Writing a feature about five of the UK’s thriving cities is bound to reignite a debate that has raged for years – which is England’s ‘Second City’, Manchester or Birmingham? Both have claimed to be top dog when it comes to sport, culture and international events, often competing for Government funding and international recognition. But what about their hospitality offerings?
As seen in the second part of our hospitable cities feature, Manchester boasts a well-established restaurant scene, a fast growing conference and events market and the third highest number of inbound visitors in the UK. Based on those credentials, you would be forgiven for thinking that the Second City crown, in terms of hospitality alone, would go to the North West.
But a short drive down the M6 will make you think again. Birmingham is booming: the city placed fourth in terms of the UK’s most popular destinations for inbound visitors, with 732000 visits in 2011. Tourists and locals alike are becoming increasingly attracted by its arts and exhibitions venues and one of the largest shopping centres in the UK, the Bullring – accommodating 25 restaurants including both established food concepts and emerging brands.
And then there’s the Cube development, raising Birmingham’s global profile even further and signifying a new era in the city’s evolution. Brazilian restaurant Rodizio Rico took a 7,000 sq.ft site on the seventh floor, while Marco Pierre White recently took the top floor of the 25-storey building for his steakhouse concept.
Strong investment prospects
“There’s a real buzz going on here at the moment,” explains Cube director Neil Edginton. “Birmingham continues to provide a strong investment prospect for the hospitality industry, which is worth nearly £400 million annually, welcoming over 32 million people every year.
“With over £18 billion being invested in its transport infrastructure and the regeneration of the city centre, the long-term gains for businesses looking to catch the coat-tails of its growth are encouraging a string of restaurants and hotels to expand across Birmingham.”
Chef Adam Bennett echoes this view that the city is evolving faster than ever before. Bennett, who is representing the UK in the prestigious Bocuse d’Or competition next year, has seen the transformation of Birmingham’s culinary scene take place around him, having headed up the kitchens at Simpsons restaurant in Edgbaston for over eight years.
“There’s a lot of building going on here,” he says. “There are developments in the city, one in particular that was announced very recently – the continuation of a £150 million development in Digbeth – they’re all going to polish the city up nicely.
“Birmingham looks completely different now than it did 15 years ago. Obviously, we’ve got Selfridges which has become an iconic building, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
What stands out most when looking at Birmingham’s hospitality market is its hotels. The city recently recorded its highest hotel occupancy rates in four years, with average occupancy for July to September 2011 reaching 64 per cent. September 2011 saw the rate peak at 71 per cent – the highest since 2007, following the Liberal Democrats’ party conference held in the city centre.
“These are positive results in what continues to be a challenging time for hoteliers,” says Ian Taylor, commercial director at Marketing Birmingham. “Consumers on a tight budget are enjoying city breaks in the UK rather than travelling overseas and Birmingham has taken full advantage of this.
“With a whole host of exciting events taking place throughout this year, as well as a number of major sporting events, we expect this summer to be equally successful for hotels in Birmingham. A further 27 hotels are currently in the pipeline, enabling the city to provide additional bed spaces to the 30,000 already available for visitors.”
This huge number of planned hotel developments is in part down to Birmingham City Council taking advantage of Government tax incentives to attract private investment into its hospitality sector.
BPRA - an incentive which launched in April 2007 - enables businesses that own or lease property that has been vacant for at least a year in designated areas, to claim 100 per cent tax relief on their capital spending on renovating or converting that property, to bring it back into business use.
The use of this tax incentive, aided by the growing success of Birmingham's visitor economy, has significantly boosted the city's reputation as a tourism destination.
“A record 32.8 million visitors came to Birmingham in 2010 – our fifth successive year of growth,” explains Mike Whitby, leader of Birmingham City Council. This boom in both leisure and business tourism is one of the reasons that we have nearly 30 hotels currently at various stages of planning and construction.”
Mark Weaver, managing partner of Birmingham property consultancy firm Rider Levett Bucknall, adds: “The tax breaks provided by BPRA have enabled more investors to commit to the renovation of existing properties in Birmingham, influencing the number of hotel developments taking place in the city and providing local employment and business growth opportunities.
“That the BPRA scheme has been extended for a further five years will enable Birmingham to increase its pipeline of national and international investment even further, into both hotel developments and a range of other sites requiring regeneration across the city.”
One of the major hotel developments to hit Birmingham in recent times is Hotel La Tour – a £24 million flagship development in a new chain of UK city centre hotels, which opened its doors in March on the doorstep of the Bullring development.
Explaining the initial decision to choose the Midlands for the flagship venue, Hotel La Tour’s managing director Jane Schofield says: “Location was key to us - Birmingham has an enviable location in the centre of the UK with great accessibility. It's easy for people to get to whether they're staying for leisure or business."
This increased supply of hotels in Birmingham is being met by an equally impressive increased demand. “So far, response for conference and training facilities here has been excellent - we actually secured £500,000 worth of advanced conference bookings prior to opening," adds Schofield.
And then there's the recently opened Hampton by Hilton Birmingham . The 285-room Broad Street property secured £300,000 worth of bookings ahead of its opening last month. ”There’s a palpable buzz in Birmingham at the moment,” admits the hotel’s general manager Elaine Graham.
The perfect storm
So it is clear that Birmingham has seen a significant boost to its hospitality offering in recent years, and the city’s future looks bright. The perfect storm of increased visitor numbers, new restaurant openings and higher hotel occupancy rates, combined with a number of multi-million pound development projects and the Council’s effective hospitality investment strategy, has given the city a solid foundation ahead of its hosting of various events during the Olympics and beyond.
At the time of this feature, a ‘peace deal’ has been struck between Birmingham and Manchester to end the decades of rivalry in the bid to be England’s official Second City, as both City Councils have announced a ‘new era of co-operation and collaboration’ to boost growth and jobs in both cities.
Based on the two cities’ hospitality offerings alone, it is fair to say that they are now on the same side. Both are experiencing an increasing number and ever-improving quality of restaurants, hotels and bars, and both have an on-going desire to step out of the shadow of London and place themselves firmly on the international map.
Return to BigHospitality tomorrow for our look at Cardiff. To read all our articles in the hospitable cities feature, click here