1 November 2022, London Marriott Hotel County Hall
21 November 2022, Hilton London Metropole
12 December 2022, etc.venues Monument, London
Hotels offer all the gadgets and luxuries we can dream of, but at what cost to the hotel booker, asks Bob Papworth.
WELL-INFORMED THOUGH the readers of Buying Business Travel must be, there will be a disadvantaged few who have missed the news that Harbor Linen has recently launched "a one-of-a-kind mattress enhancer".
The Cherry Hill, New Jersey-based company has come up with the New Generation Luxury Mattress Topper, which not only contains a "down-like micro-fibre fill", but also incorporates a "baffle box design that eliminates fill shifting".
At last! After all this time - finally - an end to fill-shifting misery! Let joy be unconfined!
Except, perhaps, among corporate buyers of hotel rooms, who could well end up paying for the blasted things.
After all, anyone who books Starwood room-nights is already contributing to Scott Kerkmans' salary in his role as Four Points by Sheraton's "chief beer officer". If you prefer Courtyard by Marriott, you'll soon be contributing to the cost of the new Courtyard GoBoards (no, seriously), which are a "signature element" of a "redefined hotel lobby experience".
The point is that hotels the world over invest in truckloads of complimentary rubbish that nobody ever wants, let alone uses, and all of us pay for.
When did you last send anyone one of those picture postcards cards of "the function suite at sunset, as seen from Junction 8/9"?
One would not for a moment suggest that hoteliers do away with every last luxury, but how many of us actually need a doorman? Are there really people out there who have yet to master hinge technology?
Such fripperies, frills and furbelows inevitably keep hotel costs - and, therefore, prices - higher than they might be. Trouble is, for those seeking a benchmark figure to negotiate down from, nobody seems quite sure how much higher those costs and prices are.
Take Moscow, for example.
Hospitality industry analysts generally agree that its hotels are the most expensive in Europe, and possibly the world. TRI Hospitality Consulting reckons the average room rate last year was something over £162.
Online booking agency Hotels.com recently put the figure at nearer £194. Deloitte says it's the wrong side of £213.
Top to bottom, that's a £51 difference. Where does the hapless buyer begin to start?
Well, not, with price - at least not according to Graham Ramsey, chief executive of ATP - The Advanced Travel Partner, and chairman of the Guild of Travel Management Companies' hotel working party. "I am not sure that responsible travel management professionals ever chose hotels purely on the basis of price," he says. Location has always been a key factor, along with the suitability of the accommodation, and the bottom-line price has been - or should have been - just one of a mix of considerations.
"Increasingly, travel managers - and their financial directors - need to look at the bigger picture and seek out fit-for-purpose accommodation.
"If you're trying to impress a trendy young dotcom entrepreneur, then a cutting-edge boutique is probably more appropriate than a chintzy grande dame property. A junior sales rep who spends a lot of time on the road may well feel more comfortable with a familiar brand than with a one-off country house hotel.
"Equally, we try to look at the business proposition from the hotelier's point of view," Ramsey suggests. "Smaller chains and one-off independents will not be able to offer the same spread of facilities and services that are second nature to the global groups, but they will have their own, sometimes quirky, USPs.
"It's a question of matching the needs of the traveller to the facilities of the hotel, within the ball-park price range of the client company. Ultimately, if the traveller is poorly served, and is unable to function effectively, it doesn't matter how low the final bill is, it will be wasted money."
Russell Green, InterContinental Hotel Group's director of business travel sales for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, argues that there is always room for negotiation, but that buyers can't have it all their own way.
"Take Moscow as an example. As a group, maybe we can help you out there, but we may want business in another city. I am looking for volume - size does matter - but I am looking for a corporate to respect my volumes, too. It's all about squaring the circle."
In other words, a global corporate may well be able to do a deal on price in London, for example, where rates are high and the market is buoyant, if there is a complementary pledge to pack a few punters - at something akin to an albeit lower rack rate - into a hotel in unloved Leeds or Leicester, where business is not quite so wonderful.
David Curtis-Brignell, marketing director of Millennium & Copthorne Hotels, agrees that corporate buyers need to understand the hotelier's position - as Green puts it, "where we are in the lodging industry cycle".
In the case of the UK, Curtis-Brignell says: "As a country, we are in danger of talking ourselves into a recession - or rather, jumping into one rather sooner than might be necessary - and what usually happens is that buyers use this as an opportunity to get hoteliers to reduce rates.
"That is not the way to go about it, because that's a slippery slope for everyone concerned. So let's look at what else we can spice up the package with.
"The sort of things that come up most often are Wifi, because hotels are charging various rates for internet use, so that's a pretty good one.
"Upgrades, when available, are another example. These are worth quite a bit with us, because you get a club room, with free breakfast, use of the club lounge, complimentary drinks in the evening, and so on."
While complimentary breakfasts - along with Wifi and free car parking - feature frequently on almost everyone's list of "value-adds", Curtis-Brignell echoes Graham Ramsey's thoughts on real value when he adds: "Of course, we have customers who actually pay slightly more to make sure they get that package - rather than cutting their spend, they recognise the inherent value and want to guarantee that they get that upgrade.
"At the end of the day, there is not an awful lot of new things under the sun, so it often does come back to price, but that's not the sole issue - in most cases, buyers have moved on from there."
Early booking may be nothing new in travel industry terms, but they still have a way to go where hotel bookings are concerned.
Richard Plummer, senior partner with top travel consultancy Corporate Travel Partnership (CTP), believes that the "book early" message has filtered through, but still largely only where flights are concerned.
"Travellers are generally quite good at booking flights early - they seem to understand that bit - and because the tools of today are capable of booking flights and hotels at the same time, they are getting better.
"However, there are, of course, a lot of hotel bookings that are nothing to do with flights, especially where UK travel is concerned, and here there is a great deal of room for improvement. Hotel bookings need to be taken as seriously as flight bookings."
Margaret Bowler, director of global hotel relations at the Hogg Robinson Group, tends to agree. Introducing Hogg's 2007 Hotel Survey, she notes that while slightly more hotel bookings are now being made more than two weeks in advance, HRG's data suggests that business travellers are still making trip arrangements at the last minute.
Indeed, the percentage of bookings made on the day of arrival rose from 8.8 per cent in 2006 to nearly 10 per cent last year. Bookings made no more than three days in advance were also higher, creeping up above 25 per cent of the total.
"Business travellers continue to risk paying a premium rate for their accommodation," she cautions. "We recommend our clients book as far in advance as soon as possible, and seek last-room availability in popular locations in order to control costs."
Last-room availability, or LRA, has become something of an industry buzz-phrase, but it may be a short-lived one. In a seller's market, and particularly in high-demand destinations, hoteliers can often easily - and genuinely - sell out at higher than negotiated rates.
One possible solution, suggested at a recent Institute of Travel Management workshop, was fora corporate to "reserve" blocks of rooms and then release unused stock - with a lead-time of, say, 72 hours -back to the hotels.
Such a system requires companies to manage their own inventory by mandating advance bookings - travellers who fail to make their travel plans before the cut-off period end up paying punitive rates, or not travelling at all.
Richard Plummer says that other companies are forcing the advance-booking issue by other means. "At CTP, we are seeing some organisations, which have capped rates - £139 a night in London, for example, and £85 outside the M25 - which does help, but then again when you are dealing with the Premier Inns of this world, booking early doesn't really give you much of an advantage."
Nevertheless, the traveller who knows he or she is going to have to pay for any additional cost out of his or her own pocket is a traveller who is more likely to think ahead.
Such cost control ploys will become increasingly, necessary. In its forecasts for this year, BCD Travel's consulting arm Advito warned corporate buyers to expect global hotel prices to rise, on average, between six and nine per cent this year.
"Hotel demand around the world continues a three-year trend to outpace supply," the BCD report said. "Hotel rates are expected to continue to trend upwards until hotel capacity is close to demand. "Hotels are becoming so sophisticated in their management systems that Advito anticipates rate increases will still occur even if demand drops in some markets."
Perhaps equally worrying for buyers is the fact that the hoteliers who are making money - and can therefore afford to keep rates high - are making more of it.
In Deloitte's latest Global Ranking Index, the strength of key markets around the world is amply demonstrated.
Of the top 20 destinations where hotels enjoyed the highest revenues per available room (RevPAR), only one - Doha - saw its RevPAR decline against the previous year, and only three saw mere single-digit increases. In Mumbai, RevPAR was up 47.3 per cent year-on-year.
In terms of occupancy levels, looking only at the highest-performing top 20, only seven ended the year with lower occupancy rates than they had enjoyed in 2006. Of those, four saw declines of one per cent or less.
HRG's Hotel Survey underlines the buoyancy of the hotel industry, reporting roughly consistent average price rises across the budget, three-, four- and five-star sectors.
Clearly, it pays to call in the experts. CTP's Plummer is a big fan of the specialist hotel booking agencies (HBAs). "If you look at the booking facilities offered by the major travel management companies and compare them with the specialist hotel booking agencies, the latter are far, far better," he maintains.
"Corporates have to decide whether they want to go shopping in Tesco or in a boutique. Those who have gone down the boutique road may have a TMC for air ticketing - because generally they're very good at that - but then have a hotel booking agency handling the accommodation side, and a specialist agent looking after rail bookings.
"Pushing the whole lot through one travel management company is inevitably going to involve some compromise," adds Plummer.
Reporting a big increase in membership applications this year, Peter Ducker, executive director of the Hotel Booking Agents' Association, says: "The use of a specialist agency is coming to the fore in the tender process and many of our members are gaining market share from the traditional travel management companies. The demand from the corporate market to use an HBAA member agency is reflected in the number of new agency members we are currently signing up."
Ducker is the first to admit that the increased interest in his organisation is driven, at least in part, by corporate recognition of the need to get a better handle on meetings spend, which gives HBAs an even stronger value proposition.
Over at Hogg Robinson Group, Margaret Bowler has an understandably different take on things: "Our 2007 survey has highlighted the resilience of the global hotel market, with all regions achieving room rate growth," she writes in her report conclusions. "Concerns over a global recession may continue to preoccupy many industries, however it is clear that the inter-connectivity of world markets makes corporate travel a necessity which businesses cannot ignore, and we anticipate some growth.
"The advantages experienced by the strong British pound - with substantial benefits for UK corporates throughout 2007 - are unlikely to continue to such an extent throughout 2008.
"As a result, business travel may become more expensive, and HRG's role as a corporate services provider will become more important in helping to control business expenditure." One awaits, with gleeful anticipation, the section of HRG's next annual survey devoted to the economic impact on the hospitality sector of investment in "one-of-a-kind" mattress enhancers.