Just about every industry expert and professional has been preaching for the last 6 months that dumping rates is not the solution to offset low demand during these challenging economic times. But to unload distressed inventory even Starwood Hotels & Resorts is cutting its prices up to 50% at approximately 600 properties worldwide.

We have been always in favour of a more long term  and coherent revenue management strategy and have always encouraged our clients to do the same thing. And when on the brink of giving up, we always send them the classic song, ‘Hold the Line’, by Toto to motivate them.

But does this still hold up, if a strong worldwide brand like Starwood is stepping away from what many of us have seemed to agree of being the best long term strategy. What if the large chains all start slashing their rates? What if 5 star hotels price themselves at a level where they compete with 3 and 4 star hotels? Can we throw Rate Integrity out of the window?

Rate Integrity, yes that’s a concept consumer’s value, knowing that they are buying a product of a certain value. Of course they are open to pay more or less for a room depending on the time, place and situation of acquisition. Yielding and fences are well accepted by consumers. But there is an acceptable bandwidth or psychological range.

The question many hoteliers ask us, will people accept to be paying €150 for their room, knowing or the room next door pays €75. The truth is they will never know. You will … Many hoteliers also ask us if the profile of the ‘cheaper’ guest will not disturb the more ‘expensive’ guest. We tend to see this as old school thinking, as in this day and age, you cannot tell the difference. Let’s face it, today I am wearing a suit for the first time since my wedding last year. I have been staying in and consulting for 4 and 5 star hotels going around in my ripped jeans. The world is changing …

So how does this game of Price Integrity and Rate Parity Work? From our experience we have found that hotels who have applied a more dynamic and flexible strategy are the ones achieving the best results. One cannot just work in a sense of ‘black and white’ and maintain rate strategies of another era. Nor can you throw all strategies and positioning out of the window. But realistically we are competing in a world that goes in all directions, so we have to be smart about it, not just radically discount across the board.

Ok great, well said… But what is a smart strategy? How could it work? Because in the end you still have to fill rooms. It is too easy to stand on the sidelines and say, discounting is not the solution. I hate those kinds of comments. A theory is not enough. It won’t get you there. You need to get creative, and be flexible. A Guerilla Warfare approach works best, as your competition will not be able to understand or follow …

Here an idea of a strategy that has worked very well for some of the hotels we manage;

  • Rate Parity – yes, same rates, and same conditions on all public channels… but don’t let yourself be boxed in by this. It is a general strategy, not a law. And honestly we are not in rate parity for the consumer’s sake. We just know that as hotels we have to please our distributors, and without rate parity our job would become almost impossible. Flexibility and dynamism to deviate from time to time, is what builds success. 
  • Rate Integrity – Even though this is hard, during tough economic times. We do believe you should maintain some form of rate integrity. This does not mean you should not lower your rate. But you could be priced according to the market. You don’t have to go as low as others, neither do you have to maintain previous rates. Let’s face it, we all accept how the stock market works. The same will be accepted for hotels. Just don’t dump rates so low that you are hurting your image. 
  • Price Fencing – is how you can get around the whole challenge of Rate Integrity. Offer a slight discount off your BAR for 1 and 2 night stays. But be aggressive on bookings with a longer length of stay. Reservation for 3, 4, 5 nights and more can be offered steep discounts. Consider that the largest percentage of your regular guests will not see this. It is a very effective method. 
  • Lead Time Pricing – The Early Bird still works. Figure out your average booking window. Prior to your regular pick-up curve discount steeply. Competition is still asleep while you are building base steeling their guests. 
  • Opaque Pricing – Hidden discounts through non-branded offers. Use opaque channels like Priceline and Hotwire to unload distressed inventory. They provide wonderful reports showing you exactly what demand volume exists at each price point. It might not be what you really want, but you need it. And trust me opaque or hidden discounting works! 
  • Flexible Corporate and Consortia Pricing – Introduce them without asking the travel agency. Load your special offers minus let’s say 10% automatically. You will become much more attractive then the hotels that don’t. Especially to agencies that weren’t looking at your property before. Afraid that you are displacing current rates which are being booked by loyal corporate travel agencies. Do a query in your PMS on their IATA number and see how much they are booking your BAR and special offer rate tiers. It is a great way to introduce flexible rates to them and show the advantages. Just consider when you yield your rates; you don’t go above the contracted price in order not to upset them. It will open their mind and help you with the negotiations this fall. 
  • CRM Pricing – Offer leisure guests that have booked you though 3rd parties a 10% discount of your BAR, booking your hotel directly using a promo code. You eliminate agency fees of 10 to 25% and get them to bookdirectly at a small discount. 
  • Corporate Guests and their Family – Offer corporate clients to book a double room with a free upgrade to a family room to accommodate their two children the next time they would like to come to your destination on holidays. Again apply a special promo code they have to insert in your online booking engine. 
  • Friend Rate – Send an after check-out thank you email offering a unique discount they can pass on to their friends. They email their friends a special offer which has to be booked within the next two to four weeks. You can even add a reward to it, that if they achieve a certain number of friend bookings, they will get a free stay. The promo code must thus be unique for the guest in this case. Make sure you put a Twitter and FaceBook posting button in the email as well. Imagine the viral spin-off of this. 
  • Add Value – Oh yes. We should not forget about this industry classic. Make a package at a slightly higher price than your room only rate and add additional services or features to the offering. Now important is we don’t try to sell the hotel again. Remember they won’t have dinner in your restaurant every night if they are visiting your destinations as tourist. They want to get out and experience the town. So for €5.00 per night include a bicycle. Or for €10 include a city wide museum ticket. Use your destination and create an offer that differentiates your hotel from the one next door. Or for €7.50 extra include and of the beaten track tour of your city. Think of things like a Upcoming Modern Art, Jazz or Gay History Tour. You can find more than enough local tour guides online that will be more than willing to work with you. Get creative, sell experience! 

The above examples of price segmentation and price discrimination and guerilla tactics are very effective. You have to get creative and outsmart your competition. And if you segment, communicate and promote your offers and price strategy clearly well, you will not lose ‘price integrity’.

To avoid having to discount to deep to achieve occupancy, the name of the game is driving demand. The role of the revenue manager therefore has changed. Collaboration and working in sync with the marketing manager has become indispensible.

Rate Parity and Rate Integrity are not an objective. They are merely yield tools of your strategies. We must not lose sight of the real goal of any business, the bottom line. RevPAR is not something you can really rely on nowadays. Hoteliers should be really managing their property by GopPAR.

If you really want to win in these times, you should take it to the next level. Kill your competition. Invest in online marketing. And I mean invest. Let’s take an average scenario to define budget. A hotel of 100 rooms running at 75% occupancy at an ADR of €80, which gets 30% of its business through third party travel agencies and 15% FIT wholesaler production. Conservatively calculating the commission and net rate discounts we are talking of €180.000, at the least. Converting 10% of this business into direct sales would be acceptable at a price of €18.000 no?

We applied this approach with some hotels we manage last year. And surprise, this year their occupancy is outperforming last years. One of them generated with their website in 4 months time the same revenues as entire 2009 and another double his direct online sales. We are ignoring the direct sales through the reservation office, which is trending at a 20% spin off currently.

To win, you need to take risks, be different. Outsmart your market. Don’t just do what the rest does. Do it in stealth mode. Be a rebel, and outmaneuver your competition. And if it means going against some industry standards here and there, so be it …