MICE and Business Tourism in Kenya: Nana Gecaga Presents the Kenyatta International Convention Centre

Nana Gecaga presents the Kenyatta International Convention Centre, a 28-story building located in Nairobi, Kenya. KICC is an internationally renowned venue for conferences, meetings, exhibitions and special events. During its 45-year history, it has been the host of several international conferences, seminars, exhibitions and summits.

Interview with Nana Gecaga, CEO of the Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC)

Nana Gecaga, CEO of the Kenyatta International Convention Centre

What is your assessment of the sector in Kenya? What are the latest trends?

These are very exciting times for Kenya. MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferencing, Exhibitions) was previously packaged very specifically and was limited to meetings. It has now been repackaged as business events. Business events is a lot broader and includes anything from weddings to birthday parties to graduations. We are at 30% of where we should be right now. It sounds contradictory because 30% is a low number, but if you flip it around, it is a blank canvas. We make up about ¼ of the tourism for the country and we are only at 30% of our potential. It is a new, emerging market. If you look at 20 or 30 years ago at the beach product or safari product, you can see how well that has panned out for Kenya and all those other things that have come out of it. It is a time where we are also able to see the economy grow. When we hold business events in the city, we not only benefit as a venue, but as a city and as a country as well. I refer to it as an economic ripple effect. The business tourist is very different from the regular tourist. They come in 9 to 5 for their specific meeting or event. After 5pm, they pump dollars into the nightlife, restaurants, and entertainment. We are also a strategically positioned country. Just 30 minutes on a plane or 4 hours on a train and you can be at the beach. In 45 minutes, you can be on the safari. We are heavily packaging pre and post packages for the business delegate known as delegate experience. It is not new, but we are heavily pursuing it as a country. All the stakeholders benefit: the hoteliers, transport and taxis and Ubers, local transport, airlines. The actual brand that benefits the most is the country. We are open for business. The fact that we are getting a lot of bookings shows confidence, capability, and readiness. I am extremely honored to be right in the center of this exciting time. We have Rwanda just across the border, Tanzania, Uganda, East Africa counterparts. Three hours away we have South Africa. Three and a half hours out we have North and West Africa. We are the central focal point here in Kenya. Everybody is coming onboard. It is not only the Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) or the dominant holders and players from before. Now, you have a lot of the emerging hoteliers and event organizers creating that space. People are beginning to wonder why the hotels are starting to get involved. The reason for that is because there is a change now. Before, hotels would create or build ballrooms for events. That is beginning to come back with dinners or events, but that space is now being utilized as conference facilities. You can set it up in a different way, auditorium style or conference style, and hold a meeting with 100 or 200 people. It is the utilization of dead space which is now able to be used 12 hours out of the day, not just the last few hours in the evening. The potential is huge. The fact that we are all working together is great.

You have a very competitive environment here. How do you distinguish yourself? What do you bring to the market that makes you different?

I would like to see expansion. There is only one KICC in Kenya now. My dream is that by the time I leave to at least have planted the seed of having a second KICC in another city if not to have already begun the building process.

We are the biggest player. The Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) has been here for 45 years. What separates us is the space. We do not want to be domineering in our approach. The business sector and the business events industry in Kenya should be shared by everybody. For anything above 7,000 or 10,000 people, people come to our facility. We can even go up to 30,000 or 40,000. For concerts, we can utilize all of the space here and house almost 80,000 people standing. Everybody can enjoy a piece of the pie. For us, being the biggest player, we are able to utilize that. There are other places in Nairobi and Kenya that can hold these people, but our advantage is that we have the double threat of event management knowhow. We also have accessibility which becomes a triple threat. You could have a concert here with public transport right at your door. Logistically, you can come out, go onto the highway, and not be stuck in traffic. We can also multiply and turnaround that space to be a preliminary meeting venue for a major government organization event that we are holding. For us, it is being able to be the biggest chameleon and move into different types of venue space. What sets us apart is that we have been in the business the longest. We do not take that for granted. We try to support and help the other stakeholders with that.

You have been here for a long time. Is this an advantage or disadvantage when you compete with some of the newer players?

We have to make sure that we do not become too complacent. We cannot just think that we are the biggest so we are fine. You must keep advancing. That is one of the major things that KICC faces. We have been around for 45 years and we have had ups and downs. With that, it is about reinventing ourselves. Our architecture is beautiful, but it is 45 years old. It is time for a major renovation and that is what we are working on now. We want to utilize the space, redo it, and refurbish it. Refurbishment is one of the key things we are focusing on this financial year. We get compared a lot to our partners across the border in Rwanda with their new state of the art convention center. What people do not understand is that they can only hold 5,000 people. There is that misconception of the bigger the better and the newer the better. We would be naïve to say we are doing fine and do not need to make any changes. You need to make changes to remain relevant. Another major change is that we want to move to digital and be compliant ICT wise and technology wise. That is a major part of the renovations we need to be doing.

What are some aspects of KICC that people might not know about?

When I came here as CEO, I realized that there is a lot of space. How can we reinvent and reutilize that space? One of the things we have done is to try to give some of that space to local artists. We like to see them as our stakeholders. We have a lot of open space that is similar to a gallery so we have given artists a platform to be able to come and showcase their art. We do not charge them. We want to give them an opportunity. Everybody has been given an opportunity at some point in their life, but it depends on if they take it, if they do not recognize it, or if they run with it. It is not for me to tell the artist what to do. But where I can, I want to create those opportunities and see where they go. It is not any personal gain for me, but it is paying it forward for a group of people. As a venue, you will have overutilized spaces and underutilized spaces. We have to not be too naïve and think that something is doing really well and will offset something that is not doing well. We want to be at at least 95% capacity every day. We are now doing a complete overhaul. We have about 5 or 6 smaller meeting rooms that do get used a lot, but we want to push them to the limit. We have one that is like a mini auditorium or mini cinema. When I look at it, I question why we are not holding private screenings there. Why are we not partnering with the film industry to hold viewing parties? We can go very extreme and rent it out for people to host parties and do something different with that space. We have started to push that long term. We also have other meeting spaces that can hold 10 to 15 people or 100 to 200 people. We want to utilize that and do something with motivational speakers. We are at a point as a society where one thing that will never get old is hearing somebody else’s story to motivate yourself. That is someone’s true purpose for giving back. You can give back monetarily and in other ways, but your knowledge of your field and your sector does not cost you anything. But it could save someone from making a huge mistake or from getting out of something that they did not think that they could get out of. It can also motivate somebody who needed that push to become that female CEO. The reason why I like to talk about this is that I hold a unique position. I am one of the youngest CEOs in government and a female. I find my own challenges that I do not shy away from. One thing I talk about openly is that I have been a recovering alcoholic for 20 years now. It is not who you see the woman as today, I have an entire backstory. I want to share that not only myself but also get other people to come in and share. Many times, people like to gloss over their struggles and say they made it. It does not matter where you come from or who you are. You have struggles and those are challenges. I call them scars. Those are the types of things we are trying to bring in here. So, we want to utilize those meeting rooms to have motivational talks where key people in industries will be able to come and give their time and people can come to listen and meet and greet and interact one on one. We also want to create a training facility for outside facilitators to be able to come in and use our venue for training. We want to hold exhibitions for 3 to 5 days. Lastly, we think outside of the box. We have a helipad that we do not use to land choppers, but why have we not had a fashion show or a birthday party or an incredible launch or a viewing of the stars up there? We are also working with our PR and marketing department on engaging with the community. I always say that our courtyard is a fantastic place for a farmers’ market. That is something that is quite in fashion in Europe and other countries. In Africa, our vegetables are organic by default. It is also about empowering the small local farmers. We are not looking at the people who are exporting outside the country. Here you could hold 100 to 150 local farmers selling their produce on a weekend. It has never been done. We can try it out and see what happens. It is not business as usual. It is a lot of hard work. When people look at KICC, they think of government. I believe I am a representation of our staff. Our staff are very young. The average age is 35. That is quite out of sync with government. I try to challenge all our staff that if they have an idea and it is good enough, they should run with it.

Are you looking for partnerships technologically or with other organizations?

There is a KICC ripple effect. Partnerships start from the beginning. How would a customer or a delegate get here? We would need a partnership with public transport, carpooling, taxis. We are in the middle of the city and we have ample parking, but we are not helping do our part to be green. At the Centre we have a lot of beautiful space. We are looking at partnering with another government organization, KFC, the Kenya Flower Council. Kenya has many indigenously grown flowers. Why not utilize KICC as a marketing solution? We partner with you, you produce the flowers that you want to be shown in that season, and we put them on display because we will need to decorate with flowers anyway. One of the major things that we are working on now is going plastic free. We are currently phasing out single-use bottles and we are now introducing glass bottled water. We are unfortunately a major player in single-use plastics. That would really help with our eco-tourism and eco-conferencing. It is something that should have been done a while ago, but we are starting it now.

Project yourself to the future. How do you see KICC evolving? What do you want the Kenyatta International Convention Centre to be?

The vision for KICC as an organization is in two phases, me as a person as the CEO and the organization itself. I am a custodian, not an owner. I am not digging my heels in and not leaving. My dream as a CEO is to leave KICC better than I found it. I want to leave my little bit of legacy. We are an iconic building. We are probably the most famous landmark in Kenya. We are directly responsible for that legacy. A lot of people are not able to do that. The Kenyatta International Convention Centre family is very special in terms of safeguarding this iconic building, multiplying it, and taking it to the next level. I always say to dream big and make no apologies for it. For me, I would like to see expansion. There is only one KICC in Kenya now. My dream is that by the time I leave to at least have planted the seed of having a second KICC in another city if not to have already begun the building process. We also want to be a real powerhouse in business events as well as other sectors. The sleeping giant is waking up. We want to continue to be not just a seasonal, flavor of the month as we are somewhat seeing now. We have been here for a while, but people paying attention to us is somewhat new. We need the sustainability and the staying power for that. We want to always have a major seat at the head table, not just an invitation for dinner.


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