Belfast Telegraph

Attracting more visitors is paramount for Northern Ireland expanding hotel market


Looking out across Belfast from one of the city’s newest hotels, the Grand Central
Looking out across Belfast from one of the city’s newest hotels, the Grand Central

By Janice Gault, NI Hotels Federation Chief Executive

Over the last year, I have written about and commented extensively on the growth that has been taking place in the hotel sector. In Belfast it was impossible to miss the expansion, given the number of cranes dominating the skyline.

Approximately £500m has been invested in the current expansion phase and around 1,000 jobs created. There are now 9,140 hotel rooms in Northern Ireland and in the coming year a further 500 rooms are set to come on stream. Belfast in particular has experienced significant growth with a 31% increase in rooms. However, it is anticipated that this market will slow in 2019.

The coming year will see further expansion in Derry-Londonderry and the Newry and Mourne region. There are also several planned developments for the north coast but these remain dependent on what has become a protracted planning process.

After a long hot summer, the reality of the new hotel landscape has become apparent. Recent figures have shown a stutter in the Belfast market, with occupancy and rate experiencing a downward turn. It is important to note that demand for hotel rooms has grown considerably over the last year but it hasn't kept pace with the increase in supply.

The opportunities of a well invested larger hotel sector are many, from improving the attractiveness of a destination, to enhancing the ability to attract bigger events and larger conferences. The local hotel sector has strong prospects. There is a good mix of international brands plus a number of unique Northern Ireland products. There's a room to suit any budget and the customer now has more choice than ever before.

Attracting more visitors is paramount. We need to increase the size of the tourism cake to ensure that each hotel gets a good slice of business. With three-and-a-half million rooms to sell in 2019, a step change in activity is required. Having spent in the region of £500m, the hotel sector is keen to see a return on this investment and a fulfilment of the industry's potential.

Initial forecasting for 2019 shows volatility in the market. Analysis shows a reduction in occupancy levels and a decline in rate. Demand is growing but this needs to be accelerated with a number of interventions including increased promotion, a bigger marketing budget and a proposition of scale for Northern Ireland along the lines of the Wild Atlantic way. Measures like this will allow the market to adapt to and absorb new supply. There has been a seismic change in the market - a response of equal measure is required to create new business.

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Belfast Telegraph