Budget hotel manager outlines future ambitions amid customer complaints
- Credit: Archant © 2007
The manager of several under-fire budget hotels, marketed under the MJB Group label, has outlined plans to either redevelop or sell off the properties.
Tony Burlingham manages seven properties in Norwich's Earlham Road and Unthank Road, as well as several elsewhere in the county.
However, an investigation revealed yesterday the hotels and rooms to let have been the subject of a raft of complaints, including regular police call-outs, widespread customer dissatisfaction and concern about cleanliness standards.
Today, Mr Burlingham, who owns the properties along with his wife Maxine, reveals ambitions to redevelop and sell off the four properties in Earlham Road, as well as knock down The Lodge at 82 Unthank Road, and replace it with a series of self-catering apartments, transform the Bristol Hotel into self-catering holiday apartments and redevelop the third property on Unthank Road.
He pledges the Lodge Hotel will include a gym, penthouse apartments and indoor atrium, if the proposals are given the go-ahead and supported by people living nearby.
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Here, Mr Burlingham answers our questions.
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What is planned for the new hotel?
'I propose this is going be the poshest building in Norwich.
'I see it as a mini Center Parcs. You would have the bikes out the front.'
He said there would be a gym, a drop-off and pick-up through a tunnel to reduce noise, and penthouse apartments would have their own lifts.
'I think it will be really good,' he said. 'It is the wow factor when you turn up.'
If business is, as you say, good at the moment, why do this?
'If the council turn it (the plans) down then fine. I don't have to change things, but if the hotel is going to go down-market again then at least the public and councillors know where it is going.
'If the residents and the council want it to be better, then I will make it better for them.
'If I get planning permission then I will go and do it. But if they (Norwich City Council) don't give me planning permission, as far as I am concerned they are giving me a mandate (to lower standards).'
Mr Burlingham said new websites such as airbnb and spareroom.com were taking the 'bottom end' out of the market, and the only option for him was to upgrade his hotels, or even lower the standard further.
He added: 'I either go down – but I know the residents aren't going to want that – or you have got to go up.'
What would happen if you went more down-market?
'You wouldn't have any staff at all, you wouldn't clean the rooms. It's just rent a room.
'You just throw someone a lock and say there you go.'
Do you think the new hotel building would be better than what there is now?
'I think it would be better. If it's let at seven-night lets you wouldn't have the late-night revellers.'
How do you tackle reports of drunken behaviour, crimes, drug taking and parties in rooms?
'We have got a very close relationship with the police.
'Who do you think rings the police up when we have a problem? So when we have a raid, do you not think it's us that rings up and says?'
A lot of people complain about an alleged over-zealous parking situation.
'All you have to do is read the sign and text your registration to the right number and you will get a space. If you ignore it then yes you will get ticketed.'
He said there was not enough space to house more than one car for each hotel room.
Has the problem with prostitutes been resolved and if so how?
'If prostitutes aren't in hotel bedrooms where do you want them to go? Do you want them in the street again like they were in Ipswich?'
Why did you take the decision to paint white all the windows in your buildings?
'I am not going to say.'
Several complainants made claims of poor room cleanliness. Does that often happen?
'Did they turn up early? Hundreds of people want to turn up at 12pm. We house thousands of people each month. How many of them actually review?
'If it is as bad as people make out, how do I do 10,000 people a month? If I was a failing business my rates would be going down and my occupancy would be going down.'
Do you feel guilty that the hotels upset nearby families?
'No. Were the hotels there first? Did they move to the area after the hotels were there?
'If you live close to a commercial entity then you are aware of it. The hotels have been there for longer than the people. They would have been a commercial entity since the 1800s.'
Some people say the hotels have ignored their complaints. Is that so?
'If you turn up and you have a complaint you email in. At the end of the day you should go back to the booker. Your contract is with them.'
But he said if people had good evidence of a major problem they were entitled to a refund.
On cleanliness, he said the cleaners took pictures of each room after it was cleaned.
'We have photo evidence of when the room was cleaned. If there are problems then the cleaners are sent back, it is their responsibility. If the room still isn't right the cleaning company gets charged for the guest's night there.'
Mr Burlingham said a planning application would be submitted in the next few weeks for the Unthank Road properties, and if approved, work would begin early next year.
He also says plans for the other hotels will be revealed in due course.
A RESIDENT'S VIEW
A mother-of-two who lives near to the Unthank Road properties offers her account of the issues.
Several weeks ago, I encountered a weeping teenage girl on the forecourt of The Lodge on Unthank Road.
Having a daughter of roughly the same age, I felt duty-bound to check she was OK – broadly speaking, she was, although she'd consumed so much booze that she could barely stand at 8am, but she'd staggered back to the hotel alone and couldn't remember the code to get back into the building.
This wasn't, as we quickly discovered, a problem. The door was wide open and so I took her inside so she could try and reunite with her friends.
The hotel itself, in my opinion a blight on Unthank Road with its shabby appearance, is popular for stag parties and young people who realise that a night out in Norwich can become a far cheaper affair if you forgo the taxi home and book a cheap hotel room.
We stepped over a prone body in a corridor, sleeping off a hangover, to try and find the girl's friends: eventually, she remembered her room number and we found her fellow revellers – I left her trying to find floor space to lie down.
The owners can't legislate for who chooses to book its rooms (although it seems reasonable that they have some form of check as to how many people are in each room) and therefore can't be held responsible for the loud groups that wake up anyone on the route to central Norwich and back from 11pm to 5am onwards. It could, however, be held responsible for the loudness once they are within the confines of the hotel.
We in the Golden Triangle are often accused of being middle-class moaners, masters of the kind of passive-aggression that manifests itself in a chorus of tutting as we walk past and see the smashed, blacked-out windows, the rubbish on the forecourt, a once magnificent building transformed into an eyesore.
I very much hope that the owners look at upgrading the hotels.
Green Party Norwich City councillor for the Nelson Ward, Denise Carlo, said she could not comment on the plans as she was a member of the council's planning committee.
But in her capacity as ward councillor, she said it would be helpful if residents could be given a chance to comment on the proposals before they were submitted. 'Over the past two years, residents have raised many concerns about the budget hotels in Unthank and Earlham Road, notably anti-social behaviour, white film on the windows and the run-down nature of the buildings,' she said.
'It is these issues in particular which have needed addressing.'
Judith Lubbock, city councillor for Eaton, said: 'I am aware the properties have become unsightly. I would welcome any change that would improve the look of the buildings and how they are used.'
Andrew Boswell, Nelson Ward city councillor, said the focus should be to resolve problems nearby residents have now, before submitting any plans. Plans on the table are interesting, but they don't offer any resolutions for residents now,' he said.
'What the community want is here-and-now solutions to the problems.'