By Christina Golding
A landmark European Commission ruling has allowed hotel marketing consortium Relais & Châteaux the right to ban its members from belonging to any other marketing organisation.
The international consortium, which has 413 members - 21 in the UK - sought the ruling despite objections from 18% of its members.
The aim, said a Relais spokeswoman, was to avoid "confusing the message" given to guests if hotels belonged to different marketing organisations.
"More than 80% of members gave the endorsement to do whatever is legally necessary to keep the image very defined and not dilute it with other names," she said.
According to Relais, all UK members are behind the move. Those members against it have a year to decide where their loyalties lie.
Critics, including rival hotel consortium Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH), have accused Relais of imposing unrealistic restrictions on its members.
"We encourage our members to use all marketing options. That sort of ruling is not a benefit to small hotels. Relais does not own its members. Stopping them using other marketing avenues is a definite down side," said Paul Kerr, managing director of SLH's management company, Hill Goodridge & Associates.
But the Relais decision does not extend to guidebooks, which are not seen as direct competitors.
Andrew Warren, managing director of guide publisher Johansens, nevertheless described the move by Relais as "a solitary confinement order imposed by a defensive institution".
The EC ruling, which came from the Directorate General for Competition, considered that the single membership requirement would have no adverse effect on small and medium-sized enterprises.