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Easy does it for David

March 29th, 2017 | by LCN Editor
Easy does it for David
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David Crowe’s new EasyHotel won’t open in Belfast for another year, but already, the veteran property developer is laying plans for a second of the budget venues in another part of the city. He’s been talking to Russell Campbell…

David Crowe (58), is the property developer behind exciting plans for Northern Ireland’s first EasyHotel, which is set to open in a prime city centre location in February next year.

The £3m investment – approved just this month by Belfast City Council – will see the 81-bedroom budget hotel open its doors at the Howard Building on Howard Street at the rear of the City Hall.

Dating back to around 1820, the bottom floor of the four-store structure is almost entirely occupied by Michael Deane’s well-known restaurants.

The three floors above, however, are now set to be transformed into NI’s first EasyHotel. The brand, which operates in the ‘super budget’ sector of the market, aims to offer travellers exceptional value in city centre locations by focusing on a back-to-basics formula that eschews frills and non-essential services in favour of cleanliness and comfort at a very competitive price.

David himself might be familiar to some readers as the founder of the local toy retailing chain, Leisureworld, which grew to dominate the toy market locally throughout the late seventies and eighties after the first of three outlets opened in Belfast in 1976.

The family has its roots in the hospitality trade, however. For many years, David’s late father, John, operated Romano’s, a dance hall at Queen Street in Belfast and Milano’s on the seafront in Bangor. But the Troubles and enduring difficulties with the application of licensing legislation led, inevitably, to the decline of the once-thriving dance hall era across Northern Ireland.

Leisureworld was the family’s first foray into retail and all told, the phenomenon lasted for 23 years before out-of-town retailing and the dawn of internet shopping forced the doors to close.

Undaunted, they moved on and opened Café Poirot in Fountain Street – a 90-seater French-style coffee shop with a self-playing piano. That venue traded for five years before the lease was taken on by Larry Delaney, owner of the former Larry’s Piano Bar.

A seven-year stint on the electrical import market followed, bringing in appliances for onward sale to local retailers such as Connect and Laser, before the arrival in Northern Ireland of the multiple supermarket retailers in the mid-90s forever changed the face of the market.

Throughout all of this, the family has always been involved in commercial and residential property development and after the demise of the import venture, that end of the business came much more to the fore for David.

EasyHotel aims to offer clean and comfortable rooms without any expensive extras.

Howard Buildings, where the new EasyHotel will be situated, was formerly a serviced office space, providing flexible leases to a variety of business ventures including hairdressers, artists and fashion designers. Demand for this type of space slumped, however, as tenants retrenched to their homes or cheaper, out-of-town accommodation in the wake of the property crash.

“There were still some people left in the building, but it was archaic by that stage and I realised that I had to do something with it,” David told LCN.

He considered various options, including a backpackers’ hostel and a boutique hotel, but was most enthused by a friend’s suggestion that he consider opening an EasyHotel. His initial approach to the company was unsuccessful – the chain was already considering a property in central Belfast – but when that fell through, they spoke again to David and invited him to London to meet chief executive, Guy Parsons.

During the visit, however, David and his son, Thomas, stayed at an EasyHotel and David was unimpressed with the quality that he found there:

“I met Guy Parsons the next day and I told him that EasyHotel just wasn’t for me,” recalled David. “I liked the concept but it wasn’t what I wanted for my place in Belfast.”

Parsons, however, showed David designs for a thorough revamp of the EasyHotel brand – the first of this new wave of outlets has just opened in Birmingham – and the pair subsequently came to an agreement for the development of the Belfast site.

“The style and focus of these hotels is now exactly what I want,” says David. “We don’t offer food or beverages and we don’t do weddings or functions. We have three very simple principles that we have to follow. We have to ensure that when you come to stay, you could bring your mother and she would say that the room was clean; we have to ensure that you have a quiet, enjoyable night’s sleep in a comfortable bed and we have to ensure that you arrive and leave with a smile on your face.”

EasyHotel rooms have a flat rate of £45 for night, but customers can obtain discounts of more than 50 per cent depending on how far in advance they book their room. Room rates will fluctuate based on the same algorithms used to calculate fares on EasyJet.

“It’s the simplicity of the whole thing that appeals to me,” adds David. “Look at how people travel nowadays. Everything is done on the internet. When my kids are going to stay somewhere, they want a place that’s clean and comfortable and value for money. Then they spend the money they save on food and entertainment…the times are changing.”

Birmingham’s EasyHotel opened a few weeks ago and is the first to reflect the brand’s revamped approach.

It had been intended that the new hotel would open its doors at Halloween this year, but it transpired that the building at Howard Street contained a considerable amount of asbestos and work is now ongoing to remove it. That has added £183,000 to the cost of the development and stalled its completion. Belfast’s new EasyHotel will now have a soft opening in January next year with its official launch on Valentine’s Day.

A coffee shop that offers a simple food menu and quality coffee served in paper cups will open on the ground floor of Howard Buildings at the same time.

“We are now working to a specification from EasyHotel that tells us the standards that we will have to meet but we are actually trying to supersede those,” reveals David. “We’re looking to put some Belfast humour into it with graphics on the corridor walls and we’re looking to maintain some of the original features of the building, the old brick walls will be exposed in places, for example.”

Work to redesign EasyHotel’s standard shower cubicles is also underway. With the brand’s help, David hopes to make the cubicles more cost-efficient and eco-friendly.

“I was asked by Guy Parsons if I would open in Dublin as well,” says David. “I said that absolutely I would, but that I needed to learn to crawl first. Dublin is a completely different area and we’d love to do it, but there’s room for another one in Belfast first.

“I already have a property in the Cathedral area and we are looking at that idea but that’s not going to come online until all the work around the student developments that is ongoing in that part of the city are completed.”

The new EasyHotel will be located on the floors above Deane’s restaurants in Howard Street.

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