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Heuston calling

Heuston Hospitality plans to invest around €6-8 million in the Phoenicia, raising the five-star hotel's capacity from 137 rooms to 160.

Beauty of old and an eye to the future, Peter Stephenson explains his plans for the Phoenicia.

Beauty of old and an eye to the future, Peter Stephenson explains his plans for the Phoenicia.

Heuston Hospitality chief executive officer Peter Stephenson said he was not allowed to disclose how much HH paid for the hotel, which was bought from Starman, the company that holds the Starwood assets and is selling a number of hotels.

He said the new Irish owners would also be upgrading the interior and exterior and adding more bars and restaurants. They will run the hotel themselves, dropping the Le Meridien brand.

Mr Stephenson has links to Malta and the Phoenicia. He was the area manager for Trust House Forte, when it had the Phoenicia in its portfolio. When Forte was taken over by the Granada Group in the 1990s, he went to work for the Corinthia Group as chief executive officer. "I have been involved in the development of other hotels in Malta but was always very keen on this one. I always thought it had potential. When I heard it was on the market I advised my investors that this was a 'must have'," he said.

He believes this is the right time to invest in the hotel industry and in Malta, forecasting growth in the years to come. However, he sees the hotel's marketing position and brand as being in need of adjustment, away from the traditional market it has been in to a more business-oriented one.

"The hotel is trading very well and it is in the top two or three with regards to average room rate and occupancy in the country. We just believe that we can offer more.

"This should become the place for the movers and shakers of business in Malta. We are the only deluxe hotel in Valletta, in our opinion. We should make it into the hotel where businessmen, media people, bankers, real estate people and diplomats go," he said.

This will entail a rethink of the internal layout with more bars located in areas that will entice people to drop in, rather than tucked away at the rear of the hotel.

"If you go to a meeting, you are fairly commited to going to the hotel so the meeting rooms can be at the back. The front should be where all the action is. So you should have bars there to tempt people to stop by," he said.

"It also needs a gastronomic restaurant, a brasserie and perhaps a buffet arrangement."

HH also plans to build a spa, now seen as an integral part of the pampering businesspeople want when away from home.

The business centre will also be improved and will be attended round the clock.

Work on the hotel will start straight away.

"The priority is the lifts, which do not work well. The rooms also need to be refurbished and need plasma screens and good internet access.

"The loose furniture in the lobby is not really suitable for anything. It is not suitable for a woman in a cocktail or for the type of businesspeople we will have. You can easily improve this area by having a range of furniture so you can work here on your laptop or have afternoon tea," he said.

"All the work will be done without closing the hotel. It is a cardinal sin, in our view, to close down. You never really re-open on time or on budget. We have so much space here - and two wings - that the work can be done without disrupting the operations. You just close off the rooms in a vertical section and restrict contractors to working between 9.30 a.m. and 5 p.m.

"If you close the hotel, you also lose all the staff and their expertise. We are very fortunate to have one of the best-trained teams."

Mr Stephenson stressed that leisure business would remain important although they would aim for the individual traveller, "the Condé Nast traveller, the Club Class traveller", as he described them.

"At the end of the day, there are only around 186 business days in a year so you have to have a strategy for the rest."

The plans include increasing the rooms from 137 to 160 -which he sees as being the limit if the intention is to create exclusivity. He clearly has many ideas.

"The beautiful laundry room overlooks the harbour. Why couldn't you have bedrooms there? All the changes can be done within the existing footprint of the building.

Once the interior has been completed, the second phase would concentrate on the exterior. There are seven acres that can be better exploited. The hotel also holds title to the St Roque baths on the Marsamxett shore and Mr Stephenson said it would discuss possible use of the derelict site with Malta Heritage.

The hotel itself cannot be touched but Mr Stephenson shuddered at the very thought.

"The hotel is beautiful and it is a landmark. All it needs is a bit of sprucing up. Even if we were allowed to touch it, we would not dream of doing anything except to remove the Le Meridien sign," he said.

He speaks of the hotel with a fierce pride that would verge on patriotic if he were Maltese.

"We believe quite strongly that the brand is the name of the hotel itself so we are calling it the Phoenicia Hotel Malta. Phoenicia has been a brand since the 1940s, putting it alongside the Raffles in Singapore and the Savoy in London.

"The international traveller has moved on from the Holiday Inn and the Hilton and wants something that is more of an experience of the country he or she is in. So we will be international but a Maltese hotel with the best Maltese chef and wine, culture and art."

What lies ahead for the staff, who have been uncertain about their future since the hotel was put up for sale last year? HH is meeting the staff next week to explain the plans. Mr Stephenson said that HH would work with the present management team although a manager would come in to do the overview.

"When you re-brand a hotel, Le Meridien will take everything that is written on it! So all this," he said, holding up a menu card, "goes and has to be replaced." HH has already exchanged contracts and is hoping to complete the process by the end of July.

"There is then a month's grace with Starwood and then the Le Meridien sign goes down and the Phoenicia Hotel Malta sign goes up.

"This building has over 60 years of history and there is a real fondness for it in Malta. We feel honoured that we have been entrusted with this property," he said.

Heuston Hospitality

Heuston Hospitality currently owns and operates six hotels, linking into organisations like Leading Hotels of the World and World Alliance for exposure.

Mr Stephenson has 20 properties as his target - although the investors would love 40.

The common denominator between the hotels is that they are all 4.5-5-star properties, aimed at business travellers and upmarket individual leisure.

"We like hotels that have an individuality. The people who stay here with us for leisure in summer would ski with us in the north of Italy in winter, stay with us in the Turks and Caicos in the Caribbean, or in Windsor if they are on shopping trips to the UK. "We are in it for the long haul. We are a two-year old company backed by Irish investors who believe that property is there to be bought, not sold. We are not in the business of making a quick buck and flipping it on."

He said that hotels like the Phoenicia are gems that rarely come on the market.

"We have agents looking for similar properties in Rome and major established capitals of Europe. We are not that keen on up and coming ex-Communist countries because in our view it is not so easy to do business there.

"I had done the feasibility for the Budapest and Prague hotels for Corinthia years ago but I believe that they have since become overdeveloped.

"We would not exclude them but the hotel would have to be a gem."
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