For tourism businessman Kevin Clarence returning to the heart of his business, as managing director, to steer the mega-hotel that is the Birchwood Hotel and OR Tambo Conference Centre, into new waters is about identifying the need for change and the need to stay ahead of the game in a fast-changing industry.

“In the past few years there have been a lot of changes in the business tourism market and as such the business traveller has become spoilt for choice through travel websites, like Trip Advisor, which has made them extremely demanding. They expect many services, such as Wi-Fi and airport transfers, for free. It is, therefore, of the utmost importance that we continue to be a leader in the industry by catering to the business traveller’s needs. We have to ensure the property is properly maintained and improvements are constantly made in order to keep up with competition and demands. We identified this and I am back to ensure we keep ahead of the game,” said Clarence.

Together with his late father, Brian, Clarence founded the Birchwood Hotel and OR Tambo Conference Centre, now the biggest conferencing facility in the Southern Hemisphere, in 1997 after then recognising the tremendous growth and opportunities in the business tourism industry, and the need for a one-stop facility for the booming SA business sector.

Thanks to Clarence’s knowledge of building hotels, from his years spent in construction at Grinaker Building, and his late father’s experience in property development, the two pooled family knowledge and experience, and a hotel, with conferencing facilities close to OR Tambo International Airport catering primarily for the travelling business person, was born.

The Birchwood Hotel quickly grew and soon began a game changer in a competitive industry, catering for up to 4 500 people a day in 60 business conferencing venues, wedding venues, with two restaurants, a grill house, a Mangwanani African Day Spa and a wine bar. Set in 53ha of gardens, close to the central business hub of Johannesburg, the hotel has 665 rooms and in 2014 introduced “a hotel within a hotel” concept with the introduction of an exclusive wing of the hotel aptly named Silverbirch.

“In order to improve our offering towards the new business traveller, we have invested R50-million over the past two years,” says Clarence.

“The introduction of Silverbirch is simply one of the ways we are staying ahead of the demanding business tourism game. At inception Birchwood attracted the corporate traveller with 80% of occupancy being generated by smaller conference groups and the more discerning corporate individual. Over the years we grew our conference offering to such an extent that we became the market leader, which on the downside meant that smaller groups or individuals requiring a more intimate experience were often overlooked. This gave birth to Silverbirch, a distinctive product designed to meet a specific set of requirements very different to that of larger groups,” he said.

Explaining how the hotel is persistently focusing on staying on a par with the constant changes in the industry, Clarence says it is not only the industry that is changing but also the needs of the business traveller.

“Listening to the customer over the years and building a product that meets their requirements is key to Birchwood Hotel’s success. Our proximity to OR Tambo International Airport allows us to capitalise on incoming and passing business clientele. As a family run business, we make decisions quickly and recruit staff who share our loyalty, dedication and commitment for the industry,” says Clarence.

Clarence plans to further adapt Birchwood Hotel’s offering to cater for the minimalistic business traveller through the launch of ValuStay @ Birchwood.

“ValuStay @ Birchwood has been designed to rival our competitors by catering to price sensitive individuals and bigger groups; such as sports teams and schools. We, therefore, have three offerings; Birchwood, Silverbirch and ValuStay @ Birchwood, all appealing to different markets, thus enabling us to achieve high occupancy, better rates and to stay ahead of our game,” says Clarence.

“Birchwood is a different place from when we first started, it is constantly evolving and we are looking forward to making many customers happy in the years to come,” says Clarence.