This summer might be one of the busiest on record for Belfast’s 5-Star Fitzwilliam Hotel, but the man in charge of running the luxury city centre hotel remains pragmatic about what the future holds beyond that.
Record visitor numbers from the Republic of Ireland have seen the Fitzwilliam Hotel fully booked since reopening its doors at the end of May and that looks set to continue through to the end of September, but General Manager Cian Landers believes the road to recovery has only just begun.
“We’ve had a fantastic summer and we really appreciate the tremendous support we’ve received from our local leisure market both at home and ROI,” said Landers, “but if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s to take nothing for granted and to expect the unexpected. So let’s just say that I’m cautiously optimistic about the future, but we certainly won’t be resting on our laurels.”
Amongst the biggest positives this summer is a huge surge in bookings from the important Republic of Ireland market. ROI visitor numbers have more than trebled from what they were pre-Covid, with 55% of all summer bookings now coming from south of the border, ahead of GB and Northern Ireland bookings.
Cian Landers believes this bodes very well for the future. “As our neighbouring market, the Republic of Ireland has always been a tough nut to crack and despite steadily increasing visitor numbers in recent years, there is still huge potential for growth due to the fact that many ROI residents still have never made the trip north,” said Cian.
“What the pandemic has given Northern Ireland is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to now attract visitors from the Republic, who really have nowhere else to go, show them what we have to offer and give them plenty of reasons to come back again.
“We can see this in our own bookings, which now show the Republic of Ireland to be the hotel’s biggest market, ahead of NI and GB guests. Pre-Covid, that would have been totally reversed with ROI visitor numbers languishing behind GB, the USA and NI.
“Our booking patterns also show that the age profile of our guests is now younger and that guests are staying longer, with more two and three-night ‘staycations’ than one-night breaks. Guests are also requesting upgraded room types for additional space and privacy, and our Penthouse Suite in particular has been popular as it’s so unique and offers exceptional luxury and privacy.
“We’re also experienced record turnover in the bar and all of our food and beverage outlets are busier than ever. This is all great news and bodes tremendously well for the future,” he added.
Despite the positives that summer has brought, the future is still hard to predict, as Landers explains. “Bookings are now very much last minute, compared to what they were before,” continued Cian, “so we can only see so far into the future in that respect – despite a lot of enquiries coming in for Christmas and next summer.
“Add to this the fact that we don’t really know what Covid-19 may yet have in store, and I believe there are still too many factors outside of our control to enable us to predict the future with any great degree of confidence.
“So while we’re delighted with how summer has gone, we know we need to keep investing in technology and innovation, and working hard to attract visitors and further build capacity.
“We are currently operating at approximately 70% of our full capacity due to a number of reasons, including social distancing restrictions and other health and safety regulations. We aim to gradually increase this but in a very careful and responsible manner, without compromising on the 5-star service that our customers expect.”
Getting back to full capacity is very important to The Fitzwilliam as it looks forward to welcoming the return of the corporate and international markets in the hopefully not-too-distant future.
Business visitors currently represent just 10% of all bookings at the hotel, which along with its sister hotel in Dublin was awarded Business Hotel of the Year by leading hospitality writer Georgina Campbell in 2017. Before the pandemic, the corporate and groups markets represented 40% of the Fitzwilliam’s business so Cian Landers is hoping to see that segment grow significantly by the end of the year.
Landers is also keeping a close eye on developments regarding international travel – in particular the USA, the hotel’s biggest international market, and the growing markets of China, Canada and Australia.
“We are so grateful to all our domestic leisure customers who have come back to support us since we re-opened our doors,” said Cian. “They’ve been our life-blood this summer – accounting for 90% of all bookings – but it is very important that we get our corporate and international guests back as soon as possible.
“Right now, the corporate market is a fraction of what is used to be and we are hoping to see some return late 2021 and more so in 2022. We have noticed business customers slowly returning as people gradually return to their offices and start meeting face to face again.
“International travel, and in particular the North American market, is very important to us but whilst restrictions are in place, we don’t see this returning in any meaningful way until 2022,” he added.
“We’re happy to see customers from the USA, our biggest international market, starting to come back also – and we welcome the continued opening of travel from the EU which will really help the process. China, Canada and Australia were all growing markets for us pre-pandemic so hopefully we can pick up where we left off and regain that momentum.”
Cian was full of praise for local tourism bodies such as the Northern Ireland Hotel Federation (NIHF) and Tourism Northern Ireland.
“It has been a very challenging time for the hospitality industry,” he said, “but I think that Janice Gault and the team at the NI Hotel Federation have been brilliant in terms of keeping us updated on all things Covid, administering advertising and marketing promotions – and, importantly, helping secure much need financial support from the NI executive. Tourism NI also deserve great credit for their continued excellent work in promoting Belfast and the wider region during these difficult times.
“We all work in hospitality because we love people, we love welcoming guests and taking care of them – so, whilst it may take some time for our industry to fully recover, it feels amazing to be back doing what we do best this summer and hopefully beyond that,” concluded Mr Landers.