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Hotels: Business as (un)usual

Hogan Lovells and CBRE Hotels hosted their sixth annual hotel conference on 4 February 2015 to explore how hotels are faring in the third wave of the digital revolution. Entitled “Voting with their feet: how to win guests and influence people” in this general election year, the delegates themselves had a chance to vote on their views.

A “return to normal” on the investment front

The polls showed that:

  • 2014 was a good year – in February 2014, 94% of delegates were optimistic about the prospects for the hotel industry in 2014 and in February 2015, 96% felt that they had been vindicated (borne out by the 2014 figures which recorded a total investment volume of £4.6 billion).
  • The sun is still shining – there is continued faith in a buoyant market, with 96% optimistic or very optimistic for the current year.
  • London is still on the up – the cheer was slightly more muted on improvement in London REVPAR (revenue per available room) in 2015, but 70% still expected a rise (most of whom anticipated a slower rate of growth than last year) with 30% expecting REVPAR to be static or decline overall.
  • The regions are resurgent – this year is tipped as the year for the regions to bounce back strongly – with 90% expecting REVPAR growth, only 10% expecting stagnation, and none anticipating REVPAR to fall.

The majority (62%) expected a resumption of normal investment activity as distressed sales, restructures and workouts from the last recession run their course.

An operational revolution

At an operational level, it seems there is no such thing as “normal” and the ground is shifting constantly as hotels grapple with the third digital revolution.  Jonathan Langston of CBRE Hotels interviewed keynote speaker, Tim Brown, VP of Oracle Hospitality, following the merger last year between Oracle and hospitality solution provider Micros. Brian Reeves of GOPPAR Digital gave a message of hope for hoteliers to reclaim ground lost in the battle against booking fees and online booking agents.

Big data will continue to drive developments like the “Shanghai experience” – hotels without a reception desk where hosts in a lounge check in guests with a tablet-pc. This is just the first glimpse of something revolutionary, with technology and social media allowing hotels to deliver a much more bespoke experience and to deploy staff away from administration and repetitive tasks towards enhancing the customer experience. Hoteliers faced with a mountain of data need to remain focussed on their guests and take bold decisions to avoid “analysis paralysis”.

Operators were asked to take the opportunity to treat revenue, sales, distribution, marketing and pricing as a single business function as the distinction between those roles becomes blurred.

“Big data” regulation

Hot on the heels of big data comes greater regulatory protection. Although the picture internationally on data protection is mixed, the proposed Data Protection Regulation will reform the position across the EU, backed up by stiff penalties for non-compliance. At present, it seems likely to come into force in 2016. Hoteliers were cautioned to build future-proofed privacy and data protection into their strategy from the outset and take care to ensure that their customers’ data is dealt with legally.

Panel session: running to stand still

Andrew Sangster, the Editor of Hotel Analyst, chaired a panel of industry leaders who mulled over how sales and marketing are changing and what hoteliers need to do to stay ahead of the game.

The panel comprised:

  • Terri Scriven, Industry Head of Travel at Google UK
  • Graham Dodd, Development Director (UK & Ireland) at Hilton Worldwide
  • Todd Shallan, Portfolio Manager at KSL Capital Partners
  • Brian McCarthy, Managing Director for the UK Valor at Hospitality Partners Europe

Last year more than 50% of hotel searches (although not yet the majority of bookings) were made from mobile devices, but not all brands provide a seamless mobile experience. The panel recognised a widening differentiation for investors between brands who are investing heavily in their online presence and succeeding at driving bookings through their proprietary websites and those who are losing revenue to OTAs’ (online travel agents’) booking fees. Peer-to-peer hospitality sites like AirBnB are generating a large amount of internet traffic. They continue to pose a threat to parts of the budget sector, but it was felt that they should be required to operate on a level regulatory playing field with hotels, who have to comply with stringent hygiene and safety rules.

Independent regional hotels under pressure

David Bailey of CBRE Hotels presented some enlightening statistics which seemed to indicate that (in London at least) approximately 82% occupancy is the level at which room rates start to rise steeply. Independent regional hotels seem to have become the biggest casualties in recent times, with many more closing than opening in the past year.

Rate parity” – the story continues

The fate of the “rate parity” arrangements with OTAs, which maintain a consistent room rate across booking-channels, still hangs in the balance. Despite a supposedly uniform competition law regime within the EU, there is inconsistent treatment of these arrangements across national borders. It remains to be seen whether the arrangements between OTAs and operators will survive the further regulatory scrutiny to which they are being subjected.