Sofitel Gatwick general manager, Graham Hawksworth, tells ABTN why the future is bright with the airport's new owners.
How is business at the hotel at the moment?
We saw a noticeable increase [in occupancy levels] in 2010, compared to the previous year. We are trying to be a leader in our area, as opposed to a follower, and have made strategic decisions to drive business at Gatwick where we can. There has been a pick up, and we’ve experienced some good numbers, but with the government round of cuts on the way it’s difficult to know what the short-term future will look like.
How do you plan for challenging times?
We try not to cut. There’s a danger that you nibble away at things, and people notice. It could be something like biscuits disappearing out of bedrooms, or less milk. But we have a standard to maintain, so we have to look at the costs we can manage that don’t impact the customer – utility costs, recycling and energy. There are gains to be made in those areas.
You’ve been at Sofitel Gatwick for more than five years, during which time the airport has seen a lot of changes. How has that impacted your business?
I arrived here under BAA. Then Ferrovial bought it over. And now Global Infrastructure Partners is the owner. I’m optimistic about the future. I think not being part of BAA means we’re no longer in the shadow of Heathrow. We are now a competitor in a way that I don’t believe we were before, when BAA owned both the airports. At Gatwick now there is a lot of investment going into the airport in terms of infrastructure and passenger experience. That bodes well for the future. I hope GIP is in for the long haul.
Do you have much dialogue with GIP?
I probably know more senior people at GIP, and have more contact with them than I ever did with BAA. It’s makes things easier when you’re familiar with who you’re working with. It puts a different complexion of things.
How has life changed now that you’re not in Heathrow’s shadow?
At the moment Gatwick is primarily a leisure airport. It went that way when Open Skies bit (in 2007), and a lot of American carriers transferred to Heathrow. At the moment we have a good mix between what we refer to as our leisure traveller, and our transient traveller – someone on business who does not have a corporate rate with us, and therefore it’s difficult to track. So the transient market is a big market for LGW. But of course the corporate market consists of those guests with negotiated rates, and you can track their room nights. It’s probably a fairly even split at the moment [between leisure/transient and corporate]. I suppose GIP has thrown down the gauntlet and said it wants to compete with LHR and attract new airlines, but not necessarily from the US. It’ll be looking East, at Europe and at more long haul. It’s been an interesting demographic. The biggest change was when the American airlines moved to LHR. We saw a drop in what we would call corporate business. Nonetheless, passenger numbers are reported as remaining healthy. There is a lot of capacity available. LGW is not as near to 100% capacity as it was a couple of years ago. I think they have a chance to increase passenger numbers, which is good news for us.
Tell me about your M&E offering? How important is it?
Like any revenue stream it’s important. After rooms, it’s one of our big revenue providers. We’ve got 11 meeting rooms that vary in size and can be configured in any way you want in terms of lay out. All have natural light with the exception of one room. It’s important that we acquire that business. Being at an airport is an advantage, and sometimes a disadvantage. We have a good product, comparable with anything available at Gatwick. The standard of service, and the quality of the product, the attention to details is often commented upon. We have competitors who also have good products, but I think we have the edge on service.
How have occupancy levels been?
It has taken a hit. It declined during the recession, for lots of reason. Corporate travel was cut, people took fewer holidays and there were fewer flights. We saw a decline over the last two years. We’re now seeing more of a buoyant picture. Companies are more prudent about spending, but we’re starting to see volumes come back again. The government cuts will impact events and training. And, of course, if you work in the public sector, and are facing uncertain times, you might not take a holiday. It’s now a bit of a cliché, but there is cautious optimism.