Padraig Hoare: How many hotels does Cork really need?

Padraig Hoare: How many hotels does Cork really need?

Tower Holdings has recently been granted permission by the local authority to build a 35-storey skyscraper hotel tower on Custom House Quay. 

What a difference a year has made in Cork city centre's hotel real estate market.

The major question at the end of 2019 centred around whether Cork was in danger of having too much of a good thing, with hotel and hostel applications heading to Cork City Council's planning department seemingly every other month. 

Some 1,300 new hotel rooms were in the pipeline for Cork at various stages of development at the end of last year, cranes hoisted up at every turn, a message in the sky that the city was indeed on the rise. 

New builds included The Dean, to be operated by Press Up Entertainment Group, while Tower Holdings wants to build a 35-storey skyscraper hotel tower on Custom House Quay in 2020, recently being granted permission by the local authority to do so. 

Analysis by Fáilte Ireland at the end of 2019 indicated that 1,367 hotel bedrooms were in planning or under construction.

With almost 80 hotels and more than 4,700 rooms, the consensus was that burgeoning visitor numbers, up 25% since 2015, meant new hotels were needed, with room occupancy increasing from 75% in 2013 to over 80% in 2018.

How many new hotels were needed was the newest question, with some observers contemplating an over-saturation of the market if all applications were greenlit.

There are also hostels that have entered the equation, with the latest being given the go-ahead on the Grand Parade at the old tourist office.

However, approaching the end of 2020, the question is whether the not-too-long-ago virile industry, in danger of eating itself with too much development, has atrophied.

According to the Irish Hotels Federation (IHF), the industry is a major one for the region.

Chair of the Cork branch of the IHF, Fergal Harte, said: "Pre-Covid, the industry supported 25,300 jobs in Cork and contributed €895m to the local economy. Despite current challenges, it can and will recover but outlook suggests that it will take a number of years to reach 2019 levels again."

Aiden Murphy of business advisory firm Crowe Ireland is considered one of the foremost experts on the hotel industry in Europe, with his annual look at hotels in Ireland considered essential reading in the field.

There will be pain and suffering in the next three years as Cork's hotel industry seeks to reset, but there are also opportunities to be explored, he said.

"All things being equal, I think Cork will see another 1,000 rooms. They will manifest themselves in a market that probably in terms of demand is starting into 2021 at least 30% down, so it is not a good time to be opening a hotel in 2021 or 2022, when they are trying to claw back that collapse in demand, that 30% that has been lost through the lack of international visitors coming to Ireland. 

"That is going to be rebuilt from a very low base once people start to returning to international travel," he said.

Old reliables for hotels may not bring in the riches like before, Mr Murphy added.

"Cork would have had a lot of corporate demand. Corporate meetings would have been a big chunk of the business there, and corporates have been changed in terms of their habits, in terms of physically being at meetings to online meetings. 

The efficiency of the online meeting and the companies themselves and their mandates to their staff of health and safety first means there will be less corporate travel, less corporate meetings and less corporate physical training. 

"More and more of that will stay online. That will be a challenge in bringing that segment to the market."

Intense competition between hotels and new hotels coming into the market will see introductory offers to build their base and their business, so rates will come under pressure, he predicted.

"What we have seen in terms of rate for the Cork market is that it is probably down about 15%, but dropping room rates anymore than that is not going to stimulate any more demand. 

"They are probably stuck at a level where they are going to find it hard to increase those rates for the next 12 months. 

"An average room rate of about €100 for the Cork market is probably where it may sit for next year. Occupancy will be hit more than rate."

He said hotels will be treading water for a few years in Cork.

"The natural thing that will happen then is that some of the new projects that haven’t broken ground will get delayed and maybe deferred. 

"There will be reviews of those projects and people will want to deliver them later in the cycle, further along so that the recovery will take hold, so there will be a natural slowdown of supply coming in.

The former tourist office on the Grand Parade. Plans have been lodged for a new hostel with 48 rooms.
The former tourist office on the Grand Parade. Plans have been lodged for a new hostel with 48 rooms.

"That being said, it is going to be a very difficult two or three years for the existing hoteliers in the market, and for the new entrants to the market."

But from bitter lemons may come sweet lemonade for the Cork public, the environment and sustainability, with some would-be hoteliers looking to pivot from original plans, according to Mr Murphy.

"It may be an opportunity for the green agenda. Creating more sustainable and intense communities in the heart of cities is the order right across Europe. Could we see some of these sites being converted to residential? I think the answer is yes.

"This whole movement of suburbs springing up around cities will be curtailed in some ways, and there will be a move to bring people back into the cities, into higher quality and more upmarket developments in the city centre. Some of these hotel sites could definitely lend themselves to that.

"Cork as a city has big potential for such amenities. The disservice done in the past, like the urban renewal across many of our cities, encouraged lower quality build and less amenities as part of the builds. 

"The focus now will be more on where people want to live than just providing rental accommodation."

Hostels can also be a boon for city centres, he said — bringing visitors to enhance Cork's estimable arts and culture scene.

"A very high proportion of the hotel room stock in Cork city would be four-star, fully serviced high-end hotels, and therefore in normal times tend to be more expensive than some of the tourists that might come would like. 

There is therefore a gap in the market for more affordable and more budget accommodation, that might suit families, or groups, or foreign students.

"Why a certain part of the market would prefer hostels to hotels, is that the ground floor of hostels encourages greater interaction and communication between guests, who are sharing information on what they are seeing locally, because it is set up as more of a communal space than a traditional hotel foyer. 

"The younger traveller, in terms of a choice, will see the difference between the two and choose a hostel."

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