The hospitality industry which boomed in South Africa in 2010 has admittedly had some post World Cup benefit. The industry has also shed some of its fly-by-nighters. However the debate continues as to whether hotel rooms are overpriced and over accommodated. Regardless, the question remains, aren’t hotels a property industry problem and therein lies the root dynamic behind the quantity and price of rooms.
Stepping back and looking at tourism in general we are reminded of what valuable foreign currency it brings into the country. The hospitality industry provides coveted direct employment too. The potential for growth is huge and its knock-on effect on the commercial property world worth taking seriously.
South African tourists, who make up the largest section of the market, have to bear the brunt of the high hotel room rates which are often aimed at the overseas tourist. Despite the belief that foreign tourists are ‘loaded’ there is some resistance to our higher room rates. By comparison Brazil, which is similar to South Africa in some respects, is geographically closer to most of the same source markets that we rely on for inbound visitors. Upscale hotels in the major cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo reported average room rates of between $300 and $400. Although the South African equivalent is around $190 at current exchange rates, the difference can arguably be absorbed by the cost of travelling to South Africa, a destination which is generally regarded as a long-haul destination.
Here’s the rub: High room rates have the knock-on effect of an oversupplied market. Customarily this should lower daily room rates as a result of market forces of supply and demand. However what has been observed is a reduction in occupancy rates. In some parts of the world various solutions are formulated to deal with oversupply. On the other hand other governments have not interfered and left it to market forces. It is important from the outset to ascertain where this oversupply exists and to quantify its extent.
One intervention by hoteliers is to discount room rates. The down side to this is the unintended message that the value has decreased too. To then return to the higher rate becomes a negative movement. Another strategy, instead of dropping rates, is to add value, offering two-for-one deals where visitors get one night ‘free’ on top of the original booking, extras such as free bottles of wine with a dinner in the hotel restaurant or vouchers for various entertainment in the city are supplied.
Countering this there is the school of thought that sees this as only a temporary solution whilst hotels engage in a price war of undercutting rates. The visible nature of hotel rates means short-term occupancy gains are quickly offset as competitors rapidly follow suit in cutting rates. This leads to a lower priced hotel market yielding lower revenues in the face of normally unchanged demand, proving that rate discounting alone does not induce additional hotel demand.
Looking at the big picture, some would encourage government intervention for the tourism industry in general. A more competitive ZAR/dollar exchange rate will help make hotel rates more affordable for the inbound tourist market. The Department of Transport could relook at increasing the number of airport slots for international airlines. This would help bring more visitors and bring down costs through competition.
One country whose government hasn’t been shy to intervene in the tourism industry is Ireland. A country very dependent on tourism. In the wake of the Global Financial Crisis Ireland’s NAMA (National Asset Management Agency) took control of over a 100 hotels with the intention of circumventing bankruptcies of the operators through paying out the creditors and then removing the remaining stock from the market. As a result, competition in the market was reduced and room rates were stabilised for the entire market. Although the removal of competition is seldom seen as beneficial in a market economy, especially when taxpayers’ money is involved, such drastic action is a further indication of the seriousness of the hotel room oversupply problem and the extent to which some countries will go to protect their tourism industries.
Coming round to property, many would point out that hotels are, in essence, in the property industry, and construction costs are the capital outlay that hotel incomes and profits have to provide a return on. For the last decade, tender price escalation, as an indication of construction costs, has averaged 12%, indicating that hotel returns are diminishing.
One may argue that new investments in the hotel industry should only have been introduced into the market if the potential for the market was there to ultimately sustain the room rate. By 2008, most market commentators had already forecast the “property bubble” bursting. The SA Reserve Bank Governor issued warnings to businesses and consumers to reduce debt and to forgo acquiring more. Most hotels that entered the market without taking into consideration those warnings, perhaps should not have been built in the first place.
The higher-than-inflation building costs whilst South Africa is experiencing deflationary conditions are similarly to blame for the high average daily room rates. The materials, labour and overheads are also to be considered. Recently the rise in cost of materials has been much more than inflation and other building cost indicators. The largest construction companies were also recently investigated by the Competition Commission for anti-competitive behaviour. Some of them have come clean and have been penalised.
To quote Hotel commentator Makhudu in his online blog article: ‘Hotel Oversupply’: “For the investor, the opinions that room rates are greater than normal means that hotel properties are currently overvalued. Some bankers have gone further than conducting debt reviews. Instead of recalling loans they have on hotel properties they have gone and interfered with the market dynamics by unilaterally dropping rates. Established hoteliers have bitterly criticised the actions of so-called ‘zombie hotels’ which have been taken over by banks and are undercutting rates for the sector in general.”
Reading the market with the wisdom that many of the most experienced hoteliers have, acting with owners who resist the skittishness that has come upon many investors of late, decisions about room rates will hopefully be made with sober judgement and a steady hand. It makes little sense to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. We should cherish every tourist that comes our way and reward them with reasonable rates. History may just remember us according to how well we cared for our golden geese.