Earlier this year, 41-year-old Hôtel des Mille Collines got ‘married’ to the 117-year-old management firm Kempinski. Some news outlets reported it as a ‘takeover’ which it wasn't because Mickor Investment Holdings Ltd still owns the facility.
It has since been quietly renamed ‘Hotel des Mille Collines by Kempinski.’
“Kempinski only took over the hotel’s management, which officially took effect at the beginning of July,” says Christoph Strahm, the company’s General Manager.
He was addressing journalists last week during a meeting at the hotel premises in Kigali.
“Our partnership with Mille Collines is a marriage of history,” the manager told journalists.
Indeed, both Mille Collines and its new managers Kempinski have rich history.
Kempinski with its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, was founded in 1897 in Berlin, Germany.
It is Europe’s oldest independent luxury hotel group, according to Christian Huschka, the director of Sales and Marketing at Hôtel des Mille Collines by Kempinski.
The Rwanda acquisition became the ninth hotel they’re managing on the continent with three more hotels scheduled to open in the next six months.
Mille Collines is French for a thousand hills, a metaphor normally used to describe Rwanda, a hilly country.
Having been established in 1973, the hotel’s role during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi stands out like a swollen thumb.
As the Genocide raged, with machete-wielding interahamwe militia roaming the streets, at least over a thousand Tutsi took refuge at Hôtel de Mille Collines hoping to evade the killers. They did survive anyway but how they survived, let alone the real story of what transpired inside the hotel, has often ignited controversy.
While only the survivors certainly have the most accurate story, there’s one that emerged and almost prevailed—the Hollywood and perhaps the most famous version of the story, Hotel Rwanda, the movie.
The movie was a commercial success at a time when the world was hungry for any acts of heroism amid humanity’s biggest tragedy in recent times, but locally it was received like a kick in the stomach to many a survivor and their relatives many of whom say it distorted the facts.
The main beneficiary, Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel’s crisis manager at the time, has milked both commercial and political capital from the works in which he claims to be the ‘hero’ behind saving of the over 1,000 lives.
While the story of Hotel Rwanda remains heavily disputed, there’s little argument against the assertion that it has contributed to the present ‘fame’ of Hôtel des Mille Collines.
One Swedish guest residing at the hotel told The New Times last week that he wanted to ‘feel the story from a personal experience’ after watching the movie a few years ago.
He’s not alone; many still come to Rwanda to see the hotel and get ‘closer’ to those dark 100 days.
This ‘infamous fame’, while traumatising to the survivors could be good to those in the business of sales and marketing. But could this also partly explain why Kempinski got interested in being part of what they describe as ‘marriage of history’?
“We do not want to use the hotel’s role in the 1994 Genocide as a marketing tool. In fact, we don’t need Hotel Rwanda to market Mille Collines and we don’t need to be associated with the movie,” Strahm says.
Amit Sharma, the hotel’s Food and Beverage manager, said Kempinski intends to use their almost 120 years of hotel management to turn Mille Collines into ‘a European luxury hotel’ of sorts during their ten-year management tenure. Their strength, he reveals, is in the area of food and beverage.
When they came in, the marketing manager, Huschka says they found the hotel making money but with huge potential to make more and that’s exactly what they intend to do – make Mille Collines more profitable.
“We shall be investing at least $6 million in renovating the hotel over the next two years to give the place a new feel,” he says.
That bill will be paid by the owners, Mickor Investment Holdings Ltd.
These renovations, according to the new managers, are aimed at making the place ‘luxurious and Kigali’s favourite living room’.
"Of course that historical episode will always be part of the hotel’s history, we can not delete it but this won’t affect our marketing strategy,” Huschka says.
Already, they don’t see much competition around and admit it’s only Serena Hotel that ‘technically’ beats them but the Swiss manager adds that they are looking beyond being a five-star hotel.
As an asset, they have a chef with 27 years of experience and a seventh generation cook in his Italian family. In his new kitchen at Mille Collines, he has managed to strike a code with the local Rwandan staff.
“There’s a richer food culture here, they teach me and I teach them what I know, I love it here,” he says.
The general manager says their biggest hope for success in Rwanda lays in the country’s current political stability and the willingness among the local staff to learn.
“I think everything a side, we have come to Rwanda at the right time. The country is under the right leadership and we want to be part of its present and future not past.”