Few businesses just three years old already employ over 50 people and expect turnover next year to top £4m. But that is the achievement of one of Belfast’s more recent arrivals, Acityabode.
Acityabode originated in Cardiff in June 2006 and expanded to take on its second major investment in Belfast in Easter this year. There are now 12 staff in the Belfast office, which at present is in Newtownards Road and which next year will relocate to the Titanic Quarter.
Aparthotels – otherwise referred to as serviced apartments – have become increasingly popular with business travellers in recent times. They offer the same quality as good hotels, but at lower cost and with more freedom and flexibility. With the economic downturn, demand has increased further.
But, noticed Acityabode founder and managing director Paul Gazzard, serviced apartments often lay empty at weekends. While some leisure travellers did use aparthotels, usually this was because “they stumbled across them”, as Paul puts it. Paul, a marketing and brand specialist, realised that to spread demand for aparthotels to other client niches and across more days of the week the sector needed the skills of someone exactly like him.
“We see ourselves as competing with the big hospitality players, against hotels like the Hilton and the Malmaison and other providers that offer the same type of service as we do,” says Gazzard. “We started in Cardiff and then wanted to spread to other places. Belfast and Bristol were the first places we have gone to beyond our home city.”
Now Belfast is the business’s head office for expanding across Ireland and is also now home for Paul. Acityabode has ambitious plans in future months to open in more cities, including Edinburgh and Glasgow. The Bristol operation has been franchised out and Acityabode is also in discussion with other potential franchise operators, including in Australia.
The Belfast launch coincided with the collapse in property values, but perhaps surprisingly this has helped the company rather than hindered it. Some of the aparthotels are owned by the company and others leased from it. Further properties will be taken on in the coming months, under arrangements directly negotiated with developers – who are looking for different ways to offload properties in a difficult marketplace.
Meanwhile, demand from both corporates and leisure travellers has increased as the recession forces both types of client to cut costs. In many cases, says Paul, the demand from leisure travellers comes from people who have become used to high quality accommodation when they were young, single professionals – and now expect the same quality, but with more flexibility because they have new families.
The recession, on balance, has been good news for the company. “Ours were always long term investments,” says Paul. “We have benefited as developers are now looking for different ways to approach development. They are keen to secure anchor tenants to work with. And people are becoming more frugal with their money. So we have benefited from that.”
As has been the way with every recession – bad times can offer good opportunities.