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Moving with the times

Chief executive of Andras House, Kem Akkari, says innovation is helping hotel group stay ahead

How long has Andras House been operating in Northern Ireland?

Since 1981 when the company was formed by Lord Diljit Rana, our chairman.

Do you have any plans for expansion?

As part of our development and expansion programme, we have just completed the refurbishment and upgrade of the Ramada Plaza, Shaw’s Bridge.

This is a luxury four star hotel and has included the Suburbia Bar and Lounge and the introduction of a new gourmet restaurant, The Green Room, which features locally sourced and seasonal food.

Ramada Plaza features a new executive lounge that offers private lounge/office access, a meeting area, light food and bar facilities.

It is part of our executive member and loyalty programme. We have also submitted plans for an additional 96 bedrooms.

The hotel sector in Northern Ireland has had a difficult period in recent years with a rising number of hotels contrasting with falling Great Britain and overseas tourist visitors, and a downturn in the conference market. How have these factors affected Andras House?

We are in a very competitive market and the cuts in the Northern Ireland budget will definitely affect our business, especially our conference/accommodation market.

Many companies are beginning to cut down on training/conference activities.

However, the mix of hotels that we operate, from budget to luxury hotels and the new self-catering Cordia Apartments on the Lisburn Road, positions us to weather the storm and to maintain our position as the largest hotel group operator in Belfast.

Any new initiatives to combatcurrent challenges?

We have developed loyalty programmes for individual guests and corporate clients and recently strengthened our sales and marketing force and their budget to drive our business forward.

Our pricing policies have been reviewed to increase our competitiveness. In addition, we are investing in staff training and skills development to ensure all our customers receive the best services possible. We are reviewing all aspects of the business, including food services, to ensure value for money.

In a competitive marketplace with plenty of choice for consumers, how do you win business?

By listening and acting quickly on what our customers tell us.

This enables us to provide better services, quality products and value for money. We believe that working with our customers is vital to our success. We also work closely with all our suppliers to ensure the quality products that we need for our customers.

Is the mid-market position occupied by some Andras House hotels a difficult place to be these days?

We have a mixed portfolio which enables to offer customers a wide range of accommodation options including self-catering apartments.

The budget hotel market is performing well and in some cases doing better than last year. I believe this trend will continue for next couple of years.

What are your occupancy rates for 2010 and how do these compare to 2009?

Our occupancy this year in budget hotels has been steady and in some hotels has improved.

It is a case of managing daily rates through yield management, being competitive and offering value for money.

Do you think the new domestic taxes due to be implemented at Heathrow in April will affect business travel into Belfast, and therefore Andras House business?

These will certainly have an impact. Anything that makes travel to Northern Ireland more expensive will impact the hospitality industry adversely.

Losing the Ryanair services from Belfast City Airport will also hit the local hospitality industry. However, the forthcoming cuts in the Northern Ireland budget and overall reduction in public spending will have a more serious impact.

What is the divide in your guests across the group between leisure and business travellers?

The business travel market recently started to pick up again. It’s a very important sector for us particularly our budget hotels in Belfast.

It tends to be a key market during the working week. It’s all about rates and value for money. Belfast is, once again, starting to attract overseas companies as a conference venue because of its competitive rates compared to the mainland and other destinations.

How do you compare to other hotels in your market?

We compete very strongly because of our mix of hotels and our focus on quality services and value for money. Of course it is an intensely competitive market but we are pleased with our group performance.

Our budget hotels are doing very well in the city and the Ramada Plaza is growing strongly because it offers the largest conference and banqueting facilities in Belfast.

Which of the hotels in Andras House is the most successful?

The Ramada Plaza at Shaw’s Bridge continues to perform impressively as a conference/convention/banqueting centre.

For example, over 5,000 people are booked for party nights and Christmas Day. We have a great chef in Graham Burns who has been with the company for over eight years and has built a great reputation for his quality food. The new Ibis Hotels at King Street and Queen’s Quarter, both opened earlier in the year, are performing well. Holiday Inn Express is doing good business after its refurbishment and upgrade of its facilities earlier in the year.

What feeling do you get for the health of Northern Ireland’s economy from working in hotels and what business travellers are saying?

The Northern Ireland economy is going through a tough time. The downturn in the construction sector has affected all businesses. The Budget cuts will definitely have a major impact over the next couple of years. Business travellers are concerned about the future but most recognise that the need to get out and to sell their products and services is greater now than ever before and the only way to survive.

Belfast Telegraph