|by Robert Braun, September 2004
Over the years, the hospitality industry has witnessed the ebb and flow of branded hotels in the marketplace. Not long ago, we rode the wave from branded to independent properties. But the tide has changed, and today brand power reigns. Along with this resurgence has come the increased use of franchise agreements (sometimes called license agreements) as an alternative to traditional management agreements. The sea change is visible across all service levels and product types—limited service, full service and even upscale brands— and it brings with it both opportunities and pitfalls for owners and franchisors.
The Owner’s Opportunity
Franchising provides owners with attractive opportunities:
While a franchisor may not have the same day-to-day control over a hotel’s operations, the franchise option provides a vehicle for the franchisor to:
Caveat: Franchise agreements are subject to various laws, and any agreement that meets the definition of a “franchise” can be subject to franchise regulation no matter what it is labeled.
Negotiating Franchise Agreements
As noted above, one reason that franchise agreements are increasingly popular is the standardization of the agreement. As a result, the negotiation of a franchise agreement is typically not as lengthy or detailed as the negotiation of a management agreement with a brand operator. At the same time, depending upon the pedigree and power of the brand, franchise agreements generally have more limited prospects for negotiation, but even with the strongest brand owners can productively seek important changes from standardized terms in the following areas:
Fees. Sometimes the normal fee structure can be modified. For example, a franchisor may be willing to reduce license fees to have a branded presence in a key location as operations are ramping up, or to help an owner with the burdensome costs of a brand conversion or a major capital improvement program.
Unique Hotel Characteristics. Critical issues of variance from brand standards may be negotiated in cases where franchises go beyond “plain box” properties to design-oriented, themed and boutique properties.
Property Improvement Plans (PIPs). If the franchisor requires a PIP, the terms are negotiable and should be considered carefully. (PIPs are often required when a property is converted from one brand to another, or from a managed property to a licensed or franchised property.)
Territorial Restrictions. Franchisors will often agree to some reasonable limitation on their ability to operate or license competing properties, particularly in the early years of an agreement and where local demographics warrant it. In creating a non-competition area, franchisees should consider not only the named brand, but also related brands which may compete.
Termination. Franchisees should negotiate early termination provisions. Obtaining this provision may require the payment of liquidated damages, but may be particularly valuable in an attempt to sell the property. With respect to new construction, franchisees should look to reduce termination fees where the agreement might be terminated prior to, or shortly after opening.
Transfer and Assignment. The kinds of fees and PIPs that franchisors seek to impose at the time of transfer should be negotiated at the outset of the relationship. Franchisors typically want substantial control over the assignment of a license. Care should be taken to make this as broad as possible to consider additional investors and owners, reorganizations, as well as the outright sale of the property.
Guarantees. Franchise and license agreements often require performance guarantees as a matter of course, but franchisors will consider varying their policies in individual cases.
Approval of Management Companies. Where a third party manager will operate the hotel, the franchisee should seek flexibility in the right to engage new managers.
While most franchisors are willing to make concessions in the areas noted above, franchisees should be sensitive to the potential to negotiate significant additional changes where a location is particularly important to the franchisor as part of its system; there are few other opportunities for development in the area; the franchisor is looking to expand its market share generally; and there is an ongoing relationship between a franchisor and franchisee (or the franchisee’s operation). Experienced, knowledgeable counsel can help identify these opportunities and optimize them.
Start Early To Avoid The Pitfalls!
Bring your counsel and advisors on board early to avoid pitfalls and optimize results. Many franchisors limit negotiations to what is covered in a deal term sheet, so by the time a draft agreement is circulated, it is too late for meaningful input. Although non-binding, the term sheet limits the deal terms that many franchisors will consider. So if you don’t get your input at the very outset of the process, you will miss the opportunity for many enhancements that might otherwise be accomplished with relative ease.
This goes for some of the more critical deal terms noted above as well as other items that can prove important in a particular situation. The following are a few examples:
Robert Braun is a senior member of JMBM’s Global Hospitality Group and a partner in the Corporate Department. Robert represents hospitality industry clients in both transactional and operational issues, including acquisitions and divestitures; joint ventures and strategic relationships; negotiating, implementing and monitoring hotel and resort management and franchise agreements; technology licenses; and compliance with internet and privacy obligations. You can reach Robert Braun at 310.785.5331 or at email@example.com.
The Global Hospitality Group® is a registered trademark of Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro LLP
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