By David Lund
I know we all hear the battle cries every day in our industry, but what’s really going on with hotel brands, franchisers, the online travel agents and their war over commissions and fees? In this piece, I am going to expose an angle that I think needs some light. It gets back to a fundamental understanding of how our industry functions based on its evolved structure, with brands and owners. I also believe this is a good lesson in hotel business strategy, to understand what underpins the relationship between the warring parties and what drives the business model with hotel franchisers and brands.
The first thing to know about hotel management companies and franchises is they make the lion’s share of their revenues and resulting profits based on the hotels in their portfolios generating revenue. Fees based on revenues are what drive the hotel brand’s business model. They also make money on reservation systems and other services, but normally these are on a cost recovery basis. The brands tell their hotels that the services they provide are on a cost-return basis and largely they are. Very little profit is generated by the brands from their other services. On the flip side—when you look at the way the fees are calculated—is a simple total revenue or total room revenue times “x” to produce the fee.
What really matters most to the brands is getting their hotels to produce more revenue. The more revenue the better. Not profit, revenue.
The second thing to know is that management companies and franchises make little or no money on the profits their hotel owners make. Unless the agreement with the hotel has profit sharing or an incentive fee component built in, the hotel owner does not share any profits with their brand.
The third thing to know is fees paid to the brands by the owners are in no way linked to the hotel’s profitability. Whether or not the hotel is profitable has zero impact on the calculation of the fees or the requirement to pay these fees every month.
I don’t know about you, but I see a problem here. The problem I see is the brands make hay on the backs of their hotels whether the sun is shining or not. Not unlike a stockbroker who makes fees on your entire portfolio regardless of their performance with your investments. Some might think this is OK and the way it should be, but I see it as offside.
Let’s look at the impact the online travel agents have had a big hand in. For almost the past 20 years the OTAs have been turning the hotel and travel world on its head. They have built systems that allow any hotel to sign up almost universally without any upfront fees and instantly market their hotel around the world to the ever-growing planet of the traveling public. This, in my opinion, is the single biggest positive development in our industry ever. Hotels always have used travel agents and what has happened in 20 years is more and more business has moved online—where today the individual hotel consumers’ world is virtually all online.
Shopping for a hotel room online? In general, we can thank the OTAs for this phenomenon, they created it. How does all of this online activity benefit the hotel brands with little skin in the game?
Here are some revenue facts
According to a Cushman and Wakefield report, room revenue in America has grown from $70 billion in 1998 to a whopping $150 billion in 2017. That’s more than a 100 percent increase in 20 years. Here are the numbers that make this up: supply in 1998, 3.9 million rooms; 2017, 5 million rooms; RevPAR in 1998, $50 and in 2017 it was $81.
Now let’s look at fees
The typical hotel management fee of 3 percent of total revenue and a franchise fee of 5 percent of room revenue will be used in this exercise. I know these are estimates but bear with me. We’ll be blending the two together and using a conservative 4 percent of total revenue as a gauge.
The total fees charged to owners in the past 20 years has more than doubled as well. No surprise, revenue doubles and so do the fees. Fees in 1998 at $70 billion equal $2.8 billion. Same 4 percent of revenue in 2017 equals $6 billion.
The first real question and my point is this: How much of the increase in room revenue in the past 20 years has been because of the platforms and systems built by the OTAs? The simple answer is lots of it.
The second question: How much investment was incurred by the hotel companies to get consumers to use the OTAs and ultimately spend more and thereby generating more fees for them? The answer is quite simply – A Big Fat Zero. Someone else built the OTA monsters and the brands are the number one recipient of the benefit with no investment.
Would hotel companies minus the OTAs have invested the cash necessary and revolutionized the travel industry? I think not. They are management companies and they are capital light. That’s their strategy. Put their name on the hotel, and let the owner invest and drive the guest experience, brand promise and fees.
I’m not saying OTAs do not have some faults and some hotels may rely on them too much, but the fact is they have had a big hand in revolutionizing the travel world and that is very good for brands and owners.
No wonder hotel management companies and franchisers secretly love the OTAs. Anything that drives revenues their way is what works.
When something or someone else does this for them, it’s golden.