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Looking to a new reality

January 31st, 2018 | by LCN Editor
Looking to a new reality
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Rajesh Rana has plenty to keep him occupied in 2018 with refurbishment of existing properties and new build projects both ongoing. His biggest concern, however, remains the mounting crisis in hospitality recruitment.

In 2018, the focus for Rajesh Rana will be the continued, extensive refurbishment and expansion of the Andras House chain of hotel properties.

Established in 1981 by Lord Diljit Rana to pursue hospitality and retail development, the group opened its first hotel – the 82-bedroom Plaza hotel– a decade later.

Today, the Ranas oversee a formidable portfolio of branded hotels in Belfast, ranging from Ibis budget hotels in the heart of Belfast to the four-star Holiday Inn Belfast City Centre.

The former Ramada Plaza hotel re-branded as the Crowne Plaza in 2017 following a £600,000 upgrade to the Shaw’s Bridge venue – and the focus will remain on that hotel this year when work gets underway to refurbish its 120 bedrooms and add 33 more.

That project represents a £5.5m investment for the group, but speaking to LCN in January this year, Rajesh Rana said that decision to re-brand had provided just the boon that the property needed:

“The move to Crowne Plaza has certainly had an impact,” he confirmed. “It’s a stronger name and that drives room occupancy and room rate and Crowne Plaza as a brand is very big in the meetings and conferences market.

“Occupancy at the Crowne Plaza in Belfast has stayed pretty steady, but the room rate has gone up by about 15 per cent over the last year. The business is stronger, we have more people coming into the hotel, especially for business, and that’s very positive for us.”

Rajesh is also looking forward to May this year when the group’s latest hotel project – Hampton by Hilton – is set to open at Hope Street in Belfast. The 179-bedroom venue represents the group’s first collaboration with the US-based brand.

Also in May this year, Andras hopes to complete a major expansion at its Holiday Inn Express site in Queen’s Quarter where an additional 57 bedrooms are currently being added.

This is also the year when Andras is likely to take its first solid steps towards development of its portfolio outside Belfast. Work is scheduled to start in 2018 on a new 85-bedroom unbranded hotel at the site of the former Londonderry hotel in Portrush.

There is still no timeline, however, for the proposed development of a 139-bedroom hotel at the site of the former Tillie & Henderson shirt factory in Derry-Londonderry. Andras acquired that extensive property right back in 1999 and the original factory building had to be demolished in 2003 following a fire. Plans for the site also include retail units, residential accommodation and car parking facilities.

Andras House hopes to see work on its new Hampton by Hilton property in Belfast finish in May this year.

With Andras Hotels already heavily invested in the headlong race to drive up hotel bed stock in Belfast over the next two years, Rajesh has no qualms about over-supply:

“I’m not unduly concerned about the growth,” he said. “This is going to help drive down the peaks in demand that occur in the city when it’s exceptionally busy and that’s good for Belfast overall. There have been times when people weren’t able to get rooms in the city and that’s not food for the industry.”

He did concede, however, that when the proposed new hotels begin to open, it could hurt venues in more out-lying areas that have been used to coping with the overflow from the capital.

And he said that while room and occupancy rates might be “dampened” for at least 12 months after the new stock starts to come online, growth in visitor numbers was likely to continue.

Where the Andras managing director does see some significant cause for concern, however, is in the area of hospitality skills provision. Like most of his colleagues in the sector, Rajesh believes that the current escalating crisis in the availability of skilled labour is the biggest challenge facing the industry in 2018:

“This isn’t about competition for customers, it’s about competition for staff and it affects all hotels,” he said.

“Like a lot of hotels, we’re being proactive and have started our own Andras Academy, which looks at all skills levels from new starts to our development programme for graduates and students and senior development. That will be getting properly underway in 2018 and we are working with Belfast City Council who already have programmes in place to bring people into employment. We’ll also be bringing in some outside trainers and expanding our training programme for graduates which started last year.”

And he added:

“I think it will work out OK. There are a lot of people out there looking for work and post-Brexit, we will just have to work harder to attract people into this industry, that’s really the new reality.”

Going into 2018, Rajesh said that Andras House would be focused on completing its ongoing refurbishment and new-build projects. Staff development would also be a priority, he said, and he added:

“In five years’ time, we would hope to have built out the sites that we have outside Belfast and by that time, there may be further opportunities available in the city.

“It’s going to be a matter of working with the brands that we have, consolidating and getting the most out of each of our hotels to make sure that they are as successful as they can be.”

Work should begin on a new development at the site of the former Londonderry hotel in Portrush later this year. Andras acquired the central site around 15 years ago.

 

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