The strength of a hotel brand—its importance and what it means to traveling consumers—has ebbed and flowed since. While the power of a brand remains debatable throughout the years, one thing is certain: Many hotel franchising companies have adapted their business models, becoming less hoteliers and more so branding, sales and marketing experts.
“It’s a different competitive landscape and hotel companies …. are different animals than they were before,” said Angela Roper, professor and director of the International Centre for Hotel and Resort Management at the University of West London.
Because hotel brands own less real estate, operate fewer hotels and instead have chosen to develop their fee-based business models, the barriers to entry for becoming a successful hotel brand are left wide open, Roper said. A company completely unrelated to the hotel business could come in and set up shop, as long as they’ve got solid system development and a unique technology platform.
Hotel brands have had at least operating experience in the past, Roper said.
“Marriott (International) and Wyndham (Hotel Group) have always been credible,” she added, but now you could create a brand without any operating experience at all.
Fewer owners and operators
Many large hotel brands have moved from real estate-based business models to fee-based business models. Many argue the trend began in October 1992 when then-Marriott Corporation split its ownership and management platforms, creating Marriott International to operate and franchise hotels and Host Marriott to retain ownership of all properties.
At the time, Marriott Corporation owned 136 hotels, managed 415 and franchised 195 hotels. As of March 2013, Marriott International owned six hotels, leased 38 hotels, managed 1,021 hotels and franchised 2,571 hotels.
Most other major hotel brand companies have since followed suit.
“We have moved from investing heavily in hotel properties to return to our roots as a hotel franchise and management company, and reducing the capital intensity of the business,” reads a statement on InterContinental Hotels Group’s investor relations page. As of December 2012, IHG—the parent company of Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza, among other brands—owned 4,192 rooms, managed 170,998 and franchised 500,792 hotel rooms.
Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide executives have not been shy about plans to up the company’s fee-based business. This includes increasing revenues from managed-and-franchised hotels. Currently, managed-and-franchised hotels represent around 90% of the company's total portfolio, compared with 21% in 2004. Starwood's long-term goal is to generate 80% of revenues from its fee-based business.
“It’s not meant to be negative, it’s just a different landscape today,” Roper said. “The online travel agencies, they are pretty close to the customers. They’re on top of computer literacy, where people want to go next and purchasing behavior. The hotel companies have to catch up.”
More branding choices
Despite franchisors focusing less on real estate and more on branding and distribution, Steve Joyce, CEO of Choice Hotels International, said hotel brands today are “more important than ever.” The reason, he said, is one of technology.
“At the introduction of the Internet it gave independent hotels the opportunity to be out there for people to find them like they hadn’t done before. So there was this sense that I can be independent and get a lot of the advantages that I didn’t get before unless I joined the system because I didn’t have reach. There was a sense that the Internet provided that reach,” Joyce said recently during a break at Choice’s annual convention. “The difficulty with that now is that the consumer is on such a rapidly moving trend in terms of how they reach the Internet that if you’re an independent hotel you can’t match it.”
Joyce pointed to technological advances Choice has made as an example of why joining its franchise system keeps hotels on the forefront and drives additional revenue.
“We were the first one that had the iPhone app, and we were downloaded in a million phones before anyone else had one,” he said. “We realized within six months that we were getting a lot of non-PC-based bookings that weren’t coming from the iPhone, they were coming from the iPad. So we had to run and do an iPad app.
“And so it’s a lot money,” Joyce continued. “They’re expensive applications, and you can’t do it as an independent hotel.”
However, Choice also was one of the first companies to introduce a quasi-brand, which gives hotel owners the opportunity to keep their independent name and feel but pay monthly fees to receive sales, marketing and distribution support from a major hotel franchisor. Choice introduced the Ascend Collection in 2008, and several other franchisors followed, including Marriott with its Autograph Collection and Red Lion with its Leo Collection. Ascend recently reached the 100-hotel mark.
“We were the first ones out there that did just a distribution sale,” Joyce said. “We don’t want to tell you what color carpet you need. As long as your hotel is well conditioned, well run, it’s none of our business. You’re just buying distribution from us, and that’s what we’re selling you.
“That is an example of what the future may be for that independent hotel,” he continued. “You buy a set of services from a large brand company that has the ability and the resources to keep up with that rapid moving technology.”
But Joyce will admit he’s not quite sure what the future of hotel branding will be. “If you ask our guys—they’re knee deep in this space—we’re making three or four bets because it could be any one of them,” he said. “The advantages that you get from being part of a large system and the scale that creates is important on the technology side and then it’s critical on the distribution side. You have to have, in this arena, scale and influence to be able to get the right pricing from channels you need to play with.”
Choice recently took a step closer to becoming purely a hotel supplier when it introduced SkyTouch, the outside sale of its previously proprietary cloud-based property management system. Franchisees questioned whether the release of SkyTouch made Choice’s “secret sauce” available to the public, Joyce said.
“You don’t get the distribution, you just get the platform,” he explained. “You don’t get the 40% of revenues that we drive into a hotel. What you get is a terrific technology platform that allows you to manage your property efficiently, allows you check people in and out, allows you to access reservation platforms, but you don’t get ours.”
Brands and financing
Most developers and lenders say hotels attached to brands are much easier to get financed because it takes much of the risk out of generating demand.
“If you plug into one of the big-brand engines, the debt financing is going to be cheaper and the equity more attainable,” said John Rutledge, president and CEO of Oxford Capital Group, in a recent panel discussion. Rutledge’s team has a hotel in New York City called the Metropolitan hotel, which was allowed to keep its name but connected to Hilton Worldwide’s DoubleTree franchise system.
“We felt that we could have our cake and eat it too; we could operate it more entrepreneurial and flexibly as a certain entrepreneurial management team and ownership team, but also plug into that engine,” he said.
In Chicago, Rutledge point to the success of TheWit, where owner ECD Company also teamed with DoubleTree.
“It may have been, literally, ‘The only way we’re going to finance you is if you go with one of the big brand engines’ on the debt side or equity side,” Rutledge said.
“I sit right next to our head debt guy here in Chicago, and if it’s something that’s not branded, he immediately comes into my office and says, ‘What does this even mean?’” added Justin Epps, VP of the hotel group for Cornerstone Real Estate Advisers. “It’s a lot about education and stuff like that.”
Jerry Cataldo, president and CEO of Hostmark Hospitality Group, said resorts in many resort markets operate better independently.
“You can’t justify the expenses of the brand. It’s a very seasonal marketplace, Memorial Day to Labor Day,” he said. “You just can’t overcome the fees that are associated with it. So absolutely the marketplace dictates the brand.”
Roper said the decision by hotel brands to change their DNA ultimately leads owners to question the value and return on investment of adding a major flag.
“What business are they really in?” she said. “If they’re just specialists in branding and technology, they’re very different beasts to how they were years ago. They aren’t interacting with the customer as much.”
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