AX Hotels – Room with a View

Following the impact of the Covid pandemic, AX Hotels is strengthening its brands and planning a future-facing approach for the hospitality arm of AX Group.

When talking to anyone in the hospitality industry these days, the conversation will not go far before it touches upon the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We have had two very challenging years. During the pandemic, our normal operations were reduced to a minimum, and unfortunately, we were equally hard hit by the crisis of understaffing. This was especially so in the hotels division with continuous operational disruptions as foreign workers left or were repatriated whilst Maltese workers left the tourism sector entirely and moved to other jobs,’’ says Kevin Callus, General Manager of AX Hotels in Sliema and Valletta. “Despite AX Group’s fair treatment of its employees, with all directly employed staff receiving full salaries, some people still lost faith in the industry and moved elsewhere.”

Since then, of course, the hospitality business, and particularly the hotel sector has begun to recover, with consumers as eager to leave lockdown as businesses are to receive them.

“For the past 12 months we’ve been rebuilding our systems, structures and faith in the industry,” Callus says. “I can say we have succeeded. We’re operating at full steam, and our hotels are in demand. Our outlets are very busy, outside catering is gearing up and we have enough workforce to sustain that growth.”

Checking In

AX Hotels forms part of AX Group, which was founded by its Chairman, Angelo Xuereb. The Group trades not only in the hospitality sector, but also operates in construction, development, healthcare, real estate and renewable energy.

Today, the next generation of the Xuereb family is following in their father’s footsteps to drive the AX brand forward into new and diverse arenas of growth with Claire Zammit Xuereb serving as AX Group’s Director of Hospitality and Care, and Denise Xuereb acting as Director of Construction and Development and CEO of AX Real Estate.

The Group’s hotel business itself, however, is undergoing a period of intense rejuvenation and growth.

“Of course, we are also very strong on the hospitality side, with seven hotels and 14 restaurants in operation, and as of next year, that number will increase,” Callus says. “Seashells at Suncrest is being transformed to inspire the regeneration of a coastal community into a vibrant and thriving year-round destination for locals and tourists alike.  And in tandem, works are progressing at a very fast pace on our 8th property – The Verdala Hotel which is set to be the pinnacle of AX’s portfolio in its story thus far. With the opening of The Verdala Hotel, AX Hotels will become Malta’s largest hotel operator.

Despite being Malta’s largest hotel operator, however, that hands-on, family business approach remains.

“We are a family business, we have that welcoming ambience, and we are a local brand,” Callus says. “We are a large regional hotel brand, but we treat our staff as part of the family business. The brick-and-mortar aspect of the firm means the quality of our projects is high-end and always built around the customer experience. This pillar is at the centre of everything we do. As a local family business, we emphasise and live by our company values.”

Sustainable Business

While the entire hospitality sector is doing all it can to put the pandemic behind it, there are still more challenges facing the industry.

“As raw material costs increase, the profitability of the business is being adversely affected,” Callus admits. “However, we are mindful that even the end consumer is feeling the pinch in their pocket and therefore our goal is to find creative solutions to such challenges, without increasing prices across the board.  Value for money remains at the centre of our philosophy.

“In parallel, we also face important issues such as flight availability for the island. At this point in time, we are still not operating at the same flight capacity as in 2019 yet, which is a big problem when considering that the hotel industry is growing by the minute. It’s an interesting summer to manage a hotel!”

As well as reacting to crises, AX Hotels is also proactively working to give back to the community by implementing sustainable and environmentally friendly measures across its various divisions.

“AX Group has just announced its participation in a multi-ESG alliance; a private sector initiative to tackle local environmental, social, and governance priorities,” Callus says. “This shows the confidence in AX Group’s commitment to sustainability.”

As well as joining this alliance, AX Group has been changing over its entire fleet to electric vehicles while eliminating single-use plastics and launching initiatives to promote local cuisine.

“Our menus try to use local produce wherever possible, and we are removing single-use toiletries,” Callus says. “We are also investing in renewable energy. We have built a solar farm as a new business within the Group. Our goal is for any future developments to be near zero-emission buildings.”

A People-Centric Business

Callus is the first to remind us that all these schemes and projects would be for nothing if it wasn’t for the people who kept AX Hotels running.

“We work hard on staff retention and development, and we try to create an enjoyable and positive working environment,” Callus says. “Family, people, and the quality of our projects, those are the things that make AX Hotels an employer of choice.”

He speaks proudly of AX Group’s diverse, multicultural workforce, and of the fact that the Group’s aim is not to create jobs – but to create careers.

‘’We believe that our assets and finances are only as strong as our people. We seek to employ trustworthy, skilled individuals and do our utmost to invest in our workforce as we do in our assets – by building up their value for the long-term.’’ Callus says. “Our mission is to be an employer of choice in the markets we operate in. We have our own platform, AX Careers, where people can easily follow what’s happening within the Group in terms of opportunities, motivating our employees to apply.”

It is also essential for the staff to have the right environment to train people. AX Hotels has a training academy providing mock restaurant and hotel scenarios to team members in training. This supplies employees with a structured area to practise certain hospitality roles, such as checking guests in/out and restaurant service, to hone their skills for real-life situations.

By attracting and nurturing new talent, AX Hotels is ensuring its own future, running not just its own hotels, but also offering its renowned expertise to other local hotels in the form of a management contract.

“We want to keep growing. At AX Hotels, our aim is also to secure management contracts for entrepreneurs who are typically more interested in the investment opportunity rather than running the operations of the hotel,” Callus points out. “We can also support hoteliers who are struggling to make their business work. We’re offering a wealth of knowledge and experience gained over decades of service coupled with the expertise that will guarantee professional management with impeccable attention to detail.”

The future is full of opportunities for AX Hotels. The firm has just acquired a building it intends to convert into a co-sharing office space, diversifying its offering still further, and now the Group is looking at potentially expanding internationally over the next three-to-five years.

“We are creative and innovative, these remain our core pillars,” Callus says. “We are always on the lookout for new ideas.”

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