After a comprehensive and enthralling opening day, the accommodation industry leadership fraternity gathered once again in the William Magarey Room at Adelaide Oval for the second and final day of AHICE 2021.
Fresh from last night’s welcome drinks and an audience with South Australia Premier, Steven Marshall, delegates embraced the government endorsement and gratitude for the success of the conference in filling the city’s hotel rooms. Adelaide was abuzz and the second day of AHICE held plenty of promise for a palette of varied opinions. The second day was hosted once again by Adelaide media personality, Jess Adamson.
The day began with a breakfast masterclass hosted by Blue Mountains International Hotel Management School, which featured a panel discussion on how the sector will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. Sponsored by Baker McKenzie, the panel was moderated by Partner, Dora Stilianos and featured fellow Partner, Graeme Dixon; IHG Vice President Development Australasia, Abhijay Sandilya; Axsia MD, David Simpson and Omni Bridgeway Investment Manager, Leanne Meyer.
The first panel session of the second day featured the second instalment of ‘What Owners Want’, which delivered some captivating views yesterday. Compered once again by KCom’s Howard Kemball, the panel featured some high-profile developers, asset managers and industry advisors.
Mirvac Hotel Investment and Operations Analyst, Deborah Keller, said there were a number of projects coming together which are shaping the next 12-18 months as highly positive for the company.
James Wilkinson returned to the stage thereafter for the first Hotelier Q&A of the day, kicking things off with Choice Hotels Asia-Pac CEO, Trent Fraser. The interview looked at the company’s recent growth and the expansion of Fraser’s role to include wider parts of Asia.
“We recognise going forward that we need to add some elements to our armory,” Fraser said.
“When I look at the numbers, our hotels have performed better in Q1 2021 than in Q1 2021. If you talk to our regional operators, the last few months are getting towards some of the best months they’ve ever had.”
The second session was conducted with Lancemore Group CEO, Julian Clark. The room was still abuzz following Clark’s announcement yesterday in his dual-role as Accommodation Association Chairman, where he detailed the progress of the unification between Australia’s two leading hotel associations.
With his Lancemore hat now on, Clark spoke about the brand’s recent growth, with the expansion of the Lancemore brand in Melbourne and Brisbane city regions. The company has also recently expanded with the acquisition of Cleveland Winery in the Macedon Ranges.
“I think boutique hotels are all about soul and all about experience,” he said.
The focus then shifted across the Tasman to New Zealand, with the first live cross of the day. New Zealand’s newest association, the Hotel Council Aotearoa, had its first opportunity to address the AHICE delegation, led by its Strategic Director, James Doolan.
Speaking from a hotel in Christchurch, Doolan said the country was anticipating a strong return of Australian leisure business from the travel bubble, especially ski season visitors to Queenstown, but that issues regarding bed taxes were not going away.
“I can’t report that the bed tax argument is over here in New Zealand, which is amazing. What we have is a tourism funding problem. Tourists pay more tax than residents do, but none of that funding is making it to the local councils. It’s not good and not the right approach.”
“New Zealand is putting itself in a difficult competitive position,” Doolan added.
After a successful week in Adelaide, the next guest on stage was South Australian Tourism Commission CEO, Rodney Harrex, who was more than pleased to extend the invite to come back often. The success of its ‘Great State’ voucher system proved to be a vital stimulus which saw the state’s accommodation sector recover nearly to pre-COVID levels in less than a year.
“From my conversations with hotel operators, they’re seeing more suits in their hotels, as they describe it. The voucher program was designed to get that going. The majority of vouchers were targeted for the city.
“We’ve just announced Round 4 of our voucher program, which will be targeting mid-week occupancy from Monday to Thursday,” Harrex said.
The next panel discussion then hit the stage, hosted by Hospitality Services Australasia MD, Rodger Powell, with the focus being Regional Tourism and the success levels many areas have been enjoying as Australians hit the road and explore areas outside the city.
“The strength in the regions for us is just immense,” said Quest Apartment Hotels GM Growth, James Shields.
“There are areas in the NSW Riverina which are performing extremely strongly for us.”
“Regional Australia is doing incredibly well,” said Marriott International Area VP, Sean Hunt.
James Wilkinson then returned to the stage for the next Hotelier Q&A, this time with Minor Hotels Chief Operating Officer Australia, Craig Hooley. After a number of recent signings involving NH Hotels and NH Collection, Hooley was eager to continue the momentum and expressed his desire to see more brands enter our shores and for existing ones to grow.
“Our next goal is to get critical mass of NH here. It’s the fourth-fastest growing brand in value in the world at the moment. It’s really accelerating quite fast,” Hooley said.
Following morning tea, Dransfield Hotels and Resorts MD, Dean Dransfield, hosted the next panel looking at the Real Estate Investment Outlook with some of the leading commercial real estate analysts and asset managers. The key focus for the panel was all about securing capital and the tactics employed by smart and well informed investors which help them get ahead of the curve.
“In the cities, we’re saying to buyers that it isn’t great right now but it will come back. In regional areas, we’re saying it’s fantastic now,” said Gus Moors from Colliers International.
The next international guest was beamed in live from Vancouver, with James Wilkinson returning to the stage for a development chat with Martin Rinck, Hilton’s former Chief Brand Officer. Newly retired, Martin took delegates through a highly distinguished career which saw him live in 15 different cities over three continents during his career. Most recently, Martin played a chief role in the revamp of Hilton’s luxury brands, including Waldorf Astoria and Conrad.
“Launching new brands in new markets is an incredibly exciting part of the job, but there’s a lot more to it than just that,” he said.
“I love developing new brands, creating new concepts and rejuvenating new markets.”
An Investor Q&A was the focus for the next session, as Wilkinson welcomed Intrust Super CEO Brendan O’Farrell to the stage. O’Farrell referenced the importance of a strong brand and confidence among investors and members as vital to the success of a superannuation fund, particularly in a time of market consolidation.
“Where you put your money these days is hugely important. Australia represents only 2-3% of the global financial investment landscape, so there’s another 97% out there. We will always look for the best possible outcomes for our members,” O’Farrell said.
Economy, Midscale and Upscale brands were then put under the spotlight via a new panel discussion hosted by Hotellerie Director, Sonia Lefevre. United in their assessment of the last year being less than optimal, the group discussed the recovery of their respective midscale brand portfolios.
“There has been some talk around increasing the value offering in our hotels and we’re in advanced discussions on a number of these which we hope to be announcing soon,” said TFE Hotels Development Manager, John Sutcliffe.
“One thing we’ve been focused on is reducing the cost of ownership for our partners, and one of the ways we’ve been doing that is introducing things like housekeeping on demand,” added Choice Hotels Asia-Pac Director of Investments, Cameron Burke.
Wyndham Destinations was then invited to the stage, with James Wilkinson conducting the next Investor Q&A with the company’s President and Managing Director of International Operations, Barry Robinson. Having recently broken ground in the Adelaide suburb of Playford and signing the debut of the Wyndham Grand brand in Australia, Robinson said things were looking up in a big way for the company and all of its divisions.
“Wyndham Grand will be an iconic building and something that will lift South Australia to another level,” Robinson said.
“We took the opportunity during the pandemic to accelerate our refurbishments. We bought in Airlie Beach which is going through a $24 million renovation,” Robinson said.
Another international live session was the next agenda item, this time as James Wilkinson interviewed Hilton’s Asia-Pacific President, Alan Watts. Beamed in live from Singapore, Watts said he was excited about the potential for the luxury brand segment and its future in Australia.
“It’s the brand that has been around for 102 years. You get excited with your lifestyle brand and your focus-service brands, but one of the principles of the business is not always to be chasing growth.”
Wilkinson then vacated the stage in favour of IHG Managing Director Australasia, Leanne Harwood, who hosted Part 3 of the CEO Sessions. Harwood’s target was Virgin Australia CEO, Jayne Hrdlicka, one of Australia’s most accomplished aviation executives.
Hrdlicka said she was proud to see Virgin Australia steadily climbing back to pre-COVID levels, with new aircraft joining the fray, lounges reopening and passengers eagerly getting back onboard.
“Our people are so passionate about what they do every single day and they do everything they can to make sure your journey is a special one. It’s my job to set them up to make sure they’re successful at doing that,” Hrdlicka said.
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast every day of the week, and probably lunch and dinner too.”
“I can only see positive times ahead,” Hrdlicka added.
The AHICE crowd were then offered an insight into Design Inn, which took place earlier this week at EOS by SkyCity, in the form of the next panel discussion. Scott Carver Director, Angela Biddle, took to the stage to discuss design and building trends with leading interior designers and construction experts.
The panel looked at how designers and hotel brands are asking for their properties to focus on appealing to locals as much as travelling guests.
“Designers really need to be sticking to brand standards but there is scope to challenge it. Some brands are more likely than others to be challenged. Voco is a brand that can cope well with different locations,” said Dalman Architecture Managing Director, Richard Dalman.
“We always challenge and push the brief as good designers should. We’ll push it and find ways to polish it and add layers, keeping in mind who the end user is. If you don’t respect the brand, you’ll end up going against who is employing you,” added Chada’s Partner and Director, Rick Whalley.
After the group broke for lunch, proceedings resumed with a panel discussion looking at the investment outlook as it relates to owners, which was conducted by CBRE Hotels Managing Director, Michael Simpson.
A key focus point for the panel was the challenges on moving ahead on acquisitions and struggling to convince banks and lenders to think longer-term on their investments, beyond the pandemic, as markets will rebound.
“Lots of international banks are still keen and they’re offering on longer tenures, so they’re still eager to do finance,” said Mulpha Australia GM Hotel Investments, Lucia Grambalova.
James Wilkinson was back on stage for the next session, sitting down with Doma Group CEO, Jure Domazet for the next Investor Q&A.
Having recently opened Little National Sydney – the brand’s second location along with Canberra – Domazet said Sydney was always going to work despite the pandemic, largely due to the plethora of F&B facilities nearby and the “walkability” of the city.
“Little National is staff light and the property does a lot of the heavy lifting,” he said.
Wilkinson then crossed to Shanghai, where Wyndham Hotels and Resorts Asia-Pacific President, Joon Aun Ooi, was patiently waiting. Joon was in a very happy mood, celebrating the company recently reaching the signing of its 1,500th property in Asia-Pacific.
“We are very confident on the growth trajectory that we have set for ourselves,” Joon said.
“Our plan is to double our presence in Australia and New Zealand in the next few years,” he added.
The AHICE radar then switched its focus to hotel technology, with the enigmatic ‘Godfather of technology’ Ted Horner taking charge of a panel discussion on the subject.
A key point raised by the panel focused on whether hotels should adopt automated systems to check in and out of hotels with a view to eventually doing away entirely with a counter manned by a human team member. The panel was unanimous in the belief that it was key to cater to each individual and that not every guest would instinctively gravitate towards automated systems. Retaining the human touch was an essential part of the guest experience.
After the afternoon break, the room filled once again for the final stretch of on stage sessions. James Wilkinson was back on stage with Veriu Hotels Director, Alex Thorpe, to go through the brand’s pre-pandemic signings and long-stay clientele.
“We’ll have two openings this year at Punt Hill and Caroline Springs. Essendon North will follow soon after. We’re going well and trying to fill the pipeline more. We’re feeling the market is coming back and what we’re doing is highly durable,” Thorpe said.
“Our corporates are starting to travel again,” he added.
The afternoon keynote session saw the focus shift entirely, with recently-appointed NSW 24-hour Economy Commissioner, Michael Rodrigues, addressing delegates and outlining his plans to breathe new life into how people socialise after dark.
“How do we bring to life venues which have for the past several years sat dormant for half of the day,” Rodrigues said.
Rodrigues remained on stage as the host of the next session, which was a panel discussion on hotel food and beverage, featuring head chefs, F&B Management and marketing leaders at hotels with strong F&B offerings. The menu of talking points included the challenges associated with adapting to the pandemic and the patronage downturn. The wine industry was also deeply affected.
“We focused on where we could make a difference by partnering with our closest trading partners and the online wine business exploded with people ordering from home,” said HaselGrove Wines CEO, Christoph Forel.
Next Story Group CEO, Darren Edmonstone, was then put under the spotlight in the next Hotelier Q&A with James Wilkinson. Beamed in live from the Thai holiday hotspot of Phuket which continues to sit virtually dormant, Edmonstone said the reaction to Next Hotel Melbourne among both locals and visitors has been brilliant.
“The Next Melbourne is the new benchmark and it does reflect the brand going forward,” he said.
“We are in negotiations for a new Next in Australia, so there will be another one coming shortly.”
The final Hotelier Q&A for AHICE 2021 followed immediately thereafter, with Wilkinson remaining on stage to chat via live cross to Hyatt Asia-Pacific President, David Udell, beaming in from Hong Kong.
Udell spoke about the success seen in some of the company’s recent openings, including Park Hyatt in Auckland and Andaz Bali, which opened late last month.
“It’s exciting times for us in the lifestyle and luxury segment, which is really a hallmark of Hyatt,” Udell said.
The final panel discussion of AHICE 2021 presented one of the most exciting talking points, with the group looking at some of the new brands that have recently entered the Australasian market and those still to come.
Serving as Moderator, JLL Head of Investments Australasia, Peter Harper said that in his research, Australasia currently has 170 brands in play across its hotel inventory, challenging the panellists to convince him why the market needed more.
“There’s still a lot of opportunity to bring new brands to Australia,” said IHG Senior Manager Development, Jael Fischer.
“It’s really exciting to see new brands come to life,” she added.
With that, the curtain came down on AHICE for 2021. Earlier in the day, HM Magazine Editor, James Wilkinson, and the South Australian Tourism Commission CEO, Rodney Harrex, announced the conference and exhibition would return to Adelaide in 2022. We look forward to seeing you all returning to the City of Churches in 12 months’ time.
AHICE photography by Asher Milgate.