Nikola Avram, member of the Board of Directors of MK Group in charge of hotel business, tourism and real estate, on the eve of the opening of Sheraton Hotel in Novi Sad, discusses the importance and potentials of such a project, unused and used potentials of Serbian tourism as well as the approach to hotel business that brings success.
The focus is now on the upcoming opening of the Sheraton Hotel in Novi Sad. Being that MK Group never focuses only on a hotel, but on the improvement of the overall tourist offerings for a certain destination, will that be the case with Novi Sad as well? For instance, like it was the case with Kopaonik.
With the opening of this hotel, Novi Sad will get a lot of promotion. Sheraton is an icon in the global hotel industry, a brand with a long history and one of Marriott’s most numerous brands, represented throughout the world. We feel that bringing Sheraton to Novi Sad is a great achievement, since this is the first international brand-name hotel in a town that is experiencing dynamic development. International brands provide a major boost to a tourist destination’s marketing and positioning of a tourist destination, as the brand itself is something that is trusted, the quality of which is expected and taken as certain.
There are currently 100 million people who are loyalty members of Marriott hotels. This means that all of them, business visitors or tourists, will get Novi Sad as one of the main choices in the region when they search for hotel accommodation.
We are also working to establish a good cooperation with the Novi Sad Fair, other congress centres and main stakeholders, but also to acquaint our guests with other worthwhile sites in the city and in the surrounding area, all packed into a single product and a special experience – from wineries, salaš homesteads, monasteries and historical sites to a unique experience of a multicultural, multi-ethnic environment such as the area surrounding Novi Sad.
The hotel covers 13,000 meters squared and has 150 rooms and apartments, seven multifunctional conference halls and a luxurious spa centre at the 10th floor, with views over the entire Novi Sad, club lounge for the members of Sheraton Club, a la carte restaurant, wine & tapas bar, as well as a top-notch fitness centre. The Congress Centre takes up an entire floor and is equipped with cutting edge devices for event organization and monitoring.
MK Group is the first company from this region to have passed through the Marriott licensing process. What does this mean for your operation?
We are trying to establish closer cooperation with Marriott, and with our project in Novi Sad, we are striving to prove ourselves and show that people from Serbia can and do operate in this business at the highest level. Through our cooperation with Marriott, we are tapping into a global expertise in marketing, sales, distribution, digital channels and operations, which will help us further develop and build our company’s capacities.
When it comes to trends in environmentally responsible operation, MK Mountain Resort is keeping up with the world. In Kopaonik, you are very successfully implementing environmentally sustainable projects, but it seems that they have not been entirely accepted in Serbia. Why do you think that is?
In Serbia, bureaucracy is still the largest obstacle. It takes a lot of time and effort to set up sustainable projects and use green energy resources. We have proven in Kopaonik that we can implement all of this in reality and we have achieved amazing savings. Our objective, since our arrival to Kopaonik, has been to preserve the national park for future generations. It’s bad that there are still many places in Serbia that lack environmental awareness; but with our accession to the EU, I believe we will be heading in a better direction in this segment as well. In any case, our company will continue using an environmentally sustainable business approach in all its projects and sites. We are currently working on such a project in Slovenia, where we will try to use all the energy available in our natural environment for the functioning of the hotel.
At the moment, certain statistics say that Serbia is using 20 percent of its tourist potential. What do you think is the most valuable, but unused potential in our country?
I believe this percentage to be, unfortunately, much lower. It is difficult to list all unused potentials, more difficult than those that have been valorised properly. For foreign guests, Serbia still primarily means Belgrade, which has a fantastic offer, first and foremost in its warm and wonderful population. But many foreigners have not been encouraged sufficiently to start exploring this country outside of its capital. Serbia is brimming with amazing beauty and tourist potential. Complex tourist products need to be designed and offered to foreigners – this is the only way to make other destinations and attractions outside of Belgrade available to them. In addition, our tourism isn’t strictly bound to the summer and the sea, or to skiing. We have the potential to be a destination that offers tourist content year-round.
This is the direction you are taking Kopaonik in; you have popularized it as a top-notch destination for all seasons. How satisfied are you with the results you have achieved in this field?
I have to say that we are very satisfied. We now have a winter season of 120 days, which we are still trying to expand further. In addition, we have more guests in July and August than in March, which was something no one could have imagined in the past. In April, May and June we have a congress season, the same goes for October and November. In this period, every weekend is completely booked. So, things can be achieved if you approach your goal in the right way. In Portorož, where we arrived two years ago through the purchase of Hotel Palace, where we had three months per year when the hotel was closed for guests, by increasing profitability and extending the season, we have now come to only one month of closing down. We want to approach our future projects in the same way.
What are your future plans for the region?
We are expanding quickly. Next year, we will probably have a few large acquisitions in Croatia and Slovenia. It is too early to make any announcements, but if we were to talk again in a year’s time, I expect we would have three or four additional hotels within our system to discuss.
You have been living here for seven years. What makes you, personally, love Belgrade? What do you usually recommend to your guests, what should they see?
Belgrade truly has an amazing energy that makes me really feel at home here. After two years spent in Belgrade, it is easy to feel as if you were born here.
As for recommendations, I am a bit biased. I always recommend Kopaonik first. I have been working there for seven years, participating in the development of that destination.
For instance, in winter, you have ski in and ski out in Kopaonik, which gives you the option of going straight from the hotel onto the ski track, which is something you don’t get in a lot of places. Not even to mention the excellent night life, at the level no other ski resort in Europe can match. There is also food, wonderful people, natural beauty… I would love it if everyone came to see this impressive place, which people usually don’t expect at a three-hours driving distance from Belgrade.
By Miljana Nešković