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Fri 30 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

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Show some community spirit

Hotel industry expert Guy Wilkinson discovers how a very clever boutique hotel in Sweden brought together the local design industry to refurbish the property for next to nothing.

To hear some people talking around here, you'd think the end of the world had come!

Faced with the prospect of anything less than the customary double-digit growth curve, any alternative to the ‘usual' mercury-popping hot market status, some normally sanguine hoteliers in the Gulf are already gnashing their teeth and weeping nostalgically about the lost golden age.

This can happen, I suppose, when you've spent too long in a market that has never experienced a cycle before, but in most parts of the world, a bit of a slump in the market is a perfectly normal occurrence. Maybe local hotel management posts should come with the equivalent of those warnings that investment advisers give their clients, which say that "the price of shares can go down as well as up".

In Europe and other more mature hotel markets than ours, times of quiet demand are seen in an altogether more positive light. Indeed, a number of chains there had predicted the recession and had already planned to carry out their refurbishment or upgrading programmes now.

Why not, they thought, invite all the local captains of industry to breakfast, and ask them to do up the rooms?

What better time to close a floor or an outlet or two, than when there are not so many people around to use them? Then when the recession is over and demand growth resumes, they're in a stronger position to compete.

Here's a great idea for those hotels - maybe in the mid-market or economy segments - that may now consider refurbishing, especially those independent hotels that don't have a mega budget, or the benefit of a huge chain to support them in such an initiative.

Much like the Kinna Stadshotell, indeed, a 36-room provincial hotel in Sweden, which was purchased by sisters Camilla Säll Magnusson and Victoria Säll back in 2004.

Kinna (pronounced Shinna) is a small industrial town with a population of some 34,000 souls, about a 40-minute drive from Gothenburg.

Its claim to fame is that it is Sweden's textile capital and has been for centuries. As has happened with a lot of European manufacturing, the actual production has now moved to other countries, leaving Kinna to specialise in the design, marketing and export of textiles, as well as such products as carpets, curtains, furniture, lighting and other interior furnishing items.

It is visitors to Kinna's often renowned companies that constitute the main market for the little Stadshotell, which also accommodates shoppers who come to buy at the many showrooms in town. Kinna is half industrial and half rural, and the hotel itself offers picturesque views of a golf course.

Camilla and Victoria were born into a family of hoteliers, so it was natural for them to think of buying the 103-year-old property, which had originally been a textile baron's house.

With 66 beds, a big brasserie and bar, a night club and eight small meeting rooms, the hotel seemed well-equipped and a sound business proposition. However, they soon realised it would benefit from refurbishment.

That's when they had a brainwave. Why not, they thought, invite all the local captains of industry to breakfast, and ask them to do up the rooms?

After all, most of them were involved in the furniture or furnishing business in some way.

A bit of intelligent spin had to be put on the proposal.

The hotel would become a ‘real life showroom' for their products, and indeed, a flag waver for Kinna's industrial prowess as a whole.

The idea worked like a treat and the entire third floor of the hotel has now been furnished by local companies who entered the scheme.

There are 15 ‘Mark Deluxe Rooms' (Mark is the name of the Kinna district where all the companies are based), each designed and kitted out by a different local firm.

The rooms are visually themed to reflect aspects of the local community, with names like ‘crafts', ‘weaving', ‘nature', ‘golf' and ‘arts'.

Guests have been really taken by the creativity and variety of the rooms, which can as a result be sold about 30% more expensively than those on the other floor.

The sponsor companies themselves have become regular repeat clients, when previously many preferred to send their guests to a neighbouring town.

The basic gutting of the third floor was funded by the sisters, while the local companies have contributed their products either gratis or at half price.

Indeed, many take the approach of changing the décor regularly to reflect their latest product ranges.

Each room has a board with the sponsor company's name and website on it.

Conversely, the companies are given a booklet about all 15 rooms as part of the sponsorship package, and are featured on the hotel website.

The initiative has not only benefited the sisters in economic terms - who paid themselves back for the refurbishment in about two years - but has also helped bring together some disparate companies who would not otherwise have cooperated.

"It's mostly about goodwill," says Camilla. "Our companies are proud to put their guests into our hotel, which is also now ‘their' hotel."

Think of the similar opportunities that must exist, to save a bit of money and drum up some community spirit in the Gulf's own manufacturing hubs, like Muscat, Sharjah and Dammam. I told you it was a great idea.

Guy Wilkinson is a director of Viability, a hospitality and property consulting firm in Dubai. For more information, email: guy@viability.ae

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