Valeri Chekheria had to live in a hotel for seven years. It is unlikely that he could have imagined at that point that years later, he would himself run not one, but several hotels, and a business worth $60 million. Today he is the General Director of Adjara Group Hospitality, but his road to that position was neither short nor easy.
FIRST PROJECT – HOLIDAY INN
Perhaps things would not have turned out the way they did had he not given an honest reply to a question posed by the head office manager of Holiday Inn during a Skype job interview, telling the latter that his only experience in the hospitality industry was that he lived in a hotel for seven years. His honesty paid off – Chekheria eventually became the general manager of Holiday Inn.
Today Chekheria is the General Director of Adjara Group Hospitality. For the past five years, he has been managing the largest and fastest-growing company in the Georgian tourism and hotel management sector. The company currently has a portfolio of three functioning hotels with more on the way.
The manager of Holiday Inn Tbilisi, Rooms Hotel Tbilisi and Rooms Hotel Kazbegi, has come a long way prior to entering the hospitality business. Chekheria, who is also a lawyer, began working in the non-governmental sector before switching to the state sector (ministries of Finance and the Economy), and later moving to New York. Having arrived in the United States, Chekheria changed both his profile and his profession. He became a manager, and parallel to his studies, he worked for a company creating hospitality portfolios and selling them to businesses.
He returned to Georgia with a Master’s degree from Columbia University, and received his first job offer from the businessman whose business he is managing today – the partnership between Valeri Chekheria and Temur Ugulava began with the Holiday Inn project.
As a newcomer to the company, Chekheria already had his own strategy, fresh ideas and a core formula. “Love your work. If you do, then success is imminent. I have the ambition to be a leader” –was the secret of his own success, which he then passed on to his team.
As he was starting out, the times were difficult, and the level of trust towards hotels such as Holiday Inn was low. Chekheria had to conduct a lot of work on himself, the brand, and the business. He first changed the style of the business – his team had to switch from the Georgian to the American model, which meant that the working day began at 8 a.m. and lasted indefinitely. That is how he worked himself, and he demanded the same from his team. He knew that achieving progress with the hotel required a 24-hour approach. “It does not matter whether the guests arrive at four in the morning, or at two in the afternoon – they must be met with the same quality of service, and the same smile,” says Chekheria, and it is hard not to believe him, especially when the results are clear and evident in numbers. Only five years ago, the 85-room Holiday Inn hotel was barely operating at 22% capacity. Today, it fills all 270 rooms, and is regarded as the largest hotel in Tbilisi. The success of the first project also brought trust and belief in the future. “We are not simply creating a business, but one with a difference,”notes Chekheria. When he says that, it’s obvious to me that he means Rooms – the first premium-class Georgian brand hotel to meet international standards.
MORE ROOMS – THE FIRST GEORGIAN BRAND
Having lived in the US for six years, he never changed his habits during his subsequent ‘flying visits.’ On one such occasion, as he was having his traditional Sunday brunch on Times Square, holding a Bloody Mary in one hand, and a copy of The New York Times in the other, he made a totally non-habitual discovery: spread across a full page of the newspaper was a report by an American freelancer about a hotel in Georgia. The hotel in question was his own creation – the Rooms Hotel.
Naturally, approval from others trumps self-approval, especially when by ‘others’ we are talking about The New York Times. Chekheria certainly has a reason to feel proud. For him, the success of Rooms was also proof that “if implemented to a high standard, even a Georgian project can be successful and internationally acclaimed.”
The idea about Rooms – and the first hotel bearing the name – came about in Kazbegi (Stepantsminda). The sceptics were many, and they were quick to advise the author of the idea that bringing in a known international brand would be preferable to going with a new Georgian hotel. Indeed, the risks were high. To construct, package and sell a 156-room hotel in Kazbegi was never going to be easy, as Valeri Chekheria knew himself. However, when the owner of the idea, the owner of the business, and the team all believe in the cause and are on the same page, everything becomes easier. “This is precisely why I went to study in the US, investing time and energy – I had the ambition to create something new, something original and Georgian,” explains Mr. Chekheria.
He began to implement his novel ideas using old materials. He started with purchasing century-old hard wood to add a touch of style to the hotel with wall paneling. Traditional Georgian elements blended with contemporary art and lush greenery in their design scheme is what creates a genuine experience for Room’s guests.
“This is one hotel with one particular design, which you may one day grow tired of. What is crucial is the spirit that is found inside,” says Chekheria, thereby explaining both one of the advantages of Rooms, and why he chose the garden of the hotel as the location for the interview.
The first thing that strikes you here is the smiling staff. As my respondent later explained, this is his business group’s calling card. The hotel, where the feeling of space and freedom never leaves you, is for everyone – together with its garden, its restaurant and bar, its conference rooms, and its comfortable lobby. Each detail here is thought-out and functional, from the species and the layout of the plants, to the garden’s inhabitant – a rabbit, which is confidently roaming around in the greenery of this premium-class hotel in central Tbilisi, even as an event such as the NATO Council visit is in progress.
Naturally, the rabbit was there during my visit too, getting to listen to things which it had undoubtedly heard many times before, including Chekheria’s two core functions: one as the generator of creativity and fresh ideas, and the other as a company director who first and foremost cares about his employees. “I am no longer bound to take responsibility for the results, but I am responsible for my employees being happy, and for them in turn, to make the guests happy.”
This is probably the reason the numbers have long surpassed the expectations. Take Rooms Hotel Tbilisi for example, which is operating at an occupancy rate of 84% rather than the calculated 60%, while the average annual income has surpassed the planned 40%. The average annual turnover of Rooms currently ranges between 18 and 20 million, and it has only taken the hotel two years to achieve this result. “We are trying to predict today what the customer will want tomorrow, and act accordingly. We must be ready for tomorrow today,” Chekheria underscored. His 1,200 employees are there to serve this very purpose.
The Adjara Group’s progress has shown in practice that the more interesting product you create, the more interesting the business becomes, while the right service attracts more customers. “We started with Rooms Kazbegi, continued with Rooms Tbilisi, and now we have a new Fabrika hostel project, and this is just the beginning,” says Mr. Chekheria, as our conversation immediately moved on to the latest news, as he starts to explain to Forbes Georgia how a Soviet-era factory can be turned into a European-style hostel.
A FACTORY OF HAPPINESS
The building at 8 Ninoshvili Street has its own history, and so does its name. It once housed the largest textile factory in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. Thus, the building that until now has only served to preserve the country’s Soviet past, aims to now become the epicentre of its European future. Fabrika – a name that translates as factory – is starting a new life. The sewing machines have been replaced by comfortable furniture, the roar of machinery by pleasant music, the textiles by canvases, the grey by the colourful, and the hard work by relaxation. This is more than just a hostel of a size previously unseen in Tbilisi. This place will soon become a cultural centre for students and young travelers, tailored to their wishes and their abilities. One can immediately see upon entering the building that something new and interesting is already happening here, but it is also evident that it is only the beginning, and “what is to follow, will surprise everybody.”
If the wallet in your backpack is small, and your wishes have to be tailored to your limited funds, then the choices in Tbilisi are quite few. You will certainly not be left to sleep on the street, if only thanks to Google’s search engine, which already recognizes dozens of hostels in Tbilisi. However, due to the fact that competition in quality between economy-class hotels has thus far been virtually non-existent, the concept of a hostel in Tbilisi is largely developing in terms of numbers, not in terms of quality.
Adjara Group Hospitality will have to consolidate its leading place on the market in spite of the fact that an economy-class hostel is an unusual start-up for a company that previously specialised in luxury brands. Attractiveness will be dependent upon three factors – service, cleanliness, and low price. The 90-room hostel, which will accommodate up to 400 guests, will stand out through pricing and service.
“Fabrika has everything for living, working, relaxing, and having fun,” Valeri Chekheria confirms. His enthusiasm is contagious, and deserves his $5.5 million’s worth of trust – that is the total cost of the project, which has been partly funded through a loan from the Bank of Georgia. “Unlike us, our children should not remember war in Tbilisi; they should think about places full of happiness, such as this hostel – a ‘factory of happiness’, if you like,” says Chekheria, before telling me about so many more plans from the company that I fear may not be fully accommodated by my recorder or the pages of Forbes.
Fabrika may not be the only project on the Mtkvari’s left embankment that is within the Adjara Group’s scope of interest. There are reports of the company showing interest in purchasing the site of a former thermal power plant that sits there. My respondent would neither confirm nor deny that the group has already begun working on the project.
However, Chekheria did exclusively reveal to Forbes that a Rooms Hotel will appear in Bakuriani next year. An agreement has already been reached with TBC Bank in this regard, and the joint project will be ready for next year’s winter season.
Sites for further Rooms branches have also been identified in the Adjara, Kakheti, Racha and Samegrelo regions. Thus, the Rooms network in Georgia will expand over the next couple of years.
Another one of the Adjara Group’s new undertakings is the air taxi, which will appear in Georgia in November, and will initially fly to Kazbegi, Batumi and Svaneti. The company has already purchased two eight-seat Beech craft aircraft, but the number of planes will increase in accordance with the demand. The company is currently awaiting flying licenses, and will finalize its price list thereafter. However, according to Chekheria, the flights will be quite affordable. The volume of the initial investment into this project is $5 million, but as he quickly points out, “this will definitely increase, just like the business as a whole.”