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French Version

After $15 million refurb Phoenicia Hotel reopens (Daily Star)

Gala events scheduled to bring back both Lebanese and overseas guests

This morning, for the first time in nearly two months, guests are once again waking up at the InterContinental Phoenicia hotel.

Although its prime location along the Corniche has been one of the hotel's strongest selling points, it also put it next to the massive explosion that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 17 others on February 14, and which also devastated the hotel.

The first guests are a drop in the ocean in the complex of almost 500-rooms but the Phoenicia's director of operations for Lebanon, Pascal Gauvin, hopes this is just the beginning.

He said: "We know the level of [reservation] activity is not very high yet, but we know, with having the reopening today, the phone will start ringing again."

When it comes down to it though, the hotel and other businesses in the area are desperate for their guests to return.

The Phoenicia's reopening has come with a hefty price tag. Gauvin estimates cost of repairs and upgrades, when completed, will hit $15 million - and that estimate will not include the cost of lost business.

He said: "Last year this hotel was cruising at 80 percent occupancy for the year. Now we have been out of business completely for two months. You can imagine what that means for lost revenues, and we will still lose until we are back in business."

Hence the rush to get the doors open again and the rooms filled.

Headwaiter at the nearby Cafe d'Orient, Souheil Hakim, says his waterfront restaurant lost 90 percent of its clientele after the explosion.

He said: "We are between five hotels here. This is where our customers come from, but now the hotels are empty and so are we."

According to former Finance Minister Fouad Siniora, "the Phoenicia hotel will always represent a major part of the Lebanese economy."

He added: "Rafik Hariri overcame all the obstacles in order to rebuild the hotel, which he always considered as a symbol of the Lebanese economy."

Although the doors have reopened and half the rooms are available at the Phoenicia, staff outnumber guests by more than 10 to one. Only seven arrivals were expected yesterday, with another 10 to 15 today.

Gauvin said: "We're optimistic, but it's not going to be easy. The next two months are going to be difficult. We believe until the parliamentary elections are over we will struggle."

He predicts nearly two-thirds of the hotel's rooms will stay empty until at least the summer.

To counter this trend the hotel has launched a new advertising campaign to help return to its former prominence.

Gauvin says: "The first goal we have is to sell the destination. We need to bring back confidence in Lebanon. So this is what we are going to sell to the community in all the Gulf area, to come back to Lebanon."

The advertisements show scenes of Lebanon's beaches, ski slopes and shopping centers framed with the campaign's slogan: "Why go to Europe when you have all this close to home?"

Gauvin said: "The good thing about the Gulf market is, first of all, people there are very resilient. And secondly, people are making their plans very late, so we still have a chance to go for good business in the coming months."

However, he added that hotels in other destinations popular with Gulf Arabs are presently experiencing a boom.

"The Carleton [hotel] in Cannes, France has really seen an increase in reservations compared to the year before. It's not a very good sign for us, meaning that there is already a shift of people going to other places or thinking about alternatives," Gauvin said.

To balance against this, the Phoenicia is looking to bring back local Lebanese who used to eat at its restaurants or hold receptions and parties in its Grand Ballroom.

"We want to make sure people aren't scared to come back to this hotel; that people feel comfortable and safe in this hotel," says Gauvin. "I know it's not easy. People are scared to go out at night; they want to stay home and watch the news."

To lure clients, the Phoenicia is planning a number of events to celebrate its grand re-opening, including an opera performance Friday night followed by traditional Lebanese music Saturday in the hotel's Les Cascades Lobby Lounge.

There will also be a "Family Day" in the Grand Ballroom Sunday and a fashion show on April 13, the commemorating date of the start of the Lebanese civil war.

"We really believe that all of these actions together will really help us, the hotel and Lebanon, to come back," says Gauvin.

"On February 14, the day of Hariri's assassination, at 6 p.m., we had our first meeting with our insurance company about re-building," Gauvin says. "We are mostly covered by insurance. Sabotage and terrorism insurance is compulsory for a hotel like the Phoenicia."

"It's very costly, but at the end of the day, you see the results."

Beirut 11-04-2005
James Fitz-Morris
The Daily Star

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