an “olympic year” for the hotel industry

Will the Olympics be good for business? Maybe, but maybe not according to a recent survey by Visa Europe, consumer spending will soar by £750m during London’s Olympic Games next summer. The survey also forecasts a sustained boost to the British economy of a total £5.1bn over the next four years.

However, Michael Saunders, of Citigroup, has examined the data from ten Olympics held between 1964 and 2008. He finds that growth tends to rise in the run-up to the tournament, but the effect starts to fall away even before the games begin. Then afterwards, growth tends to be weaker.

Visa Europe’s report concedes: “This is a first for an Olympic Games host market, which usually experience a domestic spending slump during the Games. This will be driven by the public’s enthusiasm for the Games, demonstrated by the high demand for Olympic tickets.” Who is right? We shall see. It is perhaps ironic that a year that brings the largest sporting event that the UK has ever seen may also herald a break up of the Euro. The hotel industry is, of course, international by its nature. If a Eurozone break up was to occur it has been estimated that we could see national currencies devaluing by up to 40%, impacting profits derived from Euro transactions. Fingers crossed…To add to the litany of others, there is the potential threat of the “staycation”, where people choose to spend their vacation time at or near home in order to save money.

However, “holidaying at home” has boosted UK demand, with Butlins and Haven holiday parks seeing a 6% rise in pre-tax profits to £93.4 million in the year to December 2010, thanks to Britain’s ‘staycation’ trend as the weak pound makes it relatively expensive to go overseas. So actually, perhaps that is a good thing. Whatever your take on prospects for the future, it is a fact that the UK leads the way in hotel property sales and investment. In 2010 it topped Europe in terms of hotel transactions, with a figure of €1.9 billion.

In recent years, private equity firms have made big profits through aggressive acquisition strategies. However, they no longer have the influence they perhaps once did at a time when funds are hard to borrow and valuations declining. Some funding is moving back towards traditional models, such as the Feathers Hotel Group, one of the fastest growing hotel chains in the North West of England. They announced in October 2011 that they are to invest further money into their portfolio of three
and four-star hotels with the continued financial support of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Corporate and Institutional Banking (RBS CIB) team.

Other funding models, increasingly popular with the value hotel chains, are a little more complex. The concept is that a developer, who is often also a contractor, builds the hotel and then leases it to an operator for 25-30 years at a predetermined rent level. The operator never actually owns the hotel. Containing cost is an essential part of making these arrangements work, and so a particular approach is necessary. Planning costs can be minimized by an appreciation of the appetite each planning authority has for such schemes, be they new build or the increasingly popular conversion of 1960’s and 70’s office blocks. An understanding of the necessary occupancy levels and room numbers, together with an operator’s preferred location criteria, footprint and mix of retail and accommodation on a development avoid wasted time and money. Construction utilizing modular techniques may cost a similar amount to that using conventional techniques. However, construction times, even on complex projects, can be substantially truncated – perhaps by as much as 60% – greatly reducing the overall cost of the building. This innovative approach can make otherwise unworkable schemes viable for both developer and operator.

One such value hotel chain, Travelodge, announced in December 2011 that they would target 146 new UK sites for openings in 2012, including 26 new hotels throughout London to be opened ahead of the Games – all within walking distance of the Olympic venues. So clearly the model can be successfully employed. The boutique hotel sector, after undergoing a period of expansion over the past few years, is also proving resilient. Smaller properties commanding higher revenue per room have proved attractive to operators grappling with the economic downturn. Research suggests it is the fastest growing hotel segment in London and is expected to have doubled in size by 2013. In conclusion, it has been said that if you took all the economists in the world and laid them end to end… they still could not reach a conclusion!

Despite uncertainty in the market, smart hotel operators are continuing to invest; to take advantage of the many opportunities that come their way, and to build their businesses. Now is the right time for all operators to identify what opportunities are available to take advantage of, whether through acquisition or redevelopment. Every operator should be looking for a positive advantage, not just preparing for the worst, which may never happen.

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