Analysis - June 9, 2009



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June 2009


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Global Tourism: Black Clouds with Silver Linings

Stormy Skies on the Horizon

The global economy has fallen off a cliff and no one is sure when it will hit bottom. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the world’s advanced economies experienced an unprecedented 7.5% decline in real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) during the fourth quarter of 2008. The IMF projects a similar drop for the first quarter of 2009 and says Euro zone GDP will fall more than 4% for the year. In 2009, the world economy will contract for the first time since the Great Depression.

The world’s largest economies are particularly challenged. GDP in the United States has contracted at an annual rate exceeding 6% for the last two quarters. The IMF forecasts that Russia and Japan will see GDP shrink by a similar amount through 2009. Japan’s export-driven economy will experience its first-ever trade deficit and the country will likely experience a dangerous deflationary spiral.

Fragile Tourism

Travel and tourism are particularly sensitive to macroeconomic developments.  The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reported a year-on-year drop in international tourist arrivals for the second half of 2008.  Asia and Europe experienced particularly steep declines of 3%.

The current year got off to a frightening start with international travel agents and tour operators reporting substantial declines in reservations for the coming summer season.  The US hotel industry is suffering massive losses as both occupancy and room rates dive precipitously.  In New York, March revenue per available room (RevPAR) dropped 35.5% on a year-on-year basis.  RevPAR in Orlando and Miami declined by 28% and 29%, respectively.

Two Canadian provinces, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, finished 2008 with average hotel occupancy at a paltry 45%. Both provinces are forecasting further demand deterioration this year. Some Canadian urban markets are faring even worse. Annual hotel occupancy for Niagara Falls’ 10,000 hotel rooms was just 38% with no improvement foreseen this year.

Asian powerhouse markets have also been devastated.  Chinese and Indian hotels reported March year-on-year RevPAR declines of 35% and 40%, respectively.  The Thai market, complicated by political unrest, witnessed a RevPAR drop of 37%.  While globalization ignited the twentieth century international tourism boom, it also eliminated firewalls that could have contained the economic contagion ravaging the travel and hospitality industries.

The Upside of a Downturn

With so much gloom on the economic horizon, many business executives are suffering from managerial catatonia. Conventional wisdom dictates that opportunities abound in surging markets, while recessions oblige businesses to hunker down and weather the storm. In contrast, Professor Don Sull, my colleague at London Business School, has become a guru of sanguinity by suggesting that the most lucrative business opportunities are present during economic downturns.  Professor Sull’s research argues that it is significantly easier to implement organizational change and instil better practice in stressful recessionary markets than in boom times. He explains how managers can harness a downturn to identify lucrative investment opportunities, renew a sense of urgency, justify unpopular decisions and overcome complacency (

Applying Sull’s hypothesis to the tourism industry during the gravest financial crises of the last century can be an insightful exercise.  Entrepreneurs, investors and managers have frequently identified silver linings in dark economic clouds.  The following three examples illustrate how travel and hospitality professionals have seized opportunities during economic recessions of the past.

Case 1: The Waldorf-Astoria

Hotelier Lucius Boomer opened New York’s Waldorf-Astoria on October 1, 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression.  Towering 42 stories above Park Avenue with almost 2000 rooms, it was the largest and most expensive hotel ever built.  With equity markets in shambles and a quarter of the US population unemployed, few were the fools who expected the hotel to remain open for long. Stock markets had been declining for two years and there was no end to the economic turmoil in sight.

In spite of the gloomy discourse, the opening of the Waldorf-Astoria manifested how the Great Depression had radically altered a fundamental business paradigm. Boomer focussed on depressed costs to attain a competitive advantage. He capitalized on the idle construction sector to negotiate favourable building contracts.  The cost of previously expensive finishing materials had plummeted, permitting use of the finest marble, granite, hardwood and brass.  Unemployed artisans and craftsmen were brought from Europe to work on the hotel interiors at a fraction of their pre-Depression wages.  In the end, a palace was built on a pauper’s budget.

President Herbert Hoover inaugurated the Waldorf in a radio address on the eve of its grand opening. “Our hotels have become community institutions,” said Hoover.  “They are the central points of civic hospitality … The erection of this great structure has been a contribution to the maintenance of employment and an exhibition of courage and confidence to the whole nation.”

The Waldorf-Astoria was also an extremely lucrative investment.  By the mid-1930s the hotel was filling its suites with presidents, royalty and captains of industry.  While the value of the Waldorf’s real estate, management contract and goodwill are debatable, it is probably the most valuable hotel in the world today.  In the end, it was the economic conditions of the Great Depression that permitted the Waldorf to have been built in all its glamour and glory.

Case 2: Carnival Cruise Lines

Most tourism professionals would hesitate to consider the economic turmoil of 1974 the ideal business climate in which to found a capital-intensive enterprise in an industry sector heavily dependent on discretionary spending by retired senior citizens.  Following the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system, US GDP was contracting and inflation exceeded 12%.

In the face of this economic ataxia, Ted Arison purchased a distressed cruise ship for one US dollar and the assumption of $5 million in debt.  In November 1974, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average down 45% from its previous year high, Arison registered the Carnival Company as owner and manager of Carnival Cruise Lines.

At the time, it was difficult to understand why Arison, a savvy businessman, would purchase a near-bankrupt cruise company on the heels of the Arab oil embargo. Petroleum prices had recently quadrupled and a cruise ship could burn up to 200 litres of fuel per minute.  On the surface, the deal made no economic sense.  Arison had different ideas, however. He was about to revolutionize the cruise industry.

Arison targeted a younger market segment (25-40 year olds) that had considered ocean cruises a leisurely pastime for the geriatric set.  Carnival’s ship was redecorated in a flashy neon-esque style. An onboard casino and discotheque were added. Marketing imagery turned away from elegance and genteelness in favour of youthfulness and frivolity. Micky Arison, Ted’s son, made sales calls on dozens of travel agents, employing a casual youthful style to convince them that cruises would be the next big holiday trend for young adults.

Within a year, Carnival was operating at 100% capacity.  It went on to become the world’s largest cruise line. By identifying opportunities in a downturn, Arison’s one dollar investment made him a multibillionaire.

Case 3: Emirates Airlines

Following the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States, the global travel industry came to a screeching halt.  Airlines and hotels were besieged with reservation cancellations. Looking longer term, air carriers began to cancel aircraft orders.  Share prices for Boeing and EADS (Airbus’ parent company) plummeted.

Ahmed Bin Saeed Al-Maktoum, Chairman of the Emirates Group, sensed an opportunity where his competitors saw a threat. No one knew how long the downturn would last but Sheikh Ahmed knew that Emirates was well positioned for growth in the long term.  At the lightly attended Dubai International Air Show in October 2001, the Emirates Chairman negotiated with Boeing and Airbus for an enormous aircraft order.  In an attempt to defend market share as order cancellations poured in, the two manufacturers offered deep discounts.

Emirates ended up splitting the order between the two companies, buying US$15 billion worth of airplanes. While the purchase was more than originally anticipated, Sheikh Ahmed later explained that fire-sale prices resulting from the economic downturn were too attractive to forego.

While delivery of the aircraft would take place over several years, client and investor confidence was immediately apparent.  In the airline industry’s worst ever year, the Emirates Group finished the 2001-02 fiscal exercise with net income representing 8% of revenue. The airline paid a substantial shareholder dividend and a bonus payment of 3 weeks salary to all employees. While competitors laid off large numbers of staff, Emirates did not make a single employee redundant and paid salary increments in full. Among numerous awards, Emirates was voted “Airline of the Year 2002” by 4,000,000 Internet users in the second annual Skytrax Research Study and Best Cargo Airline to the Middle East by Air Cargo News. By considering long-term strategic opportunities, Emirates seized the upside of a downturn.

So where are the opportunities?

Some hospitality businesses are less affected by broad economic strife than others. In comparison to many restaurant companies, McDonald’s Corporation has held up well over the last year. It is ranked as the fourth best performer on the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Its share price is down just 9% compared to the DJIA average of -38%. The company had sufficient confidence in its short-term performance to increase its 2008 fourth quarter dividend by 32%.

McDonald’s is capitalizing on Starbuck’s misfortunes to launch McCafe, a quick service restaurant concept offering cappuccinos, lattes and mochas. With Starbuck’s closing nearly 1000 units, McDonald’s is betting it can attract consumers specifically to purchase specialty beverages rather than just as a support for its food offerings.

Lucrative long-term investment opportunities also exist in the lodging sector. While the number of portfolio and single asset hotel transactions has dropped significantly over the last year, investors with access to capital have been purchasing properties at deep discounts.  The United Kingdom, in particular, has witnessed the liquidation of premium hotel assets at prices that would have been shocking two years ago.  Distressed companies like Royal Bank of Scotland and hospitality giant Mitchells & Butlers have been obliged to sell hotels to generate desperately needed cash.

In a market frozen by the credit crisis, Britain’s Travelodge has been on a buying spree, picking up six properties (650 rooms) from Menzies for £85 million, seven Swallow Hotels (669 rooms) for £70 million and five independent hotels (500 rooms) for £35 million.  Travelodge is opportunistically fleshing out its geographic coverage with aspirations of dominating the British budget sector when the country emerges from its current downturn.

New Eyes

In challenging economic times it is difficult for business leaders to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Indeed, it is even harder to identify opportunities at hand. As such, failure can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  A Chinese proverb advises that “If we don’t change our direction, we’re likely to end up where we’re headed.”

In challenging times, it is critical that managers in the travel and tourism industry recognize existing business opportunities. There is a silver lining in most black clouds.  As illustrated in the three cases presented herewith, the challenge is not seeking new opportunities but having new eyes to identify them.

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