Hospitality Consulting Services
400 Spear Street, Suite 106
San Francisco, CA 94105
|by Rick Swig, ISHC, September 2009
In December 2008 I walked into a department store to buy some pillows. I was pleased to see that there was a 40% off sale, although I was going to buy the pillows anyway. When I went to pay for the items, the sales clerk asked me whether I was a frequent buyers member because there would be another 10% off. I was not, but she gave me the discount anyway. Then, she asked me whether I brought in a 10% off discount mailer, which I did not, but she gave me the discount anyway. I was pleased to receive these massive discounts, but I wondered, as I left the store, how the store owners’ profit was faring.
Little did I know that I was experiencing the beginning of a retail trend, which would move from department store activity right into the hospitality sector…..and with a vengeance! As we are completing the fourth quarter of 2009, the hospitality sector has managed to undermine any pricing strength and/or integrity that it once held. The sector has managed to follow the airlines and general retailing down the path of failed profitability through unabashed incentives and unprofitable discounting.
Some hotel asset managers wonder what unprofitable versus profitable pricing is. Simply stated, the distinction is that which allows owners their fair or anticipated return on investment. It is not just about winning the market penetration game or comparable competitive yields on Gross Operating Profit.
According to a number of industry observers the modern era of the hotel business began in 1985 with the unveiling of Smith Travel Research (“STR”). Although the hotel business really started over two thousand years ago for travelers seeking relief from horse and camel trails, STR did allow the most accurate opportunity to measure one’s hotel business productivity within the context of the competitive market. The focus on measuring market share and market penetration (in general and then by market segment) brought a new awareness to the hotel business sector, along with the potential manipulation of those elements through more sophisticated marketing and pricing techniques. Twenty-two years later, Randy Smith is pleased that the industry is now globally addicted to his data, while the industry is both the better and the worse for it.
Especially after the early 1990’s recession and the resulting decline of business travel in that period, the airlines and, subsequently, the hotel operators discovered that they could stimulate the so-called Leisure transient segments with pricing incentives and other terms and conditions like length of stay provisions, Saturday night stays, and selected day of week pricing. It really worked and stimulated both travel, cash flow, and some re-claimed profitability. At no time during that period was there a decline in national average daily rates in hotels.
In the early 2000’s, especially during and after 2001, hotel operators expanded on what they thought they had learned in the previous recession and then applied those activities to broader business segments and on a seven-day basis. There were ad hoc pricing incentives, as well as special bonuses paid with double and triple frequent guest points or miles, and once again hotel operators were seemingly able to stimulate demand for their individual hotels…..or was it simply shifting market share without any effect on individual market or segment demand?
At this point STR data really became the monthly metric source to measure competitive effectiveness, as hotel operators became addicted to their measured revenue per available room (“REVPAR”) market penetration performance. Linkages between pricing incentives and individual hotel REVPAR penetration performance became apparent, so hotel operators just kept on discounting to stimulate business and this time with willing conspirators called the e-commerce channels.
Although many hotel operators would argue and quantify that they were successful in capturing predominant market share for their individual hotels in 2001 and 2002, that period became the only time since the beginning of time (1987) that industry wide ADR declined, and it was only the effective management of expenses that enabled general profit stability. As a result of the discounting epidemic of the early 2000’s decade, general ADR levels in many geographic markets did not return to year 2000 levels until 2007 or 2008.
The hotel operators went back to the discount trenches in 2008, as demand crashed again. This time, however, business travel significantly ceased, and meetings became a political and financial scourge. What was a hotel operator to do? DISCOUNT!!!! Why? To generate demand and builds market share with favorable reports on an operator’s performance via the now weekly STR report. What about profitability, however, and the protection of a hotel’s product and positioning integrity? Certainly, a weekly STR profitability metric comparison, if it existed, would provide a significant reality check that the pricing pendulum has swung to an extreme with negative benefit to hotel owners. Congratulations hotel business practitioners, you may have consistently won the STR market penetration sweepstakes, but the owners are now bankrupt!
And congratulations, yet again, to the perpetrators of the market share
through discount philosophy, you have trained the customer never to accept
published pricing again. Customers are now of the belief that there
must be a better room rate somewhere, so this has become their obsessive
pursuit, thus undermining corporate rate agreements, convention room blocks,
and profitable rate positioning everywhere.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not Real Estate Media or its publications.
Rick Swig is president of RSBA & Associates, a hospitality industry
consulting firm based in San Francisco. He may be
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RSBA & Associates
400 Spear Street, Suite 106
San Francisco, CA 94105
Tel: (415) 541-7722
Fax: (415) 541-5333
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