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Don't panic – crisis talk goes too far, say industry experts

13 March 2008 by

In recent months, the UK media have filled copious column inches with reportage and discussion of the global credit crisis, with commentators eager to spread word of financial Armageddon.

The story was no different at last week's International Hotels Investment Forum (IHIF) in Berlin. The words "credit crunch" and "crisis", and even some tentative whisperings of the "R-word" (recession) peppered each seminar, speech and evening reception.

But the extent to which the credit crisis will hit the UK hotel sector ranged, depending on the speaker, from long-haul doom to a blip on the radar.

Roger Bootle, the renowned economic adviser to consultancy Deloitte, was the most outspoken prophet of doom and gloom, dubbing the UK's financial "miracle" over the past decade an "illusion".

Bubble years

Bootle told delegates: "The problem is a decade or more of financial excess. The world has undergone a period of bubble years, the origin of which has been a sustained period of very low interest rates."

He went on to paint a pessimistic picture for 2008. "In general," he said, "when you have massive bubbles of the sort we've been through, the problems on the downside are roughly proportionate to the excess of the upside - and we've been through a period of fantastic success."

Bootle also shrugged off any hopes hoteliers may have been clinging to of staving off the effects of the credit crunch, denouncing in quick succession the idea that China could drive growth - "its economy is still too small to offset the effects of the US's economy slowdown" - and the suggestion that the Eurozone had decoupled itself from the USA.

"Tempting as it is to think that it can't apply to us now," he said, "the share of export to America from places such as France, Italy and Germany hasn't fallen, it has increased. The Eurozone is not less intertwined, it is more so."

However, Bootle stopped short of proclaiming recession, pointing to the fact that the UK had not been as extravagant in its spending as the US and therefore looked more stable.

At the other end of the scale was Derek Gammage, managing director of property agent CB Richard Ellis Hotels, who declared the crisis a "figment of the bankers' imagination".

He said: "The underlying trade is still quite strong - bankers are delusional. There's a lot of credit out there, and we haven't seen an impact yet."

Paul Bell, managing director of hotel management company Aldar Hotels & Hospitality, was also bullish about the state of affairs. "The market is exploding in terms of scale, visitors and business," he insisted. "Demand is far outstripping supply."

Fighting talk, indeed. But the prevailing tone of the conference was somewhat between the two extremes, a sense of time-biding and cautious optimism. Many speakers remained hopeful that transactions would still be made - but the deals would have to be better than in recent years in order to persuade bankers to lend valuable credit.

James Elton, chief executive of investment vehicle aAIM UK, said: "Banks are still lending, but they are having to carefully allocate what they can lend, as they have less of it. The hotel market has had almost no large deals in the past six months, but more single-asset transactions. Deals around the £2m mark will continue strongly."

Price challenge

Chris Day, managing director of property agent Christie & Co, highlighted the fragility of the chain in any current purchase.

"There are very few areas in the EU where people won't buy," he said. "Operators are keen to expand right across Europe. But the price challenge is finding stock, then finding a vendor prepared to sell at a sensible price - a buyer who will pay the vendor's price. And when that has been agreed, a bank that will fund it - therein lies the problem."

Despite the pessimism that pervaded the conference, hoteliers seemed confident that the industry could withstand the economic slowdown, as it currently stands, placing faith in its ability to expand.

Although some proclaimed that the worst is still to come, the overall message to take home was clear: Don't panic, ride the storm - and, by this time next year, business will be picking up again.

At the conference

 Fashion designer Giorgio Armani announced the launch of 10-15 ultra-luxury hotels, in locations including Dubai, Marrakesh and Milan.

The flagship hotel will open in Dubai this September and will feature 144 suites and residences. The second will open in Milan atop the Armani store and will have 109 suites.

The group also plans to open in London, Paris, New York City and Beverly Hills.

 The Hard Rock Hotels group announced it had a $2b war chest for international expansion, with a core focus on developing new European properties.

Trevor Horwell, chief hotels officer, said: "We're looking to move into the next phase of our development, and I see particularly strong opportunities in Europe, especially in some of the fast-developing eastern European economies."

 Hilton Hotels confirmed that it had opened 241 hotels in 2007, an average of five new hotels a week. This brought the total number of hotels across its estate globally to more than 3,000.

In Europe, Hilton's target markets are Germany, Russia, Italy and Iberia, as well as Poland and Turkey. In Asia, the group plans to focus on India and China, as well as Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

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