Hotel Crunch

Online bookers are getting better rates by offering hotels volume. That has the chains scrambling

Jim Young had had enough. The senior vice-president for global distribution at InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG ) had seen IHG's 3,300 franchisees flirt too much with the Internet. Some locally owned hotels had allowed online travel agents, such as InterActiveCorp.'s Expedia Inc. (IACI ) and Travelocity, to offer lower rates than those charged by InterContinental. That gave the Web services a bigger slice of revenues per room than they pay the InterContinental chain. On Apr. 20, he threw down the gauntlet at TravelCom Expo, an annual confab of 1,200 hotel owners and other travel execs. Franchisees have to choose between doing business on the Web travel agencies' terms or on InterContinental's. "If a hotel chooses not to comply, it won't be a Holiday Inn or a Crowne Plaza any longer," Young told a packed room.

Of all the battles between Big Business and Web insurgents, the one raging between hotel chains and online travel agencies may be the fiercest. At stake: who sets hotel prices and who gets the biggest profits in an $80 billion industry. Traditionally, franchisers such as Marriott International, Hilton Hotels (HLT ), and InterContinental chains have been the hotel industry's dominant middlemen. Hotel owners pay the chains 8% to 10% of their revenues in exchange for marketing and booking services and for the right to call themselves a Marriott or Hilton. Now, Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz (ORBZ ) are horning in on the chains. Using the power of the Net, the online agencies last year booked 35 million rooms worth $5.8 billion, 8% of the market. Consultant PhoCusWright Inc. estimates they will hit $13.3 billion in rooms in 2006, for 17% market share.

With more people booking rooms online, Web travel agencies are changing the hotel industry's fundamental economics. Because they can fill beds with a fury, Net agents are getting a bigger cut of hotel owners' revenues than the chains get for the same room. Expedia, for instance, gets a $106 nightly wholesale rate from the Dana Inn and Marina in San Diego for a June Sunday night, then charges the customer $132. Customers pay less than the $145 rate they would receive if they booked over the phone, and Expedia pockets a 25% markup, or $26.

Losing Sleep

Why are hotel owners willing to give Internet travel agents more money? The Web sites can move market share to the hotels that give the agencies the discounts they want. That's crucial in an industry that's chronically overbuilt. A hotel owner's choice often is to give Web agents discounted rooms or let them sit empty. The Snow King Resort Hotel in Jackson Hole, Wyo., began getting up to 100 reservations a week from Travelocity after the site started promoting the 209-room hotel in January. "We're more than willing to discount to them because they more than make up the difference," says Kristine Myers, Snow King's marketing and development director.

Most threatened in this new world are the hotel chains. The danger is that hotel owners who give a hefty slice of their revenues to Web agents to get customers may begin to trim marketing expenses elsewhere. They could push the chains to lower their 8% to 10% fees -- or drop them altogether. "If we're going to pay the Web sites, we're going to find someone else to cut out," says Chip Conley, CEO of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, which manages 25 California hotels.

Chains are fighting to save their position. Every major chain has forced franchisees to agree to a best-rate guarantee policy that prevents them from selling rooms for less on Expedia, Orbitz, or Travelocity than they do through the chain's Web site or over the phone. If Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. (HOT ) catches a hotelier discounting through a Web agency, it fines the owner $75. That takes away Travelocity's ability to sell, say, a Sheraton room for less than Sheraton does, and gives brand-loyal consumers more reason to use the chain's own site. Starwood and Hilton lavish benefits on customers who stay loyal, including upgrades and frequent-stay points. Starwood says the changes have increased the share of Net bookings done through its Web site, but won't say how much. "It's working. It's more than a dent," says Steven M. Hankin, Starwood's chief marketing officer.

The strategy may not be a long-term solution, however. Hotel owners barred from giving Web players discounts may discover the policy is hurting their business. The Radisson Lexington in New York is sticking with the chain rate of $199, while Expedia visitors can stay at the more upscale Hudson for $190 because the independent hotel gives the Web agent bigger discounts. With the Net at their fingertips, travelers can easily figure which hotels are the most hospitable.

By Timothy J. Mullaney

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