Belfast hotels must work hard to fill rooms in 2019

Visitor numbers to Belfast are still growing but not enough to meet the increase in hotel rooms a report claims
Visitor numbers to Belfast are still growing but not enough to meet the increase in hotel rooms a report claims

Belfast’s race to supply hotel rooms has led to a “stutter” in the market as 2018 draws to a close and a warning that 2019 could be a challenging year without a renewed push to market the city internationally.

After a period of substantial development that has seen a nuber of hotels built and extended, a conference hosted by the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation (NIHF) heard that around £500m had been invested creating around 1,000 jobs.

Across the province there are now more than 140 hotels and more than 9,000 bedrooms.

Belfast has seen a 31% increase in rooms and while demand continues to grow it has failed to keep up with the growth in supply.

“Market snapshots indicate a stormy 2019 with volatility in the market,” said NIHF chief executive Janice Gault.

“There has been a seismic change in the market and a response of equal measure is required to create new business.

“Demand is growing but this needs to be accelerated with a number of interventions including increased promotion, a bigger marketing budget and a proposition of scale for Northern Ireland along the lines of the Wild Atlantic Way.

“Attracting more visitors is paramount. We need to increase the size of the tourism cake to ensure that each hotel gets a good slice of business. With three and a half million rooms to sell in 2019, a step change in activity is required.”

Such measures would allow the market to adapt to and absorb new supply, she said, adding that recruitment, skills and Brexit also presented significant challenges for the industry.

“Added to this are the issues around tax, in particular VAT, access constraints and capacity at key attractions.

“You can see why the market is experiencing a shudder as we come to the end of an era of exceptional trading.”

More positively, Ms Gault said the development in the city had created a greater whole in terms of offer.

“The opportunities of a well invested larger hotel sector are many, from improving the attractiveness of a destination, to enhancing the ability to attract bigger events and larger conferences.

“There is a good mix of international brands plus a number of unique Northern Ireland products.”

Ms Gault was speaking at the launch of the Hotel Expansion and Forecast Report during the final day of the NIHF Hospitality Exchange 2018 looking at the industry across the province.

Outside Belfast, it says 2019 will see expansion in Londonderry and the Newry and Mourne region, with several planned developments for the North Coast dependent on what it said had become a protracted planning process.

Green shoots of growth are appearing in a number of other locations as many seek to make the most of an expanding tourism sector.