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Kent's hotel room shortage

By Chris Britcher

When you consider tourism generates a mighty £3.6 billion for the local economy, and the county hosts a number of major events, you would assume in this consumer-driven era we'd have hotels on every corner.

The reality, however, is there is an identified shortage in hotel rooms across the county - and plenty of efforts currently under way to improve the situation.

With population growth on the rise and a well-oiled tourism push to pull visitors to the county - more than four million had visited this year, up to September - the time is ripe for more accommodation, especially in areas subject to sizeable developments.

Kent is in need of more hotels
Kent is in need of more hotels

Explains David Curtis-Brignell, deputy chief executive at tourism agency Visit Kent: "There is a shortage of hotel rooms in the county.

"And a lot of people will say we want a five-star hotel in our town - but it's not that sort of thing we're after.

"Kent thrives best if it has a good range of quality accommodation across the board."

Which is handy given that in addition to our traditional hotels, there continues to be an explosion in budget chains setting up across the county.

David Curtis-Brignell (5581271)
David Curtis-Brignell (5581271)

Travelodge is pursuing an aggressive expansion project, announcing earlier this year it planned to open a dozen outlets in the county.

Having agreed a recent deal in Rochester, it has its eyes set on Canterbury, Dartford, Folkestone, Maidstone, Tonbridge, Swanley, Bluewater or Ebbsfleet and Whitstable or Herne Bay.

Tony O’Brien, Travelodge property director, said: “Kent remains a key growth area for us. The county’s reputation as a great short break destination is flourishing and attracting record visitor numbers.

"However, there is still a shortage of branded budget accommodation across Kent."

Travelodge has hotels across Kent
Travelodge has hotels across Kent

Not that it's as simple as telling the likes of Hilton, Ibis or Best Western to start building.

Mr Curtis-Brignell said: "The way the market works is someone who is behind a development, and owns the site, will build a hotel and then agree for a brand to move in.

"Generally, they're not owned by the hotel brand, they're owned by a development company or a group of investors.

"The brand will then pay a lease for that site and run it for 20 years, or whatever. It's a long time since the big names built the hotels themselves. Some still do, but it tends to be the smaller specialist brands.

"The county’s reputation as a great short break destination is flourishing and attracting record visitor numbers..." Tony O’Brien, Travelodge property director

"The new-builds tend to be in the budget hotel sector - there's less risk financially, they are quick and easy to put up, and they know they have a growing demand as people know what they're going to get.

"It's quite brave to develop a 120-room four-star hotel. You're talking £130,000 a room to build plus the cost of the land.

"It's quite a risk."

Premier Inn recently took a lease on a property built for Sevenoaks District Council in an innovative deal to provide more rooms in the town, as part of its own push in the county.

The Premier Inn in Sevenoaks leased by the district council
The Premier Inn in Sevenoaks leased by the district council

The precise number of hotel rooms in Kent is not an easy number to pin down due to the way in which accommodation is categorised.

The most recent major survey revealed there were 33,832 rooms - but that included B&Bs, campsites and even self-catering accommodation.

But there is work currently being undertaken by Visit Kent and colleagues at the county's inward investment agency Locate in Kent to identify exactly where more are needed - and, the most important bit, to encourage developers to build them.

While the likes of pub chain Wetherspoons has started bolting on rooms to its pubs - one recently opened in Canterbury - brewer Shepherd Neame has been slowly growing its own accommodation offering in recent years.

Chief executive Jonathan Neame explains: "At the moment we have 294 bedrooms in our managed pubs and 220 rooms in tenanted pubs - almost all within Kent.

Shepherd Neame chief executive Jonathan Neame
Shepherd Neame chief executive Jonathan Neame

"We have just secured a site in the new Ebbsfleet Garden City and we will be building a pub/hotel/restaurant there, which will have 17 rooms.

"We're in discussions about a site at Conningbrook Lakes in Ashford which will be another pub/hotel.

"Yes, it's a key part of our strategy, but clearly you need a big enough site in the right location and we're also trying to find sites which are in destinations to attract business people, but also the family market, weddings or functions."

Margate has seen something of a revival in recent years with both the Turner Contemporary and revamped Dreamland pulling in the crowds.

The Thomas Ingoldsby Wetherspoon pub in Canterbury, which recently added a number of hotel rooms
The Thomas Ingoldsby Wetherspoon pub in Canterbury, which recently added a number of hotel rooms

Little wonder bosses at Dreamland have just put in an application for a 120-room hotel on the seafront, while another has been given the nod in Cliftonville of a similar size.

Certainly, with art's the Turner Prize being presented in Margate in 2019 and golf's The Open returning to nearby Sandwich in 2020 there is expected to be a surge in demand.

Currently, the demand for accommodation missing through the hotel chain has been absorbed by self-catering properties - something which has boomed in recent years courtesy of the rise of the staycation and increasing numbers of short-breaks.

Sarah Wood, founder of short-let specialists Mulberry Cottages which rents out holiday properties across the county, says: "We could always have more accommodation and Kent is unusual in that it has so few hotels. It has probably helped us because they have to stay in self-catering."

With the likes of Visit Kent and Locate in Kent combining forces to attract more conferences and events in the county, in addition to the enormous number of additional homes being built, the demand for hotel rooms is only going to increase.

What the hotel could look like at Dreamland, Margate
What the hotel could look like at Dreamland, Margate

The big question, of course, is just where they should go.

Adds Visit Kent's David Curtis-Brignell: "Kent has a lot of locations with different personalities - the trick to where to site a hotel is always 'where's the demand Monday to Thursday' because that's where the corporate market is; where you make your money.

"Weekend traffic is the icing on the cake, not the cake itself.

"So when looking at where to invest - where are the businesses?"

Which should bring encouragement to the likes of Dartford and Maidstone.

Meanwhile Ashford is increasingly likely to find itself in demand due to is fast rail link to the capital.

"Travellers are pretty savvy now," explains Mr Curtis Brignell, "they know how long somewhere is by train and they're prepared to do that if it means avoiding paying London prices.”

Airbnb

The rise of Airbnb - where people rent their homes out via the company's website - had once been seen as a threat to the hotel industry.

But in Kent it is meeting a need - and also attracting a youthful audience which would normally turn their back on a regular hotel.

David Curtis-Brignell said: "The Airbnb customer isn't necessarily the same who would go and stay in a four-star hotel or a spa.

"It's done the tourism industry quite a lot of good as it’s created a market – particularly among millennials - who wouldn't normally go away.

"Airbnb is meeting a demand, because we don't necessarily have a lot of accommodation so it's filling that gap.

"However, the preference would always be for a hotel which will get produce from local suppliers and of course employment.

"A 120-bed hotel will employ equivalent of 70 full-time jobs. It's a good thing to have."

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