The hotel business is in the spotlight following the reversal of the special 9pc VAT rate, amidst claims that the sector is vulnerable to a Brexit-related setback. However, in Dublin, at least, the rate of sales and new developments points to a boom. To get a real feel for a market it's often useful to consult those who are at the coalface - in this case, the hotel designers, who are usually the first to see trends.
The mews offices of John Duffy Design Group (JDDG), in Monkstown, Co Dublin, ooze creativity. The firm has specialised in hotel, pub and restaurant design since 1993 and staff numbers are back up to 15. John Duffy, founder of the firm, told me that the hotel/hospitality sector could fairly be described as "booming", but that Dublin is the focus for new hotel development. He tells me that there are approximately 3,000 bedrooms either under construction, or in planning, in the capital, which will increase the existing stock by 18pc, by the end of 2020.
There is a mixture of hotels coming through, he says. Whilst there are four and five-star hotels planned, the trend is towards three-star, budget and aparthotels. Smaller rooms are a feature of new city centre boutique hotels and we are seeing the introduction of the first 'pod' bedrooms. JDDG recently featured in Time magazine when the Iveagh Garden Hotel in Dublin 2, was rated one of the top 100 destinations in the world. The firm handled that design, from a former bank building, to a new, four-star, 150-bed hotel.
Another big driver of work, Duffy tells me, is that many hotels' interiors saw very little investment for 10 years, through the recession, and there is now a "catching-up". Another trend is to upgrade three-star facilities to four-star, to attract the higher room rates. Regionally, there is less activity, with hotel extensions, interior renovations and conference facilities providing most work.
When I asked John Duffy what was the major new trend in hotel design, he had an emphatic answer: millennials! "Hoteliers are keen to cater for the millennial market," he said. "They have good disposable income and they travel a lot."
The result is a transformation in the design of hotel lobbies, in particular. Whereas lobbies in the past tended to be quiet, nondescript areas, the goal now is to create a much more 'social hotel'. Designs now encourage the use of lobbies as a social hub. Hoteliers want a busier, more casual scene, where people work and meet. Many provide free Wi-Fi and coffee to encourage that.
The recession saw a collapse in demand for hotel design and John Duffy reacted by seeking work abroad, quickly becoming a major player. JDDG has designed 11 hotels in Africa, including a 550-bed five-star Marriott in Cotonou, Benin, and a Ramada and Novotel in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. The group has also designed hotels in Kazakhstan, Germany and Malta and intends maintaining this overseas output, even as the market strengthens here.
A challenge in Ireland is dealing with the higher requirements of modern building regulations, which affect new builds and refurbishments that require a fire safety certificate. Duffy mentions a current project, The Trinity Townhouse hotel, Dublin 2, which is a boutique luxury hotel with 30 bedrooms in three 'protected' buildings, where firestopping and conservation measures can significantly increase project cost.
Given the level of activity overall, it is perhaps no harm that Brexit fears are postponing some new developments. As John Duffy says, "it just keeps getting busier."
International crime writing festival
I am honoured to be a speaker at the Dublin UNESCO City of Literature/Dublin City Council International Crime Writing Festival - 'Murder One'. Held between November 2 and 4, the event features workshops, readings and interviews with bestselling international authors. It's an exciting weekend's programme, and some events are free. Visit murderone.ie for information.