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Looking out over Belfast from an upper floor of the Days Hotel, Rajesh Rana is delighted to be accepting an accolade in recognition of his work as a leading figure within Belfast’s hospitality industry. The 46-year-old hotelier has further reason to be optimistic. As Director of the Andras House Group, he is responsible for five major hotels, along with serviced apartments and commercial properties. He has more plans in the pipeline, too.
"The £2.5m refurbishment and rebrand that we've undertaken at Days which will see us reopen as Holiday Inn (in mid-August) will see an utter transformation of the property," he enthuses. "At 250 bedrooms, the quality and size of the remodeled hotel, along with its international recognition, will be a real benefit to Visit Belfast when they're selling the city as a conference venue."
Rajesh’s enthusiasm for Belfast's potential -with its accompanying sense of civic responsibility - was cultivated early. He spent his adolescence watching his father, Lord Rana, build up his hotel group through sheer hard work and very turbulent political conditions.
"My father launched the Andras Group in 1981," says Rana. "I was at his side as he rebuilt our property portfolio 25 times or more after it suffered damage during the Troubles. He never once lost his belief in the city. Right from those early days, I've shared his appreciation of Belfast's energy and spirit of hard work."
It must have been tempting for Rajesh to roll up his sleeves and pitch in, but he wanted to gain a perspective on the UK economy as a whole, and to learn more about the mechanics of property development.
"I studied architecture at Oxford and went on to practice as an architect," he says.
"Learning about and then actually making buildings gave me a broader sense of how a project integrates with the built environment, and with the local economy."
That perspective would help Rajesh plot Andras Group's path through the recession after his return to the city in 2008.
Rajesh's return as director brought a new infusion of energy to the Andras group. In rapid order, he oversaw the construction of two new Ibis Hotels in 2009 and the 2010 renovation of Belfast's Holiday Inn Express. But he has particular affection for the work he undertook recently at the Ramada Plaza at Shaws Bridge. Originally built in 2001, the 120-bedroom hotel was conceived as the Andras House Group's flagship. The £1.5m refurbishment which was completed earlier this year delivered a revamped banqueting space and brand new contemporary lobby and wedding suite, bringing the hotel firmly into line with up-to-the minute trends. "We did a lot of work on the Ramada Plaza to upgrade it in terms of conference facilities and meeting space," he says. "In our experience, that's the best way to maintain a close engagement with the local business community."
That connection was fully recognized earlier this year when Rajesh was awarded a highly coveted President's Recognition from the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce. "I was delighted to accept the award and am deeply appreciative of the recognition that myself, family and the wider Andras team have been given as leaders in Belfast's hospitality industry. But we don't intend to rest on our laurels."
Indeed, earlier this year, Andras Group lodged planning permission for a new 179-bedroom £12m hotel development in the heart of the city centre. It seems that Rajesh Rana won't be hanging up that hard hat any time soon...