By Emma Gardiner
Over 750 industry heavyweights from around the globe converged on the Grand Hyatt Melbourne for the seventh annual AHICE conference. High-level conversations around investment, development, infrastructure and destination performance took place onstage in expert panels and Q&As.
Highlights included the indigenous tourism session with Andrew Williams from Voyages Indigenous Tourism stating that the group had finally reached critical mass with indigenous employment, with one-third of its employees coming from an indigenous background.
Simon McGrath said that across the Accor portfolio, indigenous employment and engagement with traditional owners had paid off, providing a distinct boost to the bottom lines of the hotels that had worked to implement these changes.
Clare Carroll from Indigenous Tourism Asset Management concluded the session, saying, “It’s not a CSR program any more. We have a responsibility to liberate the talents of indigenous people. Don’t invest in an area where you are not engaged with traditional owners.”
Julian Clark from AoAA discussed the need for more infrastructure to drive inbound tourism into the Australian market. He said, “Imagine what a Disney World or Guggenheim would do for our tourism industry.”
He said that hoteliers need to be actively involved in lobbying for more investment into tourism assets, saying, “Stand up and get involved or get out of the way”.
Dr Jerry Schwartz was, as ever, an openly controversial advocate for regional development. He confirmed that he will not be rebranding his Blue Mountains property to a actual Fairmont because of the investment required to meet the brand standards. When quizzed about a possible Docklands development, he said he is still interested and it was hinted that it could be branded a W Hotel.
In a one-on-one interview with Simon McGrath, James Wilkinson asked him to ‘fess up to the brands that are performing, effectively asking him to name a favourite child. He said that he is loving the rapid growth of the Pullman brand in Asia but that Novotel and Mercure were the darlings on the domestic front.
All panelists unilaterally agreed that Sydney is the hottest market for investment, and ICC Sydney’s Geoff Donaghy challenged the room to solve the problem of high room rates and block booking availability in the lead-up to the December opening of the new centre.
A social media panel told delegates that authenticity, consistency, quality content and targeting in terms of the right platform for the right audience would lead to social media success. Tony Gauci from Quest said his strategy was more heavily skewed towards Linkedin due to the 75 per cent corporate business that makes up the company’s revenue base. He also said that Quest use the data gleaned from TripAdvisor to coach franchisees on how to address key issues within their businesses and then track the results to find out whether the issue had diminished or disappeared following the action taken.
Robert Williams from Withers said that Aloft, Hyatt Place, Holiday Inn Express, Ritz-Carlton, Ozo and Trypp are all brands that are moving into the Australian market. He also said that ‘mixed-use is the new normal’, with this style of development looked upon favourably from a capital raising perspective.
A new developments panel told the audience that there is enormous potential for branded residences in Australia, following in the footsteps of the Asian model, and revealed plans for a Westin and a W that will open in Brisbane in Q1, 2018.
TFE CEO Rachel Argaman said, “AirBnb has opened up the market. TFE use them as a distribution channel”.
She added the caveat that corporate bookers are increasingly focusing on security and want CCTV in lifts and carparks so hotel-style properties have this advantage over normal residential listings on the site.
Her key message was simply that investors need to be managing distribution costs and AirBnb is a cheaper channel than the OTAs.
The main disruptor Argaman sees heading the industry’s way is meta-search engines offering direct sales. It started with Tripadvisor and will soon roll-out into platforms like Facebook.
Another highlight was the discussion around hot brands and ‘manchising’. Hilton spokesperson Rob Scullin said that Tru by Hilton had signed over 100 properties in the US since its launch three months ago.
There was some contention over what term ‘manchising’ really means. Is it a franchising agreement where a trained manager is seconded to the property or is it where management establishes the hotel and then hands it over to a franchisee? The panel was divided on this.
A tech panel rounded off the solid program of in-depth discussion. The speakers told the audience that 5G (faster than 4G) will be here by 2020 and that Vodafone will be delivering it. They also said that robust infrastructure is needed in hotels to support this upgrade and encouraged hoteliers to invest in this area.