Sunday, September 25, 2016

Our 48 hours of fame with Secretary John Kerry

3:08:00 PM - By online 0

When potential hotel guests visited the office of Sankara Hotel general manager Moshi Perera about a month ago to discuss accommodation details, little did he know his hotel would be one of the most protected spaces in Kenya in a few short weeks — at least for about 48 hours.
The visitors told Mr Perera that they were considering bringing in a high-profile guest and if he would be kind enough to show them around so that they could make their assessment.
As it turned out, the visitors were from the American embassy — and as he would learn later — he’d be one of the first people to know that US Secretary of State John Kerry would be visiting Kenya.
For starters, the embassy booked the requisite number of rooms that they thought necessary for one of the most highly protected American VIPs.
He is highly placed in the US presidential succession line, and should anything happen to the President, Vice President, House Speaker and president pro tempore of the Senate, by law, the Secretary of State is fourth in line to take over temporarily as president.
The president pro tempore (or, “president for a time”) is elected by the Senate and is, by custom, the senator of the majority party with the longest record of continuous service.
That means that he qualifies for Secret Service protection even though, according to the US Government, diplomatic security special agents protect the Secretary of State round the clock, seven days a week, anywhere in the world. Such is the high profile assignment that greeted Mr Perera and his team at Sankara when they hosted Mr Kerry.
According to Mr Perera, the full magnitude of what he would have on his hands played out when the US embassy officials began making specific requests for what they would need.
Entire rooms and spaces were rearranged into offices to suit the needs of the high-profile guest and his team. They established telephone and other forms of IT services that would be used by the guest and his entourage.
“From the flurry of activity and the special requirements, we certainly knew that this was a very high-profile guest and that’s how we treated it,” Mr Perera said.
When the Sunday Nation spoke to the manager on Thursday, he said his team was still recovering from the long hours put in to ensure that everything was picture perfect. There was no chance for even a hair to fall out of place.
Of the outstanding requirements that Mr Kerry and his entourage would make use of were stand-by banking and medical services. It meant creating space where a bank appointed by the embassy would set up their services in case cash or foreign exchange was needed.
Similarly, there was a medical site for use by any member of the entourage should it be required.
“We, as Sankara, a local hotel, were very excited that they had chosen to stay with us,” said Mr Perera.
Sankara is a five-star establishment in the high-end shopping, entertainment and financial district of Westlands in Nairobi. It’s a 156-room hotel built in a tasteful, modern style whose charm and atmosphere rest on African art.
It boasts “a new standard in contemporary luxury and personalised service”.
Once Mr Perera knew his hotel was to host Mr Kerry, he got down to business.
“As a team, we prepared vigorously behind the scenes with full emphasis on team effort. All of us needed to work extra days and extra hours and be dedicated to call whenever necessary. There was a senior member of staff on call 24 hours in case they needed to contact us to go over a detail,” said the manager.
When Mr Kerry finally arrived, the advance team from the embassy was fully in place to do a final sweep of the rooms and to handle the check-in — in co-ordination with hotel staff.
“But he came across as a very humble man. He is very personable and gracious. When he arrived, he spared a few moments to chat with us before proceeding to settle in,” Mr Perera said.
As it turned out, the entourage had not taken over the entire hotel, and other guests who had booked their events were allowed to proceed with little disruption.
However, on Sunday, the visible security increased around the hotel and some streets were closed to ordinary traffic. Guests coming to the hotel were required to go through rigorous checks.
“The only disruption to our business as usual would happen when there was movement and when we would be required to request other guests to step back momentarily to allow that,” said Mr Perera.
A week-long Colombian food festival had been launched at the roof-top bar with 150 guests present. “Some of them were unaware of the special goings-on downstairs,” said Mr Perera.
The manager said the entourage was happy to go with the menu and “especially liked Kenyan coffee served in the Gallery; that was always busy”.
Some of the lucky guests had an opportunity to take pictures with Mr Kerry on request once cleared by security as he dined at the new Graze Steakhouse.
For the food festival which the hotel had planned long before they knew they would host Mr Kerry, the Colombian embassy in Nairobi had flown in executive chef metropolitan Gerardo Zabala Campos.
He has also been training three Kenyan chefs-in-training. Mr Zabala was working alongside Sankara’s executive sous-chef John Muriithi. They all said they were allowed to work normally.

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