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High hopes for hotels

Holidaying at home has helped Northern Ireland's hotels weather the economic storm, according to a new survey.

While hotel occupancy rates and profits are down, the average price of a room and sales have risen and expectations are high that events like the Titanic centenary and other events taking place in Northern Ireland over the next few years will provide a bigger boost in future.

Just last week the International Seed Federation World Seed Congress, which was held in Belfast, saw every hotel room in the city booked out for the first time in two years.

However the latest hotel industry review published by ASM Chartered Accountants showed that while Belfast hotels experienced an uplift, hotels in Londonderry reported sluggish trading conditions.

The survey said that resorts and spa hotels experienced a downturn in demand for bedrooms and other services, but room rates remained strong.

In May, the five star Lough Erne Hotel and Golf Resort in Co Fermanagh was put into administration, owing £25m to Bank of Scotland Ireland.

The report said that hotel bedroom occupancy during 2010 averaged 63.4%, a small decline on the 64.1% recorded in 2009.

The average rate per room sold was £64.83, a small rise on the £63.42 recorded the previous year.

Total sales per bedroom averaged £37,894 for the year, also marginally ahead of 2009, but higher operating costs diluted earnings, with profits averaging 16.8% of sales in 2010, as against 18.0% previously.

Michael Williamson, director of hotel, tourism and leisure consulting at ASM, said that the affects of the downturn may finally be bottoming out.

"The 2010 results, while far from groundbreaking, do suggest that the industry may be at, or very close to, its ultimate low point," he said.

"By and large, rural hotels performed better than hotels in our two major cities, although there are signs of recovery in the Belfast market.

"Demand from independent business travellers increased during 2010, but the conference and meeting market remains weak for all operators. Thankfully, the holiday at home market remained strong and this helped address shortfalls in demand from certain out of state markets.

"Short term confidence remains patchy, but the centenary of the launch of Titanic, Derry's success as UK City of Culture for 2013 and the opening of a number of high-profile and world class visitor attractions is expected to substantially boost visitor numbers."