Interview | Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Not all is doom and gloom at ‘Boogie Bar’

While many perceive this summer to mark the end of the formerly glorious bar and restaurant locality of Bugibba, Isabelle Debattista, who represents the association of the area’s bars and restaurants, is still sanguine. By David Darmanin.

Born into a family of catering operators in Buġibba, St Paul’s Bay Bars and Restaurants Association (SPBRA) Secretary Isabelle Debattista is unusually passionate about the industry, unlike many of her cohorts operating in the locality.
The boom and bust factor in Buġibba hit hard as, after the end of the glorious 1980s, success stories of catering establishments in the area started having sad endings in the face of increased competition, lower tourism numbers and, more recently, the bomb left by the numerous hotels in the vicinity which shut.
“Undoubtedly, residents have increased and so have tourists, but then so have our costs and competition,” says Debattista with a positive ring to her voice.
“There was a boom with UK tourists back in the 80s, but since we were just at the start, there were less operators and establishments were much more saturated. Remember also that Qawra did not exist back then, everything was here in Buġibba. Also, Malta is now targeting new markets for tourism.”
But this is not just why Buġibba and St Paul’s Bay establishments aren’t doing as well as they used to.
Whereas circumstances in the 1980s made it easier for operators at the lower end of the tourism market to operate, efforts now seem to focus more on the glorious St George’s Bay area, which hosts a cluster of five-star hotels surrounded by fine eateries and luxury retail outlets.
Debattista however, is not of the opinion that this situation has piloted Buġibba to the death row, but rather as an opportunity for stakeholders to unite and be creative on how to best revive the area, even at the cost of reinventing strategies.
“All of our committee members not only operate a bar or a restaurant in the area, but also hail from the different parts of the locality,” she said. “The interests of all our committee members are already represented within other bodies, but we felt the need of coming up with a lobby that is more focused. Besides, although we are all bar or restaurant owners, we push for a more holistic approach in order to regenerate the area – not just for caterers, but also for residents, all other businesses and ultimately tourists themselves.”
When this newspaper had once asked MHRA President Kevin De Cesare why there never seemed to be an effort for this local association to fall under their wing, he had said something on the lines of: “The SPBRA enjoys our full backing, while we also work together on the St Paul’s Bay joint tourism committee.”
When pushed to answer, De Cesare said: “I don’t know, I think you should ask them this question, not me.”
Fair enough, here is SPBRA’s answer:
“We enjoy the full backing and support of the MHRA, while we also form part of the St Paul’s Bay joint tourism committee – composed of MHRA, GRTU, the St Paul’s Bay Local Council the MTA and ourselves.” Sounds too familiar for comfort, so the question was re-asked: “Why are you not part of the MHRA?”
“Because we are of the opinion that by keeping a separate identity, people will relate to us more. We are here to act as a bridge between the resident and the business, focussing on local issues alone,” she said, convincingly. “In fact we have lobbied a lot for the area, when it came to garbage collection, general upkeep, embellishment and public events to name a few.”
Up to last winter, the association was making some public noise, with its frequent presence on talk shows and mentions in newspaper columns. Besides, SPBRA events have also been very well received and successful in terms of attendance. For some reasons, we haven’t heard much of them of late.
“We have only met to discuss emergency issues throughout the last months since this is our peak season and most operators would not have the time for anything else but their work, and this is understandable. Most of the association’s work is done in winter,” she explained.
So were they actually busy this summer or what?
“On a personal level, I did not feel a decline in particular as I very much cater for the Maltese market. But yes, there was a decline because hotels have closed. On the other hand, residents have also increased, so local custom has automatically increased.”
Debattista is positive but not irrational. She feels that the closure of certain hotels in the area was justified.
“Let’s face it, some deserved to be closed because of lack of standards,” she said. “But governments in other countries would help in creating the right circumstances for operators to actually improve their standards, and this would in turn reflect positively onto the product. I have travelled extensively, and have slept in a range of 1 star to 5 star hotels. What I can say is that, in any star category, the hotels I visited abroad have always had adequate standards in accordance to their grading. In Malta, there are certain instances where you get a 1 star standard at a 3 star hotel.”
I see, so this is not a matter of star category really, but of standard and of value for money.
“There are good investors in Malta, and there are also people who have land and want to invest in tourist accommodation within the area,” she said.
Are they crazy?
“Surely not. There is definitely a market for more accommodation in the area but certain impositions do not help at all. For example, one cannot simply obtain a hospitality licence unless his establishment is equipped with all amenities. The trends are changing however. We know there is a good potential market for bed-sits – just plain accommodation without the provision of an in-house bar or restaurant. But legislation does not allow this in Malta, and we have suggested some changes in this regard,” she explained.
Had there been space for an interruption, one would have asked why aren’t we also bidding in increasing the standard of tourists too, while we’re at it.
“Historically, St Paul’s Bay is a naval docking base. There are as many as 63 heritage sites in St Paul’s Bay, as witnessed in a book published by our former mayor. We have recommended, for example, a Northern tour by coach, or cruise liner berthing here.”
Wow. Do they not foresee, that with such a massive private investment at the Valletta Waterfront, the Viset consortium would be up in arms?
“No, we won’t be taking work away from Viset. We’re only asking for one cruise liner berthing per week, and as we know, there is so much demand that Viset does not even have enough space for all cruise liners to berth there,” she said.
So why do they not get in touch with private companies? Wouldn’t have travel operators done it already if this truly were a good idea?
“It is the MMA that would have to provide the permit for this, and as much as we have lobbied, perhaps due to timing, the idea has now been shelved.”
Back to the UK market, have there ever been any efforts in starting to target different types of tourists to the area, seeing that the UK market no longer seems sustainable? How difficult is this? What can be done?
“The UK market is vast. And we cannot simply say that we have lost the British market, but rather that trends are changing. One may argue that we could have benefited from the introduction of low cost airlines, but in real terms, the only low cost flight coming from the UK is Luton. The Newcastle route operated by Air Malta has also been discontinued, but that can be remedied. Really and truly, the UK market can never end. We cannot compete on cost leadership, clearly, because we still have wages to pay and our costs are increasing. We cannot look at the price and stop there. Travel trends are changing fast. We are now seeing that Malta can cater for different niches – students, families, the old-aged, and also adults who would not have family commitments. We must gear our services to accommodate the latter.
“In any case, if we did witness a slump in the UK market, it would be the hotels that would have to adapt. It means applying different standards to suit new types of nationalities – and it starts with simple things such as training your staff in different languages. For restaurants it’s very easy to adapt. Most menus here are Mediterranean. We can be attractive to a wider span of nationalities,” he said.
Considering the area she operates in, Debattista’s establishment is reasonably successful in the winter months, when everyone else would be closed. She is a keen propagator of the 365-day-a-year operation, claiming that if everyone else had to open in winter too, she would do even better.
“In the long-term, it does not make much sense to close in the winter months, and this applies to the area in general. The local market is not to be ignored, and we do get people driving all the way up from the southern part of the country during the summer months. But in the winter months, if say, a table of 15 turns up to see a place closed, rest assured they will not come back to the area, let alone to that restaurant. Furthermore, in Malta, those fifteen will multiply as they will tell peers, family and colleagues that Buġibba dies in winter. Another point is that if different places open in the winter months, and life is injected in the area, the reputation of it dying in winter will cease, critical mass is built and a lot more people start frequenting the area. Take this week for example, a lot of families have left their summer residences, and although we have catered for less covers, our sales have in no way slumped. We are now attracting people who look for quieter meals and spend more,” she said.
Gearing up for winter months in Buġibba clearly calls for a culture change among its operators, who have for so many years had it easy. When you just open your doors and turn over your tables three times a night without having spent a cent on marketing, you don’t really have to worry much about standards. Now that times have changed, will operators adjust to the new realities?
“When establishment owners do not keep in touch with current realities, there is a clear problem. There are operators here who would have their own jobs, open only during the weekend and keep their bar operation going on a part time basis. These will often lose interest in keeping updated. Also, in the past there have been a number of permits issued to individuals who just owned a small room without adequate facilities. Although this practice of issuing a license to just anyone has now stopped, some of those that had been issued such licenses are still in operation.
“This is why we are also pressing for a 365-day operation, because with a concerted effort, work will increase, profits will increase and investment will increase – finally reflecting on an improved standard of the establishment.”
Though surely, the closure of so many hotels in the area has determined the fate of catering operators.
“Some catering establishments have either closed down or have been passed on to new operators. But we have also seen two new applications for catering establishments in the area,” she said.
With such an appalling season, it is hard to assess how long the new applicants will survive. Had they opened last summer it would have been a different story.
“Personally, I did not see a huge difference between this summer and last, although there was an evident feeling of lower spending powers. I do not stock cheap beer, but I know of places where tourists have been at the bar asking for ‘the cheapest beer’, without discerning on its quality. This is not a very common holiday attitude unless one is heavily restricted on budgets.”
With all the cut-throat competition Buġibba witnessed in recent years, where beers sold at just 10 per cent profit margin or so, I would say this situation may have been a taste of some of the operators’ own medicine.
“You still see pints sold at €1. Ultimately, this technique only helps in bringing an operator’s profits down, as they end up with less money to re-invest in their establishment. But people will go for a bargain when they see one.”
The mentality seen at times in Buġibba, along with some of the décor, is reminiscent of thirty years ago. Now that the poop has hit the fan, haven’t avant-garde ideas such as pedestrianisation initiatives arrived a tad too late?
“Government has now embarked on a pilot project over four weekends for Buġibba promenade to be a traffic-free zone. If this works, and if certain issues are addressed, the plan is for it to become a traffic-free zone every summer evening, as they successfully did in Marsalforn and Marsaskala,” she explained.
“Of course, any change will be resisted. Many people will naturally not see the long-term benefits of such a move. Case in point, when government proposed a pedestrian area along both my establishments fourteen years ago, I had strongly opposed the idea. But now I know what a good move this was. The thing is that you will not manage to see its proper effects until you reap the full benefits. Of course, things need to be properly organised. People will need to be properly informed and any changes in traffic and routes will need to be well explained in order to avoid certain mishaps – such as having a bus pass through the band march, or a customer looking for parking at Sirens water polo pitch, instead of the football ground.
“That said, part of the pilot project also includes a Park and Ride scheme, which would surely help to decrease traffic and parking issues in the area, and that is no joke. While the population of the area stands at 20,000 in winter, it shoots up to 70,000 in summer – thus creating serious parking difficulties.”
Perhaps the SPBRA is mostly known for the street events it organises throughout the year in Buġibba. Its carnival festivities, Easter Monday parades, the wine festival, the Jet-Ski and Power Boat races, and foreign band gigs have not only spurred tourists to visit the area, but have also attracted a good number of local families. But have they made any money?
“Events do attract people to the area, although they do not necessarily boost up your sales directly and immediately. Such initiatives, along with the traffic-free zones and further embellishment, will help to promote the area.”
So how do they make money?
“We have a nominal membership fee, but we receive a lot of support from the government when it comes to events. We are very efficient with funds. Events will normally cost in the €8,000-€9,500 range. We do a lot of work ourselves so everything turns out to be cheaper.
“There is space for us to grow but we need more funding. What we are asking for is for authorities to listen to us more, and to invest some money in the association, which would ultimately only amount to a small portion of the taxes we pay between us,” she smiles.
“If there was a concerted effort and some help from government, I think the area can be embellished as planned, using EU funds. It is important however, that we keep providing the type of services and offering the type of products that are most in demand among the changing trends of customers.”

17 September 2008

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