Changing Perception

The Birchwood Hotel & OR Tambo Conference Centre has over the past 20 years built a reputation as a South African conferencing ‘giant’ with an impressive offering that caters to just about any event. But, like any good business, it needs to evolve and diversify, if it is to continue prospering. That’s according to Founder and Director, Kevin Clarence, who joined editor Dylan Rogers for a coffee in Johannesburg.

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Large-scale conferences, events and exhibitions remain the staple diet for Birchwood, which has become a preferred Johannesburg venue for clients in this space, particularly those in government.

But, whilst these events are potentially big money-spinners for Birchwood, there’s a cost that comes with doing business with South Africa’s public sector, and according to Clarence, it’s just not sustainable.

“You can’t run a business with the size and amount of revenue we get from government and then operate in such an uncertain environment, and I don’t think it’s going to get better,” he says.

The uncertainty Clarence refers to relates to South Africa’s current political climate, with change an almost constant, which, unfortunately for suppliers like Birchwood, trickles down and presents itself in operational and logistical challenges.

He tells the story of a government department that in November ‘postponed’ a seven million rand ($500,000) booking at two days’ notice – a number that would have accounted for about 20% of Birchwood’s monthly revenue.

“It’s just very difficult to project future business, to staff up etc,” says Clarence. “So, we’ve got to build our corporate base, which is more sustainable. That’s instead of being so reliant on the public sector space.”

So, how does Clarence do that?

He’s already developed an offering at Birchwood that caters to ‘standard’, non-conferencing business travel, in the form of his Silverbirch (premium – 235 rooms) and ValuStay (budget – 96 rooms) products, together with the 334 rooms that cater to conferencing guests.

But Clarence’s biggest challenge, arguably, is changing perception that Birchwood Hotel & OR Tambo Conference Centre is only a conference venue and does not cater to the regular business traveller.

His second challenge is developing a product that will differentiate him from his competitors. It’s here that Clarence is focusing most of his efforts.

He’s attacking this on three fronts.

“Firstly, connectivity, which these days is just the most important thing,” says Clarence. “It must be free, fast wi-fi and the best you’ve ever seen.”

Secondly, Clarence is looking to revamp Birchwood’s in-room entertainment, an area where he believes they can differentiate themselves from competitors who mostly only offer a bouquet of DStv channels.

“There are some really good systems out there where everything is free, as long as you have the connectivity,” says Clarence, who has just returned from Amsterdam where he reviewed some of the products in this space.

“The idea would be to offer in-room entertainment like no other competitor, coupled with the ability for guests to access around 50 restaurants, using the likes of UberEats, outside of the four we offer, all accessible on the in-room entertainment TV screen.”

For Clarence, that’s a good place to start, and Birchwood are investing seven million rand in December and January on a 500- meg line that should be up and running by the first of February. Clarence expects the in-room entertainment overhaul to be complete by mid-2018.

“The third thing is trying to move away from the traditional public space that hotels generally offer, such as the reception area,” says Clarence. “I want to bring a pub-type environment into reception, so this becomes a destination for the guest, rather than just a place to check in.”

It’s a move towards self check-in and Clarence has his eye on converting the area below Birchwood’s Hi Flyerz Aviation Bar into a new reception space for the Silverbirch product.

“This is not for corporate groups – that just keeps ticking over,” he says. “With our proximity to the airport and everything we’ve built over the past 20 years, in terms of large plenary rooms, plenty of breakaways, plenty of dining options etc, it’s very difficult to beat us on that group multiple-day conference side, so let that tick along. But how do we attract that other market that doesn’t play in the conference space?

I think Clarence has answered his own question, as long as he keeps the faith.

“I often ask myself whether it’s worth going down this road,” he says. “But each time I do that, I’m convinced it is.”