Sign of the times

27 August 2004
Sign of the times

The InterContinental Hotels group's decision to sever ties with online booking intermediary Expedia is a sure sign of the hotel sector's blossoming good health. Back in the days when 11 September, Sars and other regional health scares were scaring consumers off travelling, third-party online agents offered a short-term fix, a valuable means of offloading untaken inventory at the eleventh hour. But while this arrangement boosted operators' volume and yield, actual payback was low. Dotcom brokers' revenue models hinge, after all, on paring hotel operators' profits to the bone. Tellingly, PricewaterhouseCoopers calculates that US operators lost £1.1b last year in rate terms to the intermediaries.

Now the landscape is shifting, for three reasons. First, now that the decline in the hotel sector has eased and more rooms are shifting at higher rates, there is less need to shift the remainder online at bargain-basement prices. Second, hotel operators are at last becoming more web-savvy and ploughing more investment into bigger and better sites, and better listings on the major search engines. Key "Hilton London" or "InterContinental London" into Google, and your first result will be a link, not to ebookers, lastminute or expedia, but to Hilton and InterContinental, respectively.

Finally, and most important, operators have realised that they, and not third parties, must own the relationship with their customers if they are to engender loyalty and encourage return business. Online intermediaries won't disappear. A need will remain for their services, especially among smaller, less well-resourced chains. But for the major players, they have served their purpose and are now surplus to requirements. Happily, the hotel sector is regaining a hold on its own destiny.

The ebb and flow of occupancy rates and revenue per available room may exercise the minds of shareholders and bean counters, but for the individuals working at the sharp end of the global hospitality industry, there are more pressing issues to deal with. Tourism Concern, a campaigning group that highlights the impact of tourism on environments and communities, has published a damning report on the labour rights and working conditions of the world's 200 million tourism workers.

The report highlights unacceptably low pay, long hours, flouting of health and safety regulations, sexual harassment and other abusive conditions in hotels in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

It didn't canvas opinion in Europe, making it easy to dismiss such abuses as being confined to Third-World nations. Yet who could swear, hand on heart, that workers in hotels, restaurants and bars in the UK are all receiving a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. If this report spurs just a few UK managers to reassess the employment conditions of their workforces it will have had an unintended but positive benefit.

An assault on salt
We've been told by nutritionists and doctors for a long time now that too much salt in the diet is not a good thing. And as with that other hot issue of the moment, smoking in public places, it doesn't look as if the salt debate is about to cool down. But can chefs do without this most basic of flavour enhancers in the kitchen? And if you want to cut down on salt in your cooking, what other flavour boosters could you use?
Joanna Wood, Chef Editor

Edinburgh debut Searcy's is adding to its portfolio of restaurants in art venues and galleries with its first restaurant in Edinburgh. The Gallery Restaurant & Bar is part of the caterer's new drive to expand outside London for the first time in nearly 150 years in the business. The Edinburgh restaurant opened on schedule earlier this month - just in time for the festival and the Age of Titian art exhibition next door.
Ben Walker, Contract Catering Editor

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