15 JANUARY 2003
On Saturday InterContinental Malta will become the latest entrant into Maltas five-star hotel sector. As Maltas largest hotel in the sector, the InterContinental Malta will be applying a great deal of focus on conference and incentive tourism, an area in which Director of Sales and Marketing Rolf Hebbel tells David Lindsay the hotel is not necessarily competing with other local hotels but with other Mediterranean destinations
For reasons all too obvious, large hotel chains have been no strangers to Malta and next Saturday will see the InterContinental brand, under the umbrella of the enormous Six Continents Hotels, become the newest participant in the countrys group of upper crust hotels.
With 451 guestrooms, 18 conference rooms spread out over 2,700 square metres of floor space and 4,000 square metres of surrounding gardens, the InterContinental Malta, owned by the Eden Leisure Group and run by world-renowned InterContinental Hotels and Resorts Hotel, will become the countys largest five-star hotel.
Entering the hotel last week, I found a hive of activity within as workers busied themselves with the final touches to the expansive building and its contemporary design, which Director of Sales and Marketing Rolf Hebbel explains, reflects the diversity of the brand across the globe and which ranges from the classic Grand Hotel style to the modern and to the contemporary, such as the InterContinental Malta.
US design firm Di Leonardo - which has designed other luxury hotels - were specifically chosen by the owning company for the InterContinental Malta project.
And the designers vision has been brought to life, despite the inherent difficulties of laying out a hotel of such proportions which could easily have taken on the dynamics of one immense block-like structure.
To combat this difficulty, the designers favoured the use of light wood and bright colours, while also implementing a number of special structures such as those that allow natural light to penetrate through all six levels of the hotel throughout the day.
The lighting effects and features such as the three bridges you see when entering the reception and which lead to different areas of the hotel convey a sense of openness integrated with a certain cosiness.
Once open, the InterContinental Malta expects to intensively target the conference and incentive market. Its base business will be derived from the tour operating business, which, like every other local hotel of its calibre, is expected to stem from Maltas main feeder markets - Germany, the UK, Italy and France.
However, the conference and incentive market represents the real opportunity for the hotel. Hebbel explains, "If you look at the conference market for example, you see that Malta is competing with other Mediterranean destinations such as Cyprus, Crete, Tunisia, Italy and Turkey.
"With 18 conference rooms, we can accommodate the needs of 750 people and thats a type of business that we really need to attract because we know that we would not be able to survive on the business coming into Malta alone. We need to explore new areas and niche markets and the facilities we have provide us with the ideal tool to do just that."
Hebbel cites an upcoming medical conference the hotel has secured the largest medical conferences to be hosted in Malta, as the type of large event the hotel is looking to attract, besides smaller meetings that the hotel is geared for.
"We are also looking closely at other countries that havent yet been explored to a large extent such as Spain and China, which are both emerging markets to us.
"In addition to the main feeder markets, we also see a lot of potential from Austria, with five new flights coming in from there as of April.
"There are a lot of niche markets to investigate but of course we will establish ourselves for being well-known in the leisure market."
InterContinental Malta will initially be employing 250 employees, but Hebbel explains the number will rise in April in time for high season.
"The majority of the employees are Maltese, together with a select amount of ex-patriots coming from various InterContinental hotels around the world, who are implementing the standards and procedures expected from the chain. We have also recruited a number of people from outside the hotel industry. This gives us an input of fresh blood and ideas, which has also been great. "We have provided a great deal of training for the employees, majority of whom have been employed here over the last two months.
"We have invested a lot of time and effort into training starting with the company philosophy, the different programmes we have for our clients such as the Priority Club and Six Continents Club loyalty programmes and the Meeting Place for conference organisers. As such there is a lot to bring to the table that all our staff need to be well versed in ensuring that we InterContinental Malta meets and exceeds our clients expectations.
"A good percentage of our clientele, some 10 per cent, are repeat customers, so we will have customers who have had the InterContinental experience in other countries and we need to ensure they have the same experience here.
"There are a lot of people following where you open a new hotel. If clients have had successful conferences in Shanghai and Frankfurt, for example, they have been happy with what they have been getting from the brand and they are looking for a new venue - they would then consider Malta.
"This is additional business we are garnering, but we will have to meet their expectations in terms of quality and service and deliver those expectations and beyond."
Being a new establishment and with global tourism in its initial stages of recovery, Hebbel is optimistic for the future. He explains, "Indications are extremely encouraging, where business is picking up consistently with our forecasts, which augurs well for the brand InterContinental Hotels & Resorts coming to Malta.
We are opening in a period which is in its recovery stages, with general forecasts to Malta being very positive, seeing upturns in most primary source markets. Business is also picking up over the summer season, which includes a concrete amount of conferences coming in.
"It is our first year, where we want to ensure that as much as possible, we reap all the benefits in securing business for the hotel through the brans, together with the Malta Tourism Authoritys global marketing campaign. "In terms of marketing, we have had great support from the Malta Tourism Authority offices in all our main feeder markets.
"Servicing the local community is also paramount to us and when we first open there will be two bars and two restaurants open to the public, including the Eastern Breeze restaurant, which is already open. In the summer, Narcis, our outdoor restaurant opens up. So there is a lot to offer to the local community in terms of dining, having a drink and also by way of hosting local events.
I ask Mr Hebbel how he would gauge the way in which Malta is promoting itself as a tourist destination.
He comments, "I believe Malta has positioned itself very well over the last couple years and that if it continues in what it is doing, we are on the right track in reaching our desired target as a destination.
"At the moment, if I look at the figures, every other country or city has recently suffered more from the slump in tourism than Malta has, so the country is obviously doing something right. Its just a matter of continuing to ensure that the infrastructure matches the number of people coming to the Islands on a yearly basis, which is what is happening now.
"As a hotel geared for conference, we do not see ourselves necessarily competing with other local hotels, but instead with other destinations such as Crete, Barcelona, Prague, Tunisia and Morocco. There is a great deal of international competition so Maltas innate benefits and advantages have to be concentrated on and must be preserved."
The question has become something of a cliché by now, but I cant resist asking Mr Hebbel how he views the international tourism scenario finding an even keel after 11 September 2001.
"Its difficult to project," Hebbel explains, "but at the moment what you see are a couple trends developing in the tourism industry such as the fact that we already had short lead times and they are getting even shorter now.
"Decision-making processes are in many cases getting longer, people are thinking more carefully about where and how they are spending their money. Expectations are very high and I think its delivering what you promise that will be the differentiating factor.
"We all need to re-examine our services and keep asking ourselves whether we are on the cutting edge in what are we delivering because there is business to be had out there but it is being more carefully chosen.
"It is getting more difficult to predict what will happen, peoples travel habits are changing and the industry as a whole has become more sensitive.
"Recovery is in process now, and there is always a great need for conferences and meetings. Especially when considering the fact that the economies in certain countries are suffering and need to be stimulated. Many companies are doing that by stimulating their sales people, their distribution networks and their high-end operations through conferences and incentives. They are cutting back a bit but they are also investing to ensure there is a boost. They are looking carefully at what they are getting for their money and evaluating heavily between destinations.
"A very big plus for Malta is that it has the image of being a safe destination, of being easily reachable with daily connections from most European countries and of having a friendly population. Im sure that this image of Malta will help us greatly in selling our product."