Bullish in Scandinavia
By Demian Hodari, Associate Professor of Strategic Management at the Ecole Hôtelière Lausanne (EHL) and Sarah Sonne Larsen , Senior Hotel & Spa Consultant at Nordic Hotel Consulting
A recent survey of the delegates at the 4th annual HotCop Hotel Investment Conference, representing the Scandinavian hotel industry's major players, found that hotel owners, developers, investors, lenders and operators are all optimistic about the region's growth and profit potential, and intend to actively develop and finance new projects in the coming years, write Sarah Sonne Larsen of Nordic Hotel Consulting and Demian Hodari, Professor of Strategic Management at the Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne.
Strong development activity in the Nordics
The conference survey's results revealed substantial optimism and initiative across all key stakeholder groups. While a very positive 72% of operators responded that they were likely/very likely to open a hotel in the next 5 years, this same view was held by more than 86% of the developers responding. As for lenders, all those surveyed held a similar opinion about the likelihood that they would finance a new project within the next five years. This strong industry-wide view bodes well for future growth projections, as the necessary stakeholders all appear to be on board for future hotel development in the region.
A renewal of the midscale segment
Survey participants hold a particularly strong interest in developing hotels for the midscale segment. This, at first, appears to be a peculiar choice, as Scandinavia's hotel market is traditionally dominated by midscale properties. It is only in the past decade or two that the regional industry has seen noteworthy diversification with the opening of more hotels in other segments. However, the midscale segment has experienced the least investment and innovation in recent years, making it an attractive candidate for additional properties and new branding opportunities.
The budget sector has seen substantial investment and operational improvement during this period, largely due to the opportunities for physical property improvement here, as most properties were considered tired and stale. Furthermore, there were simply too few budget hotels to accommodate the demand. Substantial renovations, new buildings and innovative concepts shook up the segment and produced a plethora of fresh and trendy limited service properties, including both independent and branded units. As a result, these hotels have inspired many traditional midscale travelers to switch to "affordable luxury" properties. This segment has resonated with Scandinavian travelers who appreciate the unique offer of a trendy but no-fuss hotel stay at a reasonable rate. The volume of budget hotels has grown fast in recent years, especially in Denmark, as the table below illustrates. Oslo and Stockholm are both less developed on the budget side than Copenhagen, as attention has been given to exciting upscale design hotels.
At the other end of the spectrum, the upscale segment has seen the lion's share of investment, which has transformed many of the classical and traditional upscale palace-type hotels, replete with chandeliers, white linen, French-styled table service, and 24-hour room service. Today, most Scandinavian upscale hotels are liberated from such formalities. Instead, it is design, innovative service offerings, experimental F&B, a relaxed atmosphere, and boutique elements that characterize these properties. Examples include NIMB, SP34, Axel Guldsmeden and Hotel Alexandra in Copenhagen; Miss Clara by Nobis, Ett Hem and Lydmar Hotel in Stockholm; and The Thief, First Hotel Grims Grenka and Lysebu in Oslo.
The somewhat outdated midscale hotels, as a result of pressures from both upscale and budget hotels, experience the lowest revenue growth rates of all segments in the Scandinavian capitals (except Copenhagen), according to recent figures. This makes the sector ripe for investment, not only with regard to improved design, but according to HotCop delegates, for more streamlined operations and lower operational cost structures, which are necessary due to the sector's higher employee counts – a factor which has placed it at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the region's more efficient and lower priced budget hotels. Thus, stakeholder sentiment about the midscale segment is not so surprising after all, and may result in a renewed and more contemporary midscale supply in Scandinavia.
Different strokes for different folks
While operators, investors, developers and lenders have all acknowledged the large potential for new investment in the region's midscale hotel segment, the study's results suggest that the similarity stops there, as there is a relatively diverse set of interests across these groups. For example, developers noted a particularly keen interest in extended stay properties, which could be a result of VAT advantages on construction and tax deductions on inventory and buildings, as well as high flexibility due to easy conversion opportunities. Lenders, meanwhile, noted their strong preference for limited service properties, due to their reduced sensitivity to market fluctuations. Operators, on the other hand, suggested that the lifestyle segment was ripe for investment, given the region's strong focus on design and trend setting.
The study's respondents were asked to identify what they consider to be the primary challenges in the Scandinavian hotel market. Given the region's historical preference for lease contracts and lack of many risk share agreements, the issue of "contract imbalance" received the highest score with 36%. This issue explains the continued lack of international brands in the region, and indicates a likelihood that regional chains such as Scandic, First and Choice will continue to dominate the market, because they are inclined to sign leases.
According to the survey, the second most significant challenge (24% of respondents) for hotel development in the region, is the lack of financing for hotel projects. Interestingly, respondents also suggest that they believe this will begin to change now, as banks and other lending institutions are more optimistic about the industry's future in the region.
The third largest challenge (20%) is a lack of conceptual development in the Nordics. At present, local and regional chains, with a limited supply of different brands and concepts, dominate the market. While these chains also renew their brands and include a growing number of collection-style individual hotels into their portfolios, there is room for a wider offer of fresh and innovative concepts. This again relates to the incompatible interests concerning choice of contract, which limits the inflow of new international concepts.
The limited supply of international brands in Scandinavia is a result of local market penetration challenges – in particular, the divergent contract expectations between the Nordic owners and the international chains. It is important to note that European and international chains are highly interested in expanding into Denmark, Sweden and Norway. This was very clear at the HotCop Conference, which included participants from numerous chains that are not yet present in Scandinavia. Following the developments in the coming years will be highly interesting. We can certainly expect an increase in midscale properties, hopefully with innovative and contemporary concepts. Furthermore, the supply in the capital cities and airport locations is expected to grow. Whether the new developments will be dominated by established regional giants, new local operators or the international chains, is yet to be seen.
This article, along with over 100 pages of similar material focused on the outlook for the hotel industry, will be published in The Hotel Yearbook 2015. The Hotel Yearbook 2015 will become available early January 2015. It features a comprehensive outlook for major geo markets as well as in-depth interviews with hotel group executives focusing on key segments including luxury and lifestyle brands. Additional articles include expert views in the fields of design, environment, technology, social media, finance, education, business travel and human resources. Click here to learn more.
Demian Hodari, Ph.D.
Professor of Strategic Management