Simon Calder: Britain's hoteliers could be facing a lean spell


Last time I checked, the hotel that soars skywards from the heart of Manchester announced itself to be the "Hilto" – which I make a reduction of around 17 per cent in the brand's original name. Quite appropriate, given the slump in hotel rates across almost all of Britain, as revealed this week in a travel survey.

Few terms are more malleable than "travel survey". For example, a survey has been conducted exclusively for this column about Luton airport's new charge of £3 to jump the security queue. Eighty per cent of travellers say it is "outrageous". How do I know? Because I asked my colleagues on the travel desk at Independent House to confirm that they agreed that the latest attempt to pick the pocket of the long-suffering passenger for a "priority lane" was an outrage.

Sophie, Kate and Jessica complied (possibly because I also said I was about to make the tea), which makes four out of five; Ben was halfway down an Austrian Alp and out of radio contact. Probably just as well – otherwise the score could have been 100 per cent, which perhaps looks too much like a Cuban or North Korean election result.

The point about the survey, the Hotel Price Index, is that it provides a precise reflection of what people have paid for rooms in thousands of hotels across the UK – and the world. So when it says rates across Britain fell by 12 per cent in the last three months of 2008, compared with a year earlier, it should concentrate the minds of the UK's hoteliers.

The sharpest falls were in north-west England. Manchester room rates slumped by 19 per cent to £73. Visitors to Blackpool paid £6 more, but because previously the average was just over £100 a night, this represented a drop of 22 per cent – the steepest in the survey. Birmingham and Belfast saw rates decline by 17 per cent – the same proportion as the name of what used to be Manchester's Hilton.

Profitability is not heading entirely south: in the west of England, Bath increased its lead as the most lucrative territory for hoteliers, with guests paying an average 3 per cent more – an average of £119, well ahead of London. And Cardiff bucked the trend with the biggest increase anywhere in Britain: up 7 per cent to £93. Its hotel rates are now on a par with Barcelona and Munich. Edinburgh remains slightly ahead of the Welsh capital, at £95, but has slipped behind Buenos Aires and San Francisco because the pound is now so puny.

With this sort of forecast, you might expect capacity to shrink – but because decisions to build new hotels are made years ahead, an estimated 16,000 hotel rooms are under construction in London alone. THE GLOBAL outlook looks gloomy from the hoteliers' point of view, which means potential bargains for holidaymakers. The bottom of the table reflects the economic despondency felt in Iceland (Reykjavik down 23 per cent to £62). Las Vegas hotel rates have dropped by one-sixth in sterling terms, to £62, due to the recession in the US. And Riga is even more of a bargain than it was a year ago, with room rates dropping £6 to a flat £50.

Moscow remains the most expensive city, at £207 – though when I conducted an exclusive survey of my pal there, Neil McGowan, he said "These reports serve mainly to justify the fat-cat expenses of management consultants sent on Moscow postings. You can happily find a decent room for £70 a night – excluding the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest in Moscow, of course".

The fall in hotel rates in London could save us taxpayers money. As the row about MPs' allowances rumbles on, the survey shows that giving politicians rooms in London hotels would prove cheaper than second homes. At an average of £111 per night, the MPs' Additional Costs Allowance of £24,006 would pay for a room four nights a week, year-round.

Overseas visitors are enjoying a win-win spring: the average prices paid in the final three months of 2008 was €116 by Europeans and $183 by Americans, a quarter less than the previous year. Things can only get better for foreigners: the analysts at PricewaterhouseCoopers expect "The decline in rates to accelerate in each quarter of 2009".

Saving cash is the way forward – and WWF Earth Hour has arrived at exactly the right time (8.30pm tonight, in fact). The conservationists are asking individuals and organisations to switch off their lights for an hour this evening, to highlight climate change. Hilton will host candle-lit dinners – and switch off exterior lighting and neon signage. The savings on the electricity meter could surely run to a new "n"?

Hilto(n) Manchester Deansgate: 0161 870 1600;

Way to go: eggs and feng shui

What is the accommodation take on the economic "green shoots of recovery"? The bubbling Teasmade of revival, I guess, or the warming trouser-press of optimism. Is there any hope on the horizon? Yes, says David Green of The Wellness Home, a b&b in west London (020-8995 1053;

"We're 70 per cent sold for April already," he says. "For some reason, the whole world has decided to descend on us." The secret appears to be to have the right niche: fresh, organic food and "harmonious surroundings based on feng shui principles", in his case.

Alternatively, you could offer Fairtrade Easter eggs and a deal exclusively for readers of The Independent Traveller. That is the offer from the enterprising Sunley Management Centre, just north of Northampton (venue for Charles Rennie Mackintosh's stunning interior of 78 Derngate, above).

This business venue is elbowing into the leisure market. A three-night Easter break for two, including breakfast and a chocolate egg on Sunday, works out at only £20 per person per night. To book, call 01604 892 020 and quote 'Independent Easter'.

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