The north of England has seen a sharp rise in business travel, prompting experts to suggest that companies are spreading their bases outside London and focusing on the domestic market ahead of Brexit.
Data from Advantage Travel Partnership, the UK’s largest consortium of corporate travel agents, showed five northern cities are among the top 10 fastest growing destinations for business travel.
Corporate hotel bookings in 2017 rose 55 per cent in Blackpool, 35 per cent in Preston, 33 per cent in Bradford, 24 per cent in Sheffield and 21 per cent in Doncaster, against a national average of 9.5 per cent. London saw a 10 per cent rise.
Neil Armorgie, Advantage’s global product director, said he thought companies were building their UK operations and sharpening their focus on the domestic market. Advantage’s data were drawn from members who comprise 32 of the UK’s top 50 business travel agents.
“My gut feeling is that the uncertainty over Brexit that we’ve been seeing is making companies think about the best place to grow and expand their business,” he said.
The consultancy PwC also recently reported that hotel occupancy in the regions, including both business and leisure guests, reached a record 76 per cent in 2017 and is still rising.
PwC said a key driver of hotel occupancy growth outside London was the changing structure of professional firms — itself included — as businesses respond to the capital’s high costs and competition for talent by shifting activities across more bases. “We see many of our clients moving into the regions so we need a bigger footprint in these,” it said.
Blackpool said its sharp rise in corporate bookings was underpinned by £500m of investment in transport, retail, hotels, its promenade and its conference and convention centres.
The seaside resort said £75m was being spent on six new hotels, one of them five-star, adding 700 rooms. “We recognise we needed these quality hotel rooms,” said Alan Cavill, Blackpool council’s director of place. Blackpool plans to have 4,000 branded hotel rooms graded three-star and above by late next year, up from 800 in 2006.
Meanwhile £28m is being invested in its Winter Gardens conference centre.
In Preston, which is also in Lancashire, the area’s strong aerospace sector and a £200m investment by the University of Central Lancashire in its city centre campus has boosted corporate hotel bookings. Like many northern cities, it is also seeing a wave of other development, including purpose-built student housing.
Joel Arber, the university’s pro vice-chancellor, said the Northern Powerhouse concept had spurred confidence. “We are seeing Brexit as an opportunity and are looking for partners beyond London. We’re self determinists in our outlook.”
Underlying the strong 2017 showing in corporate hotel business is an upsurge since 2000 in hotel building in the north of England, with branded stock supplanting small independently owned properties. Specialist hotel data company AM:PM Hotels Ltd estimated that from 2000 to 2015 there were 472 new hotel openings, adding 38,092 bedrooms, and 522 closures, removing 12,558 rooms.
The trend is pan-northern. Newcastle and Gateshead have gained 7,737 new hotel bedrooms since 2013, a 17 per cent increase, with more under development. Promotional body Welcome to Yorkshire estimates that £250m is currently being invested in hotel and leisure developments in its county. Manchester added more than 1,000 hotel bedrooms in 2017 and expects another 1,250 this year.
Steve Whittaker, general manager of the Doubletree by Hilton hotel in Sheffield and chairman of hotels body Hospitality Sheffield, said its members’ meeting this week confirmed the growth in corporate travel. Factors, he said, include Sheffield University’s Advanced Manufacturing Centre, backed by Boeing, Rolls-Royce, BAE and many other companies. He said it was a “very strong year” at his hotel, which had added a £3.5m, 36-bedroom extension to meet demand.