Mystery Buyer: Time to bring back the stars?

The seemingly endless varieties of hotel brands make the travel manager’s life more difficult

French hospitality group Accor has launched a new “lifestyle” brand, called Tribe. At present, there’s only one hotel flying the flag, and that’s in Western Australia, but ten more are due to open by 2022 and the company says it expects to have 150 “Tribes” by 2030.

All well and good, you may think. However, from a procurement perspective, this branding business is getting out of hand. With its latest offering, Accor now has more than 30 different hotel brands; at the time of writing, Marriott “only” has 29, Wyndham has 19, Hilton has 16, and InterContinental has a meagre 14.

That’s just five hotel companies with more than 100 supposedly differentiated products. Even Heinz only claimed to have 57 varieties, and they were genuinely distinct. Surely no one would confuse oxtail soup with salad cream?

However, do we know – or, more importantly, do we need to know – the difference between Canopy by Hilton and Radisson Collection hotels? Like Accor’s Tribes, they are designated “lifestyle” properties, but what does that mean?

For most travel buyers, hotel programme choices are based on two or three factors. My travellers need to stay in comfortable, safe properties, ideally as close as possible to their business trip appointments. Our job is to juggle those requirements against cost, striking a mutually acceptable balance between the wishes of the traveller and the demands of the chief finance officer.

From a procurement perspective, branding is getting out of hand

Confusing categories
In the days of mandated policies, that wasn’t an issue. If your traveller was a “manager”, they had to stay in a three-star hotel and be grateful for it. Directors got to travel business class and stay in four-star accommodation. The chief executive flew in first class and stayed wherever he or she liked.

Today, however, hotel star ratings seem to have disappeared. Now we have categories called “midscale” and “full-service”, “luxury” and “upper-upscale”, “boutique” and – most recently – “lifestyle”.

The truth, one suspects, is that because traditional hotel companies with bricks-and-mortar assets have become hotel management companies, the emphasis has shifted to property owners rather than guests. The more brands one can offer, the more likely you are to have something that an owner can buy into.

The hotel conglomerates will argue their “portfolio” of brands enables travel buyers to strike system-wide deals and move people up or down the rankings depending on their status and, possibly, the importance of their trip, without breaking the terms of our negotiated volume-based contracts.

They’re wrong. Far from making the corporate travel manager’s life easier, they are increasingly complicating something that wasn’t – and doesn’t need to be – complicated.

Only a few years ago, hotel programme consolidation was all the rage, on the basis that one overarching deal made more sense than contracting with multiple smaller groups and independent hotels. We were sold the idea that by limiting traveller choice, the entire procurement process could be simplified.

That concept seems to have gone out of the window. While one appreciates that “one size” does not necessarily fit all, do we really need (or want) 30 or more “sizes”?

Five would be fine. Bring back the stars.

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