"It was important for us to keep the team": Artur Lupashko on the launch of new hotels during the war and the resumption of tourism in Ukraine
Life goes on during the war. And recreation during the war is as necessary as work for the benefit of the state and the Armed Forces. In Ukraine, the main vacation destinations have shifted to the west of the country. We talked to Artur Lupashko, founder of Ribas Hotels Group, about the prospects and opportunities of the new winter tourist season.
- What do you think the new winter season will be like? What is the current level of hotel bookings in Bukovel?
- The booking window in Bukovel in winter remains small, guests book rooms in advance mostly for the New Year holidays. Usually, during the New Year's holidays, tour prices rise dramatically. Then they gradually decrease and return to normal. This was the case before the war, and it is the case now. For example, the cost of a standard room for two at popular resorts can fluctuate around $120, and in the higher price segment, it can reach $250. Early booking can save you money.
- What changes do you see in the development of Bukovel ski resort?
- The example of Bukovel demonstrates a successful integrated approach to development that is constantly ongoing. The owner of the resort makes a significant contribution to the development of the complex and its infrastructure in general: creating roads, sidewalks, attractions, along with ensuring a high level of service and maintenance. Such an integrated approach makes Ukrainian hotels competitive in the global tourism market and attracts more and more attention among domestic tourists.
Today, there are not enough high-quality hotels with exciting design and infrastructure. Such complexes cover only 20% of the demand. Due to the lack of supply, prices for vacation in Carpathian hotels are increasing. To avoid such an imbalance in the future, it is necessary to expand the supply in the region, which will allow more people to take advantage of the opportunity to vacation in Bukovel. Thus, the market needs hotels with restaurants, SPA and similar services.
- What motivated you to continue developing the Ribas Hotels Group hotel chain even during the war (especially during the war)? What factors influenced this and were there any thoughts of putting everything on hold?
- I am guided by a very simple but important rule in life: "If you can work and not stop, do it!". Now we live in a reality where it is difficult to plan or predict anything, so we need to learn to adapt quickly and develop flexibility. The number one task at the time was to keep the team together. This, perhaps, motivated us to continue building new facilities and operating hotels.
Summarizing our work in 2023, we are proud to have continued to develop new projects during the war, as well as to have opened a representative office in Bali, an office in Kyiv, and will soon open one in Warsaw. In addition, we are actively developing our operations in Kazakhstan and Europe and Central Asia.
For example, our company currently exports its services to such countries as Poland, Montenegro, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Georgia, Armenia, Italy and East Asia. The company's immediate plans include opening hotels in Indonesia (Bali), Italy, Cyprus and Yerevan, as well as expanding its hotel chain in Ukraine.
- What were the biggest challenges you faced when launching hotels during the war?
- There are several main factors that create difficulties in launching hotels. In fact, the biggest challenges were the technical aspects of the launch, namely commissioning. Not all contractors could be contacted promptly for one reason or another.
In addition, at all our new facilities, we are currently facing the issue of team building and finding employees who will work in accordance with our requirements and standards.
The issue of operational logistics of equipment is also relevant, as much of it is imported from abroad. Today, suppliers do not leave warehouse stocks, and it takes a long time to wait for the necessary inventory, and sometimes the terms are unclear.
- You have recently taken over the management of a brand new hotel in Bukovel, DIDUKH. It is said that it is unique for your chain - what is the concept?
- It's not just a hotel, but a set of magical details that create an atmosphere where guests are interested in staying and exploring the hotel. This is a space that is difficult to reach, located at a very high point, but for which guests are willing to travel this way. Views, interior details, design aesthetics. This is a place where time stands still. This boutique hotel has only 18 rooms, a large full-fledged SPA, a restaurant with a separate breakfast area, a conference room, a children's room, a closed parking lot, and a ski room.
Given the small number of rooms, each guest in this hotel will feel almost secluded. The service at DIDUKH is at the level of a five-star hotel, although it is a 4-star hotel. In addition, a huge team works for each guest at the hotel. DIDUKH is intimate, and there is also a gourmet restaurant SAZHA with a star chef Yuriy Didenko, so you can go there even for the sake of delicious food.
- They say that this place is worth a visit just to try the dishes from Yuriy Didenko, the star chef of SAZHA restaurant, winner of the Hell's Kitchen project?
- Yes, it is! Nowadays, Chef Yurii Didenko uses his valuable foreign experience gained in Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe to prepare Ukrainian dishes at DIDUKH. You can taste the dishes in the SAZHA restaurant, admiring the panoramic view of the Ukrainian Carpathians. Almost every dish from the celebrity chef is a culinary masterpiece worth coming to Bukovel for. It is important that all dishes are prepared from the freshest, most natural ingredients grown on local farms and collected in the Carpathian forests. The restaurant's specialties are worthy of note: cabbage rolls with bulgur and sun-dried tomatoes, Poltava-style dumplings, heather (stewed meat in beet kvass), spicy bean goulash, borscht with black donuts, Carpathian mushroom soup, and yayohi with porcini mushrooms. The best Carpathian venison tartare is already legendary not only in our country but also abroad. People travel hundreds of kilometers to taste it.
- How many hotels did you open in 2023 and do you plan to open in 2024?
- In 2023, we opened 5 hotels: DIDUKH Eco-Hotel & SPA with 18 rooms, WOL.07 by Ribas with 40 rooms, Graal resort by Ribas with 27 rooms (all three in Bukovel), Mandra Lavadiia with 5 domes (Odesa region), Radisson City Center Odesa with 90 rooms (Odesa). We have also taken 12 development projects under management.
We plan to have facilities in all cities of Ukraine. The next steps are in Lviv, Vinnytsia, Ternopil, Ivano-Frankivsk, Dnipro, and new projects in Bukovel. We are also scaling up abroad.
- Share your trade secrets - which hotels are in the greatest demand?
- The segment of expensive premium hotels and services in general has suffered significantly. This is primarily due to the fact that a large number of wealthy families (mostly women with children) are abroad. This situation leads to the fact that higher-end hotels, especially in times of war, are experiencing great difficulties - we can see this in all indicators. At the same time, the mid-range segment is benefiting from this situation. Therefore, in the new winter season, hoteliers are betting mainly on the middle segment of the business.
- What is your forecast - will foreigners come to Ukraine after the victory? And do you plan for this possibility in your business?
- In general, after Ukraine's victory, it will face big changes. This is also due to the accession to the EU, which will be accompanied by new legislative introductions in the tourism sector and the recovery of tourism. In particular, after the end of the war and Ukraine's accession to the EU, business tourism may determine the demand for visits to major cities such as Lviv, Odesa, Kyiv, Dnipro, and Kharkiv. However, first and foremost, it is important to actively work to change the negative stereotype of Ukraine as a country at war and attract more international tourists to various regions of the country.
Therefore, we cannot expect a quick recovery in tourist arrivals from Western countries, particularly from Europe and the United States. For Europeans and Americans, stability, security, and predictability are key aspects when planning long-term travel.