- The management contract is a leasing kind of arrangement where a hotel runs the business on a building it didn’t build itself.
- In 2006 when Pravir’s father died and left the managing director’s seat vacant, Jaideep Vohra took over until 2017 when he died. Both lost their lives in road accidents.
- As a young boy, Pravir would move around with his father, talking to staff and learning the businesses even as he pursued his interest in competitive shooting.
If this were a marriage, preparations would have been ongoing for a golden wedding anniversary; to toast to 50 years of being together and to renew vows.
But it wasn’t exactly a marriage that happened in the early 1970s but rather a formation of friendship between two men who have been together in business since then, through the Sarova group of hotels. One of them has since died but his descendants are well into it.
They met over a drink, we are told. One of the men was Gurcharan Singh Vohra alias Chani. He was a barrister, having risen from humble beginnings to scale the heights of legal practice. He died in 2013.
The other one was John Ngata Kariuki, who was by then a sales manager at a petroleum company and who, between 2008 and 2011, was the Member of Parliament for Kirinyaga Central.
Telling us the story of that meeting of the two is Pravir Vohra, currently a director with the Sarova Hotels and Resorts Kenya. He is a grandson of the late Chani and his father, the late Ravinder Singh Vohra aka Sandy, was the managing director (MD) of the hotel chain until 2006 when he died in a car crash in Ethiopia where he had gone to scout for new business opportunities.
“Over a pint of beer, they (Chani and Ngata) said, ‘Why don’t we purchase Ambassadeur?’” Pravir tells us.
That set in motion their efforts towards buying the hotel that is one of the most enduring landmarks in Nairobi. And with that, a business empire was born.
The year was 1974 when these two friends, after raising funds from several sources, purchased Ambassadeur.
Two years later, they bought the current Sarova Whitesands Beach Resort and Spa in Mombasa.
They were not done. In 1978, they acquired the current Sarova Stanley, standing at the junction of Kimathi Street and Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi.
“A lot of people think that the Stanley was the first Sarova hotel because it’s the oldest,” says Pravir.
The men would later sell Ambassadeur in the early 1990s to finance the purchase of the Sarova Panafric on Valley Road.
Today, the Sarova business empire has more than 1,000 rooms across the country and employs about 1,500 people.
The chain encompasses the two hotels in Nairobi, one in Nakuru trading as the Sarova Woodlands Hotel and Spa; another in the Maasai Mara known as the Sarova Mara Game Camp; another in Isiolo known as the Sarova Shaba Game Lodge located inside the Shaba National Reserve and there is also the Sarova Lion Hill Game Lodge inside the Lake Nakuru National Park.
“We are potentially looking at expanding into Uganda. Obviously, it has become difficult during these Covid times, but we’re always looking for new opportunities, especially management contracts,” says Pravir.
The management contract is a leasing kind of arrangement where a hotel runs the business on a building it didn’t build itself. Pravir says the Nakuru establishment of Woodlands is run under such arrangement.
“We don’t own it. It’s under a management contract. We also had — about two years ago — Salt Lake in Taita; in the Tsavo. Those were management contracts also. And just when Covid hit, we didn’t renew the contract,” says Pravir.
He believes management contracts will be the future of their chain.
Future business model
“I think the days have passed where your model is brick-and-mortar; where you want to build and all that. It becomes quite capital intensive. The new model is management contracts. That’s how we’re going to expand,” says Pravir.
At the moment, Pravir and several descendants are on the hotel chain’s board. The current MD is Jimmy Kariuki, a son of John Ngata.
“He is the man in charge. He is the captain of the ship,” says Pravir. “There is a management team that runs the day-to-day activities, and Jimmy manages that team. Then you’ve got the board.”
In 2006 when Pravir’s father died and left the managing director’s seat vacant, Jaideep Vohra took over until 2017 when he died. Both lost their lives in road accidents.
So, what is the secret behind staying united as two business families for this long? Pravir believes it is due to the ground rules laid by the pioneering partners.
“The wazee were very open with each other. There was always good communication. The objective was the same; they both wanted the same thing,” he says.
So, there isn’t something like a constitution they refer to?
“Of course, we have company articles, but the main reason for the success was the leadership. Because there were leaders and everyone else below them understood the vision; so they followed. I would say the success of the company is due to the leadership,” summarises Pravir.
“The current MD and the Sarova team are the reasons why Sarova has managed to stay afloat during these Covid times — because of the strategies that they’ve employed. Everyone had to sacrifice, but because of Jimmy Kariuki and the other heads of departments, that has carried this group through these tough times,” he adds.
Pravir has a lot to share about the Vohra family.
“I’m the third generation, born in Kenya,” he says. “My grandfather Chani was always an adventurous man. He always loved going to the bushes and such.”
But he reckons that Chani did not have the best of childhoods.
“His beginnings were very humble. His father (my great-grandfather) jumped on a dhow from northern India and ended up in Mombasa. His father was called Sardar Singh Vohra. He opened a bicycle shop in Nairobi,” he narrates.
“Chani and his siblings lived in one room because the family income was low. There were five brothers and three sisters, and they all shared a room. Now, Chani was very good in school. So, the headmaster sponsored him to go to the UK to pursue his law degree. So, when he came back, he passed the bar and then became a barrister. He was a barrister in Nairobi, while the family was still running the bicycle shop,” adds Pravir.
It was during his practice as a barrister that he met Mr Ngata.
“They became friends and good business partners,” he says.
A lot of growth in the hotel business, Pravir says, can be attributed to his late father, Sandy.
“He took the group to another level. He added professionalism into the company, and was a true pioneer of the tourism industry in Kenya,” says Pravir.
“Much as there was international travel already, he made it more mainstream. He was the one who joined the dots between international travel agencies and large airliners and brought that traffic to Kenya and made Mara, Mombasa known destinations globally. He helped the company, won several awards, and set up the structure that is still holding the company to this day,” he adds.
Goes on Pravir: “He planned to expand into eastern Africa: to set up in Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, among others. Unfortunately, he had a car accident in 2006 and that was the end of his legacy.”
As a young boy, Pravir would move around with his father, talking to staff and learning the businesses even as he pursued his interest in competitive shooting.
“He was very direct. And what I learned from him is that direct communication is always your friend, and don’t be afraid to speak up,” says Pravir.
The partnering families will soon be celebrating the 50-year collaboration.
“Sarova is going to hit a milestone of 50 years, and it’s the oldest hotel chain in eastern Africa,” says Pravir. “It started from just a thought and, 50 years later, it’s now a massive Kenyan brand. Internationally, there are a lot of people that know the brand Sarova Hotels. And they want to stay at Sarova because they know the kind of service given.”
Each of the hotels under the Sarova umbrella has different unique points, and the Stanley, from where we do our interview with Pravir, is no different.
One gets to live and witness history through various items in it, among them personal items used by Queen Victoria who used to board there during her Kenyan visits, items used by famous people like Karen Blixen, among other relics.
“The difference between this hotel and many others is that it’s a heritage hotel. When you walk around, you are walking in history,” explains Pravir.