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Over 20 years, Birchwood Hotel & OR Tambo Conference Centre has built an offering and reputation as one of South Africa’s premier conference venues, with a host of different options for conference guests. But it also serves the business traveller and in 2014 strengthened that offering with the launch of its Silverbirch product. Founder and Director Kevin Clarence joined Business Traveller Africa for a chat about Birchwood as a business travel ‘player’.

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Q: What ‘type’ of business travel do you see coming through Birchwood?

A: Birchwood has always been able to accommodate unique and versatile requirements and this has translated in to our Silverbirch offering. Corporate groups have been and always will be the type of business that is frequent at Birchwood. Requests made, however, are becoming less generic and clients are asking for a more tailor-made solution. There is a definite shift to a less conventional form of conferencing, and companies are looking to create an experience, rather than just another meeting.

Q: Approximately how much money have you invested in your business travel offering in the last three years?

A: The complete refurbishment of 235 Silverbirch rooms, the upgrading of Petit and Le Grande Conference Centres, the refurbishment of 95 ValuStay rooms and the upgrade of Phomolong restaurant equates to around R80 million ($6.13 million).

Q: How important was it to develop business travel products with different price points?

A: It was imperative. With the economy being as unpredictable as it currently is, gaining access to all travellers and groups by matching respective budgets and requests simply makes Birchwood an effective solution. The ‘one size fits’ all approach no longer applies.

Q: Have you battled perception that Birchwood is only a conference venue?

A: Conferencing has always been at the core of the Birchwood product offering. As we have grown over the years, I think our sheer size has created the perception that Birchwood is only geared to handle large group conference business. The launch of Silverbirch has certainly helped to change this perception and individual corporate travellers as well as smaller discerning conference groups are returning to Birchwood. The capital investment over the past few years has also helped to attract the corporate market as the product, its pricing and the proximity to ORTIA make Birchwood an extremely attractive option. What is really encouraging for me is that the feedback from our corporate clientele is the best it has ever been and I am very excited for what the future holds.

Q: How do you ensure that Birchwood remains attractive to both business travel and conference clients, whilst keeping both market segments happy?

A: It boils down to the development of individual sub-brands that speak to the different market segments. Birchwood has become renowned as a leading conference venue due to the points I mentioned above. The challenge has been to try and meet the demands and expectations of the individual traveller whilst hosting numerous conferences all taking place simultaneously. Prior to Silverbirch, individual travellers were not given any special treatment and were simply handled in a similar fashion to conference delegates. Today, things are very different and Silverbirch ensures individuals are given the attention they require. This is achieved through a dedicated check-in area, dedicated golf carts, an access controlled entrance to locate your room, a dedicated breakfast room, a fine dining restaurant and many other smaller ‘nice to have’ offerings to ensure a comfortable and memorable stay. In my 18 years of selling Birchwood, I have never been more excited to sell the product.

Q: What’s your message for the South African corporate travel industry, regarding Birchwood?

A: The message is very clear – we have listened to you and your feedback has been heard! We thank you for your honesty and we have invested heavily to ensure Birchwood will become your preferred choice of venue. Come and meet with us so that we can show you!

Q: How has the South African corporate travel industry changed since you opened the Birchwood in 1998?

A: Corporate travel used to simply be about having a comfortable bed and good meeting space, but has evolved in to requiring more from the venue. Staying at a hotel is now something of an experience – not just a requirement. Further, guests are able to be more vocal on public platforms. These are areas that are a priority for Birchwood as it enables our team to hear live feedback and base our strategies around this feedback – an opportunity which was not available in previous years.

Q: What impact has the change in government spend had on the industry?

A: The effect will always be a straight-forward one – a reduction in government spend inevitably filters down into the corporate space and has a negative impact on most businesses. This forces companies to become more innovative and creative with regards to the selling and marketing of their product. Birchwood is no exception and Silverbirch and Valustay are examples of this creative process.

Q: Gaze into your crystal ball and tell us where South African corporate travel will be in 10 years’ time?

A: As time moves forward, and the digital era becomes ever more prominent, we will see an increase in the booking mechanisms available to our prospective clientele.