As the nation, as well as much of Europe, begins to revive the regular flow of international tourism, the hospitality industry has mobilized to accept the new influx of patrons. Tbilisi has been no exception. Hotels, restaurants, and small businesses are already arming themselves with their goods and services as the new wave of tourists flow into the city. One of these is the Georgian hotel group, Communal Hotels. Their growing collection of boutique hotels have caught the attention of both those seeking comfort as well as an upscale Georgian art and dining experience. Their management team, Katya Samsonadze and Sophie Dzodzuashvili, offer some insight into their history, recent tribulations, and future outlook with Georgia Today.
General Manager of Communal Plekhanovi, Sophie Dzodzuashvili
Would you share some background and what led to where the Communal Group is now?
I think everything started with the idea to create a boutique hotel that was focused on the lifestyle of Georgia, particularly in Tbilisi. We had a family house where my family members and I started to develop the concept of Communal. The name actually came to us naturally because in Tbilisi you have those communal types of houses where people share the bathrooms, showers, and kitchens and they would all live together under one roof, sharing the facilities. We thought “Communal” would best express the concept of the hotel because the very first hotel was housed in a similar sort of building in Sololaki, a very traditional and historical neighborhood of Tbilisi. So it all started there and Communal was born back in 2017, and the idea was obviously to expand this even further and make sure that similar experiences were available for guests and travelers throughout Georgia. Another destination was the historical neighborhood, and this was Plekhanovi. A similar type of scale building here as well, very much reflecting on the era of the neighborhood. Then the company shifted focus to the east side of Georgia, and we have started to look at Telavi, which is the old capital of Kakheti, and Kakheti is the main wine district of Georgia. The company has delivered another property there, Communal Telavi. Overall, Communal is heavily focused on local experiences. Heavily focused on the local food and hiring people from the local area. They know the area best and they deliver the experience that travelers really want; as local as possible and as organic as possible. I think that was the aim of Communal once it started. I think the company has achieved that greatly. There is quite an interesting pipeline as well. The company will open another hotel in Kutaisi, which is the second largest city in Georgia. It’s also quite an international hub because of the airport. It's a fantastic and strategic place to explore West Georgia. So that hotel is in the pipeline, and a few others include Mestia, the mountain resort and ski area, as well as Tsikhisdziri which is in Adjara and a beautiful seaside village close to Batumi and Kobuleti. So that’s basically how the pipeline is looking and the company is growing and trying to reflect on local experiences everywhere we go.
Given the past 12 months, how have you seen the hospitality industry been affected in that time?
It’s been a huge challenge for the hospitality industry, and it’s been an unseen challenge. No one has ever seen this before if you look at the history of the industry, but I think the market is getting back on its feet. People will still travel and enjoy the restaurants. The bounceback is pretty evident with the vaccination, and as long as the vaccination accelerates I think the market will come back. We’ve had quite a tough period, as I think everyone else has, But I think it’s about patience. It’s about love for your business, going through the challenges with your team hand-in-hand and making sure that you still motivate your teams and look up for that bright future. You don't stop and you create, and develop. I believe we have done this quite successfully I would say. Yes, it was challenging, but I think we’re over that challenge and I’m really looking forward to it.
What would you say are the most important and monumental changes that have had to be made since the new year?
The most important ones have been to understand the crisis, to understand the enablers that help you go through the crisis. Communicate very clearly and honestly with your teams. Don't make promises you can't keep, but at the same time be there for your teams, your partners, and try to mitigate those risks and costs that can drag you down. Be as lean as possible from the operational and financial point of view in order to go through the challenge and go through the cycle and eventually survive. Those were the key moves that we had to take, and I believe the rest of the industry as well. And once you come out of that challenge, you are much stronger than you were before because now the companies know they can cope with some turbulence and they can still go through things, and if they have to face a similar sort of crisis again.
A lot of those changes are affected by the epidemiological situation, but do you believe there are other factors that are responsible for those changes?
I don't think there are other factors; I think it’s the virus. I don't consider that other factors were hitting our industry at all because looking back at our trends in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, the industry was growing like never before. And I think there is still a desire for the industry to grow, for the clients to grow. I think it is purely the virus and obviously everything that falls behind that, the relations, the financial constraints, the logistics, and all that.
How would you gauge the government’s response to everything?
I would say it’s not fair to judge the government in retrospect, it’s just not right because when things are happening it’s extremely difficult to make the right decisions at that time. It’s very easy to go back and criticize the government officials after they’ve made the decision. We’ve seen decisions have been made at many different levels and they were wrong, not in this country but in many other countries who are stronger than Georgia from the point of political establishment, resources, and expertise. We’ve seen the same things happening here, and many good control levels. Overall I would say that that the government tried their maximum, there were some areas where the government could have been more liberal in certain areas and ease up the restrictions and could have worked better when it comes to the vaccine, and generally the vaccine rate. It’s not quite what they hope to achieve, but other than that, we’re pretty much in line with the countries that tried to achieve this.
What is the rollout strategy for the return of mass tourism?
I think the market strategy is to adapt to the market demands and needs because the market has certainly changed. Back in 2019, we would see a lot of people that would do a one or two day trip to a different country or city because that was very much the trend. These days it’s not quite like that, because people still have to take the PCR test and other quarantine restrictions so you want to travel for more than a day or two. The average stay has become longer. The average stay has become longer, so some people will visit one destination instead of ten on their holidays and they will try to enjoy the place more. I think the hotels have to amend and adjust their services, because staying in a hotel for a night is one thing, staying in the same hotel for ten days is a different thing. You have to construct your services so that you're still interesting and exciting on day nine. That’s quite a challenge, especially for the urban boutique hotels. These are not resorts.
In competition with some of those resorts, have you partnered with local businesses and community groups to make you stand out?
Oh, big time. I think this pandemic has changed the way a lot in the sense Communal has interacted with the local community. We were always a part of the local habitat, but now the pandemic has allowed for the rates to go down, they are not as aggressive as they were in 2019. Even some of our loyal guests have used it as long term apartments, as they get bored at home and need a change of environment. That has changed the relationship with the locals. We try to keep a dedicated price range to the locals and to the loyals, and keep a certain amount of inventory at an approachable price point.
What makes Communal Unique?
It’s many things, it’s not one thing. It’s quite a complex answer to that. Communal stays true to its concept. We try to create a product that is truly inspired by local experiences and is reflecting the surroundings. Those inspirations reflect the building, the neighborhood, and the city, and that the most essential part, it affects the type of people we hire and the type of training and culture we convey within the organization.
What do you see for the future of your group as normalcy returns?
It’s the ambition of the organization to develop those local experiences in every part of Georgia, and every part of Georgia has a story to tell. It has a dialect and a cuisine all to its own, an independent culture a part of the larger Georgian culture. The idea is to grow the brand and go into different parts of the country. We want to showcase those cultural aspects and experiences those communities provide and eventually make it easier for the modern traveler to experience Georgia with class. It’s an interesting pipeline ahead of us, and the pipeline is growing. So we're not stopping. We’re pushing the boundaries and trying to accelerate the development of the building and development.
What are the biggest challenges your team faces to accomplish all that?
It’s all about resources. Resources are a challenge everywhere, not that they can't be acquired or obtained, it just takes time to find the right people and train them. You need to make sure they share the same methos, the same values, the same culture. It just takes time. Resources are the most critical part but financial resources are not the most critical part because there are investments available. The second thing I would say is the timelines, because a lot of the projects require up to 24 months to deliver. It's quite a process you have to go through. There’s many variables that have to fit in; the right property, the right space. Each one of our spaces are independently furnished and decorated. They are very much independently minded. It almost feels like creating 10 hotels, not 1. Every piece of it is different. So, it’s both the timelines and the resources.