Experiences, Learning

Development Hotel-ology

The closer I’m getting the end of my internship the more I reflect on what I have learned in 10 months working in the development industry in East Africa.

Besides the big important life lessons (I will probably write about that once I am back home) there are hundreds of small things I encountered that I would have never imagined to play a big role in my work. One of these interesting little characteristics of aid work is the importance of that one big question: Which hotel do we go to?

I always used to have quite a pragmatic relationship with hotels. Usually when I travel I want them to be cheap, more or less clean and in the best case offer a relaxed atmosphere that attracts like-minded backpackers. When I started working here I assumed that the choice for venues and accommodation would be driven by a similar kind of pragmatism. You want them to offer the service you need and the choice should be cost-efficient. Any average hotel with a conference room should do the trick, right?

Boy, was I wrong.

I work for a regional integration program and a big part of the job is to organize trainings, stakeholder meetings or policy development workshops all across the East African Community. With every new event the delicate question came up which hotel should serve as host. What I didn’t know: The chosen venue is so much more than just some venue. After 10 months of interning I present you a check-list for picking the right hotel for a fancy development meeting.

1. Think location.

All the three major cities of our region are crazy with traffic.

A commute from the airport to Dar, Kampala or Nairobi will leave you pounding your forehead on the dashboard and then slowly curling up on your seat sobbing about your stolen lifetime.

So, more than 3 participants coming from outside Nairobi? Pick that charmless hotel along that horrible airport highway instead of the nice one downtown. Similarly, you might want to find a place in the outskirts if your meeting promises to be long and boring. A small retreat at the lakeside in Entebbe (30 kilometers from downtown Kampala) makes it less likely for your participants to leave once they signed the attendance sheet.

2. Status matters.

I really don’t care if my hotel door has golden handles and staff in tuxedos. Turns out most of the people around me think differently. When I naively asked why we could not simply take the cheapest decent option on the menu, my colleagues smiled at me and told me that simply nobody would show up. The name of the place needs to be known – unfamiliar hotels often raise some eyebrows.

Then it depends on whom you want to invite: You want the ministry’s Permanent Secretary? You better add another star. I have the feeling that counts especially for public sector people. Private sector managers aren’t convinced to attend by a purpose of the meeting but by the venue’s marble columns.

3. Individuals and their distinct tastes

You won’t believe the amount of small talk I come across among my coworkers about their favorite hotels: the nicest hotel garden, the conference hall with the great view or the one time when their favorite cheese was not on the breakfast buffet…everybody’s got their favorite.

Our partners behave the same way. My most baffling moment was when a representative of our Partner Organisation just ignored that I had rented a room for him at a perfectly nice (and expensive) hotel and decided to rebook himself into a fancier venue. What really left me in awe was that once I asked him if everything was in order, he started complaining about details like water pressure in his shower like a spoilt child. None of the other participants staying in the original location ever complained – I guess they don’t travel too often to development industry meetings.

4. A word to costs.

As I wrote above, I thought, with limited budgets for development aid, we would go for cost-efficient solutions. That’s pretty impossible with the local conference hotel industry mostly charging rates of 100-150 US Dollar per night for something that most of the people involved find acceptable (I think they are pretty fancy). Our headquarters force us to get three quotations, but if you prefer a different venue, that’s fine too. It is only when budget pressures get too high that we begin to start thinking about some “innovative solutions” to hosting (like using our partner’s facilities… crazy thought).

I never imagined that I would learn so much about hotels in East Africa.

Sometimes it really felt as if some participants in these meetings  cared much more about where they were discussing a policy than about the policy’s content.

Initially, I was quite sceptical of the development industry and wanted so see the truth behind the stereotypes. While I have been positively surprised in some aspects, the strange concept of discussing poverty reduction in a 4-5 star hotel seems to be the reality. If I think only about the total amount that we spent on my own hotel nights for the five meetings I attended in these 10 months, I get to about 20% of what I earned during my whole internship!

To most East Africans who – like me – usually opt for pragmatic solutions to accommodation and venues, all this has a weird feel. Regardless, if you want to play the East African policy game, you better have a PhD in the science called Hotel-ology.

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