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THEY promise personal service, individuality, flexibility, character and style. They won’t, they say, treat you like a room number or subject you to a carpet woven with a corporate logo. Independent hotels pride themselves on being the antithesis to corporate chains, but even if they live up to the hype, does it count for anything in today’s economic climate where price is the undisputed king? According to David Taylor, sales director

for QHotels, the hotel sector as a whole has suffered in the last 12 months from what he referred to as a “significant consolidation in corporate spend”. “With a high quality offering, it is usually easier to protect rates in a difficult market,” he said. “However, most appreciate that 2009 was unprecedented. As a result, the continual focus on driving price down negated the differences in quality from one product to the next to a significant degree. Independents and independent hotel groups had no choice other than to go with the flow.” On the plus side, believes Taylor, costs can

only be driven down so far. “A continual focus on USP, quality, personality and flexibility will continue to serve the independents and independent hotel groups well in the future. As the market begins to recover, the quality of the product and quality of service is starting to protect against rate devaluation.” Loyalty, say the independents, is more vital

than ever in these tough times, and it’s no coincidence that some independent hotels are following their chain rivals by introducing loyalty schemes. “Boutique brands face the challenge of distribution – so guest loyalty becomes king,” says Imran Hussain, director of communications for Myhotels. But securing corporate business is not just about appealing to the business guest, it’s also about meeting the needs of the buyers. On this point, opinions are divided. Some corporate buyers believe the independent chains are often easier to deal with than the large groups. “They are better equipped sometimes to make quicker decisions and show flexibility and this is attractive to buyers,” says Jane Dibble, travel services manager operations, infrastructure and procurement at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Caroline French, corporate travel manager

Von Essen's Forbury Hotel

for Inmarsat, agrees. “Sometime with the large chains we find ourselves dealing with a call centre, but with an independent you can get to a specific person and build up a relationship with them,” she says. But others believe some independents are falling behind when it comes to dealing with corporate buyers. “Some of them get it, but some of them don’t,” summed up another buyer, Geoff Allwright, head of travel and expenses UK for EADS UK. “Some indepen- dent hotels don’t have a sales team and there's even been occasions where they just haven't replied to our RFPs.”

Margaret Bowler, director of global hotel relations at HRG, admits this can sometimes be the case. “If you were to talk to some of the smaller independents about dynamic pricing and best available rate (BAR) they wouldn’t know what you were talking about. But you can’t taint them all with the same brush. Some of them have sales teams that are very much on the ball and have been in corporate hotel programmes for many years.” Bowler said those independents that want to

reach the corporate market but perhaps don’t have the expertise or manpower often enlist the help of marketing and sales organisations, such as Utell, Supranational, Preferred and Travelclick, which assist with distribution. Others join hotel collections, like Small Luxury Hotels or Relais and Chateaux, to get the benefit of strength in numbers. But Bowler stresses that corporate buyers

need to understand that not all independents want – or, for that matter, need – corporate business. “Interestingly, as they tend to be a lot smaller they sometimes don’t want a lot of corporate business. A few may well have decided simply not to respond to an RFP and just walk away.” As buyer Caroline French at Inmarsat points

out, there are good reasons why independent hotels and hotel groups can’t always provide what a buyer wants. “You can’t expect an independent to be offering last room availability. You can’t push them, as it would drive them out of business,” says French.

WHAT THE HOTEL BOOKING AGENCY SAYS Independent hotels have fared well during the recession, says Todd Kramer, vice president of global corporate sales for HRS, who believes corporates like the fact that “they can offer a better quality/price ratio than larger chains because they have a lower cost base structure.” He also cites variety, individuality and location as crucial to their appeal. “Don’t forget that staying in a hotel is a very personal experience and everyone is different, with different tastes, different needs, and different criteria.” But for all their personal character and charm, independent hotels suffer from a distribution problem in the corporate sector in that the GDS – upon which many travel management companies rely – do not feature the majority of the thousands of independent hotels in the UK and across the world, nor many of the small independent groups such as those listed on page 28… which is where hotel booking agents (HBAs) come in. Kramer believes it’s a historical problem. “Since there are only a few hundred major airlines, the GDS was a good way to centrally distribute the airlines inventory,” he explains. “It also made sense for the major hotel chains because it was based on the same centralised distribution concept. Today, the GDS have around 80,000 hotels in their database. But what about all of the


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