Negative end to positive year for Belfast hotels

The recent rioting and protests that have been taking place in Belfast appear to be having a negative impact on the hotel sector in the city. The owner of the Merchant Hotel, Mr Bill Wolsey, has let it be known that a group of American tourists cancelled a booking for a stay at his Belfast hotel. It is reported that an entire floor had been reserved by the group at the Merchant for a number of nights. Nevertheless, after news of the disturbances in Belfast broke in the US, the booking, which could have been worth thousands of pounds, was cancelled.

“They have now taken all their business to Dublin because of the violence,” said Mr Wolsey. “And to rub salt into the wound they asked us to book them into a hotel of similar standard in Dublin. We are losing business because of this”. Mr Wolsey went on to point out that trade at the Merchant Hotel had dropped by some 15 percent over the last week due to a number of cancellations.

This message was reinforced by a Belfast businessman at an event in Dublin. Bob McCoubrey, who owns a number of restaurants in Belfast, was at the Irish National Crafts and Design Fair in Dublin. He said there was a perception among delegates that Belfast was “not a place to go to at the moment”. Mr McCoubrey went on to say that instead of advancing the attractions, restaurants and hotels of Belfast people were trying to convince delegates of how localised the trouble in Belfast was and reaffirming that Belfast is a still a very safe city to visit.

“All the investment and all the money that’s gone into the past year’s events for tourism here has kind of gone all down the drain, temporarily”, said Mr McCoubrey.

All this stands in stark contrast to the promise that just last month surrounded the launching of the “Famously Festive” marketing campaign aimed at attracting visitors to Belfast in the run-up to Christmas. Some £250,000 was invested into television, radio and newspaper advertising to highlight Belfast as a retail destination and to attract more shoppers from across Northern Ireland and the Republic.

The campaign, backed by the Department for Social Development, was developed by the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau and Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce. The Lord Mayor of Belfast, Gavin Robinson, said he was confident that the campaign would bring increased numbers of visitors to enjoy all that would be on offer. “Christmas is an important time of year for Belfast and for all those retailers, restaurants, hotels and visitor attractions which make us unique,” said Mr Robinson.

Other positive news had also emerged recently with regard to how well the hotels in Belfast had been doing up until the trouble broke out last week. Accountancy firm ASM’s Hotel Performance Indicator (HPI) showed that, on average, just over 80 percent of the rooms in Belfast hotels were fully occupied in the three months to the end of September. This figure was 9 percent higher than during the same period in 2011. The average price of a room in Belfast had also risen by over 5 percent in the period to £68 a night. In the report a director at ASM said: “Now that some real and tangible momentum has been injected into the promotion of Northern Ireland as a destination, the challenge will be maintaining this momentum in the follow on years. It is up to all of us to ensure that this opportunity does not pass us by.”

In addition, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) recently produced a UK hotel forecast for 2013 entitled ‘After the Party’. The report showed that in 2012, the hotels in Belfast along with those of Aberdeen, were the best performing in the UK. The report highlighted that Belfast had benefited from the “Our Time Our Place” campaign, the Titanic Belfast Festival and the opening of the £97 million Titanic visitor attraction. This activity delivered the largest increase in hotel occupancy in the month of March in almost ten years as well as a 12 per cent rise in revenues for hoteliers in Belfast.

In April, the month of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, hotels in Belfast experienced growth in occupancy of some 25 per cent over the previous year. In the same period the average daily rate (ADR) rose by around 15 per cent whilst revenues per available room (RevPAR) leaped by 45 per cent. PwC Belfast hospitality expert Stephen Curragh said. “Year-on-year occupancy, for the eight months to the end of September 2012 in Belfast Metro’s 38 leading hotels is up by 15 per cent, RevPAR is up 20 per cent and overall revenue has jumped by more than a fifth on the same period in 2011. While last November’s MTV Music Awards accounted for around 8,000 room nights, with the event delivering an estimated £22m to the Belfast economy, it was March and the launch of the Titanic Belfast Festival that really saw a substantial jump in Belfast hotel occupancy and revenues.” Mr Curragh added: “This has been a successful year for Belfast hotels thus far but will require sustained visitor numbers to bring Belfast back to pre-downturn levels of profitability.”

Everyone involved in hotel businesses in Belfast must hope that the current disturbances can be ended as soon as possible so that the performance of the beginning of December proves to be a blip and the whole sector can regain the positive momentum created in 2012 to ensure an even more successful 2013.