The Bigger Picture

Titanic Hotel is jewel in crown for Harcourt

Northern Ireland’s hotel landscape is undergoing a dramatic transformation and, if there’s one newcomer to the scene with the knowhow to thrive in a competitive environment, it’s Harcourt Developments. Clement Gaffney, group hotel operations manager, talks heritage and challenges with Emma Deighan

Titanic Hotel is jewel in crown for Harcourt

Titanic Hotel is jewel in crown for Harcourt

Titanic Hotel is jewel in crown for Harcourt

Clement Gaffney is pictured with Belfast Telegraph food critic Joris Minne at the Titanic Hotel Belfast

Titanic Hotel is jewel in crown for Harcourt

Titanic Hotel is jewel in crown for Harcourt

Clement Gaffney is proud of his group’s new addition to its portfolio, Titanic Hotel Belfast. For him it’s the jewel in the crown for Harcourt, given the group’s Liverpool Titanic Hotel is one of its best performers, attracting, in equal measure, business and leisure clientele; all on the back of the story of that fateful ship.

This time it’s different though. This £28m investment flaunts authenticity. It’s a museum experience if you like and is part of the true fabric of Belfast’s shipbuilding heritage.

The 119-room hotel at the former Harland and Wolff drawing rooms is thriving and Clement isn’t surprised.

“We are absolutely delighted with its performance,” he says. “Occupancy is over 80%, trading is strong midweek with conferences and not just local conferences but European and American events that are all booked on the heritage of that building.”

Clement adds that the ground floor ‘operation’ is successfully standing on its own two feet, drawing in locals and leisure guests and indeed non-residents.

“It’s incredible. In those offices, some 1,700 boats were designed and people want to experience that element of the building,” he says. “There’s a worldwide interest in it and history lovers from all over want to be part of it.”

Run by Pat Doherty, Harcourt Developments is the name behind the regeneration of Titanic Quarter, making the hotel the icing on the cake for one of the biggest property developers investing in the city.

Clement says it made commercial sense that the group built its third four star property there, especially because “all indicators pointed towards the success of the Titanic Hotel in Liverpool and the appetite for the story”.

Harcourt Developments has 10 hotels of varying classifications spanning the UK, Ireland, Channel Islands and Caribbean. It has a unique insight into operating in varying hospitality domains and each has its own challenges.

“We operate in many different countries and jurisdictions,” he says. “We have two five-star properties – Lough Eske in Donegal where a third of the guests are from the American and Canadian market and Carlisle Bay (Antigua) where business is a mix; 65% of guests there are from the UK , 25% are from the US and 10% are European and then you come into the four-star market, which is a very busy one. Collectively, year on year, there is growth for all our properties.”

And with Clement having a career in the sector that covers more than 20 years, he’s well placed to impart some wisdom to those who find themselves competing on a new, more challenging terrain here.

With recent statistics from PricewaterhouseCoopers showing that Belfast is in the UK’s top three major cities for occupancy and financial performance, with hotel room costs in the city, historically, among the lowest in the UK, there’s huge demand from tourists. But with the growth in the industry, comes fresh confrontation for hoteliers.

Things are about to become more competitive, notes the report. Decelerating economic growth, a potential slowdown of inbound tourism and a large increase in new hotel rooms could slow that growth next year.

And a number of developments could more than double the current number of rooms in the city, currently standing at 3,600. While not all 27 potential developments identified may ultimately be built, around 1,100 rooms are likely to come from five already well advanced, or built properties, including Titanic Hotel Belfast.

“Belfast as a city destination is continuing to mature and grow and we are very much playing our part in the bedroom stock,” says Clement. “The large conferences – they need a significant amount of bedrooms for a destination to be attractive. We need capacity and infrastructure, which is testament to the growth that we are experiencing.

“Accessibility is essential and we welcome the growth. From our perspective, and with any business, it helps if you have a niche. What sets your hotel apart from the rest is the story and how you operate it. In terms of keeping long-term jobs, we are proud of what has been accomplished already, obviously what we have in Belfast – the story and landmark is unique and this is going to be one of Europe’s international hotels.”

Looking at the trends in the sector and consumer demands, Clement says a desire for luxury, speed and technology is what’s driving the hotel industry forward.

“When speaking to guests, I see that luxury in a relaxed and speedy format with a strong technology offering, including wifi that offers the capacity to download a movie for example, is essential. They also want a flawless service with a warm, genuine welcome,” he says.

But there are challenges he continued, UK-wide, with the uncertainty of Brexit posing one of the biggest concerns for the industry.

“From our perspective, a challenge would be Brexit. We are working on it and working very closely with the hotels, in terms that we are ensuring we are offering our guests value for money and an impeccable service. We appreciate the value of the repeat guest and that’s something that we are very focused on. We are putting measures in place to offer guests that confidence.”

The Brexit effect on Harcourt’s Belfast property is very uncertain but recent figures relating to the Titanic area suggest that it may have something of a buffer in place.

With Titanic Belfast voted the world’s leading tourist attraction in 2016 and the weak pound enticing cross-border trade, giving the Quarter its busiest summer ever this year (a 22% rise on last year), things are looking very hopeful.

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