line hotel review website reads: “My room did not have AC and there were quite a few mosquitoes in the bath. Otherwise, it was comfortable enough if not basic. Certainly not worth US$200 a night but I paid half of that by booking online. The pool is ok if you just want to splash around and the restaurant is extremely average and quite dead on the weekends. The staff members there seem desperate to please at least.”

“The cool thing is that there are several little shops in the lobby for snacks, a bank and an amazing fitness centre complete with a great massage person. Additionally, the hotel Internet is super-fast but not free. This hotel is typical of the decent but extremely overpriced. If you need a decent and no hassle place to stay that is relatively clean and away from the city centre, then you should be fine here,” the review adds.

Up for sale again?

Like the now almost non-existent Rwandatel, which had changed hands many a time, and is now awaiting another possible buyer, Umubano Hotel has been no different. Caretaker officials tell The Chronicles that the Hotel is up for sale yet again.

“We are undergoing a tendering process. We opened bids and the bidding process ends by end of January,” said Mbabazi, the currently management boss.

“About 10 investors have shown interest….About 60 percent of them are foreign based investors and the rest are either local or local firms teaming with foreign brands,” she added.

In response on whether LAP, the previous Libyan owners would be allowed to re-submit a bid, Mbabazi said: “We have already engaged the Libyans diplomatically through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There was originally an agreement, which they never complied to. So the question is: how do you trust they will commit themselves this time and be as competitive as other hotels.”

The chief guest at the hotel star awarding ceremony was the Minister for East African Community Affairs, Mrs. Monique Mukaruliza. Present at the ceremony were government officials and hundreds of guests. The plaque for the Serena Five Star award was received by Mr. Charles Muia, Country Manager for Serena Hotels and General Manager of the Kigali Serena.

The General Manager of Dubai World Nyungwe Forest Lodge, Deo Kamurase accepted the award on behalf of the hotel.

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