Q&A: Conferencing Giant

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Birchwood Hotel & OR Tambo Conference Centre, located in Boksburg, just a few minutes’ drive from Johannesburg’s main airport, is arguably South Africa’s biggest single hotel and conference centre. With 60 conference venues and 665 accommodation rooms, it really can host events of just about any size. Yet, despite this size and its comprehensive offering, it’s not a name that rolls off the tongue, when discussing Johannesburg’s most high-profile conference venues. CEO Kevin Clarence sat down with editor Dylan Rogers over a steak, and discussed what Birchwood has to offer the conferencing market.

What would Birchwood like to be known as?

Your first choice when flying in to O.R. Tambo International Airport, because of our host of on-site services, providing you with a “one-stop shop” environment.

Do you think your size and offering is something that is well known in the market?

I would not say well known. We know that people are very often aware of the Birchwood brand, but not aware of our size or capacities, such as our 665 accommodation rooms, 60 conference rooms (anything from two to 3000 delegates), our four restaurants (including the award-winning Local Grill) and the host of on-site facilities including team-building, décor, transport and more.

Birchwood celebrates 15 years this year. Where did it all start and what was the offering then?

It started after I was involved in the construction of the two Garden Courts in Sandton back in 1998. Our property initially consisted of 87 rooms and one small conference room, and from there we began to build on items such as a small boardroom and further facilities to develop it into a conference centre. Everything grew from there.

Clearly the operation has come a long way since. How have you been able to grow to where you are today?

Basically, by listening to our customers’ demands and market needs. From inception, the demand for conference space in this area was a lot higher than the request for accommodation. This need was met through the building of new conference centres, until such time that the demand for conferencing required additional accommodation rooms. At this point, additional accommodation was built and so the cycle continued. We have always been fortunate with the size of our property, which has allowed us to continue expanding as and when we saw fit.

Secrets to your success?

Creating a product over a period of time, whereby we were able to assess market needs and build accordingly. Also, the proximity to the airport and a unique village environment combined with our “one-stop shop” offering meant that we could offer you all you needed in one place, avoiding the need to source other suppliers.

Where does the majority of your business come from?

Local corporate and government business.

Clearly you’re able to cater to large groups, but what about the individual business traveller and smaller groups?

He or she is still very much on our radar and part of our focus. In 2011, we launched the Birchwood Business Class which is designed with this market in mind, and provides services demanded by the modern individual traveller, such as individual check-in, a private breakfast room and accommodation rooms allocated away from large conference groups.

You recently invested in a presence at O.R. Tambo International Airport. What exactly do you have there?

The majority of our guests arrive via O.R. Tambo International Airport. We have an office in the shuttle pick-up area offering seating, tea and coffee, as well as hotel check-in facilities whilst guests wait for our complimentary shuttle.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the South African conferencing market?

Conferencing in South Africa has certainly improved since 2012, which provided us all with challenges. Towards the end of 2012 and through this first quarter, the increase in both requirements and demand for venues definitely proved to be a positive turning point, and I think this is a great indication of things to come. The market is improving and as the year continues, this can only be constructive for everybody involved. We are excited to see how it develops and remain very encouraged about the rest of 2013.

What does business look like for the rest of the year?

I have learnt not to forecast too far in advance, but I’m happy to say that the first quarter of 2013 has shown strong growth and we hope that this is a sign of things to come.