Independents in the ascendant: Hotel chains are losing out to small businesses - but temporarily, says Elizabeth Heathcote

Click to follow
HOTEL occupancies are at a 10- year low and bankruptcies are at a post-war high. But it is not only the receivers who are benefiting. For the first time in years, those independent operators who have not been dragged down by debt claim to be winning back ground from the large corporations.

'A year and a half ago, there was a feeling that the independents were not going to survive,' said Nigel Embry, chief executive of Best Western Hotels, a consortium for independent owners. 'Now there is a lot of evidence of a move back by customers.'

A shift has also been noted by the business appraisers Pinders, a subsidiary of the property group Christies, whose inspectors assess hotels for mortgages. 'Big hotel groups are losing custom to smaller independents and high-class bed and breakfast establishments,' a spokesman said.

Stephen Marriott, associate director of operations at Pinders, points particularly to business from companies and commercial travellers, the sector most sharply affected by recession. He believes that less senior people have been trading down, or at least away, from the better-known brands.

It was brand development to attract the professionally itinerant, along with economies of scale, that provided the strongest arguments for chain ownership. People like to know exactly what to expect from a hotel: that means they are prime candidates for branding. Getting a brand established in the national consciousness is extremely expensive; the larger the chain, the smaller the cost per unit.

The traditional one-man-and- his-hotel ownership structure has been eroded for years by the growth in chains. The trend started in the US where 50 per cent of hotel rooms are controlled by multiples; this figure is expected eventually to reach 70 per cent. The share in Britain is smaller - less than 30 per cent - but is growing steadily. Since 1985 when Caterer and Hotelkeeper magazine conducted its first annual survey, the 50 largest owners have increased their holdings from 102,679 to 136,293 rooms.

Branding is most effective where quality is patchy - but this is becoming less and less true in Britain. Heavy investment over the past decade has improved standards across the industry.

Although the pages of the Financial Times have been littered with advertisements from receivers looking for buyers for independent hotels, many of these failures have been attributable to the debt legacy of the upgrading process rather than to a trading loss.

Where an independent has managed to avoid this trap it has, according to Mr Embry, some important advantages, particularly when it comes to cutting costs. 'The management can come back to man the pumps,' he says. 'So staff cut-backs can actually lead to higher standards.'

'Sixty-five per cent of our business is returns or recommendations,' says Sandra Elliott, owner of the Grapevine Hotel at Stow- on-the-Wold. 'It is essential that the customers can see no evidence of cuts. I think that an independent is in a better position to manage that.'

Cuts have been the inevitable conclusion of falling occupancies. According to Horwath Consulting, the leisure consultancy division of Stoy Hayward, the accountants, occupancies in English hotels fell by 6 per cent in 1991. Levels were down by a further 5 per cent in the first six months of this year. Discounting, whether directly on the tariff or by constructing low-cost packages, has been the inevitable response.

The cheaper end of the hotel market has proved the most resilient for independent and corporate owners alike. 'Budget is the only area currently growing,' says Simon Johnson, an analyst at Kleinwort Benson. The chains have recently moved into this sector in force, a process that Mr Johnson describes as 'cannibalising themselves,' because it will tempt customers to trade down. This area of the market is still dominated by family-run bed and breakfast businesses. Market analyst Mintel International estimates there may be 12,000 B&Bs in Britain.

There are disagreements over whether B&Bs will suffer as the chains move downmarket. Nick Kellock, managing consultant at Pannell Kerr Forster, believes they are 'fairly safe. Bed and breakfasts are usually money on the side; there are no investment criteria to meet'.

Peter Hilliar, leisure analyst at BZW, disagrees. 'Bed and breakfasts are most probably losing out to budget hotels,' he says. He points to 'the most successful' Travelodge, Forte's budget brand. 'It is the same price as a B&B, the economies of scale are huge and it benefits enormously from a central reservation system,' he says.

In the long run, it seems inevitable that the big chains will eventually win out, even if they are losing ground temporarily. 'The independents lack market muscle,' says Mr Johnson. Mr Kellock agrees: 'The industry is moving more and more towards chains and conglomerates,' he says.

(Photograph omitted)