And so this is Christmas and what have you done? John Lennon, one suspects, might have dealt rather well with the pandemic, having had a large flat with nice views and a fondness for staying in bed. For the sector, staying in bed was something which happened at home and not at its painstakingly-cleaned beds and, around Europe, Christmas has largely been cancelled.
Christmas will largely be a time to take stock and batten down the hatches ahead of what promises to be the most difficult six months of the pandemic, a time when we expect to see the distress, those big deals and more job losses weaken one of the key sectors in many economies.
We tend to be told at times like these that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger but, frankly, it’s too soon for platitudes like that to unleash anything other than a flurry of fists. But what has 2020 revealed about the sector?
You’re never more than the hint of a downturn away from a Travelodge CVA.
Back in May, when those in the UK learned that Dominic Cummings had concerns that his glasses prescription might not be spot on, Travelodge said that it expected to see the impact from the virus outbreak lasting for at least two years and could its landlords forgo £103m to £146m in rent please. It was all very 2012, when the brand wrote off a chunk of debt and then rode on to greatness. Greatness until 2020 that is.
This time around landlords were rather more feisty, seeing this as Travelodge taking a leaf out of the Cummings playbook and taking an opportunity which the more sober might hold back from. There was considerable kickback and the agreement reached allowed landlords to exit if they pleased.
Enter opportunity to scoop up a portfolio of over 500 hotels and during a downturn, no less. The initial concern being that, well, this was a brand with very little of the consistency which one associates with the word ‘brand’. A number of the global operators looked it over and decided it was too expensive to drag up to their standards. But some saw hope and some even saw the opportunity to bring some flexibility and risk sharing into the sector.
In the event, Ago Hotels, working with Accor’s Ibis brand, secured at least nine hotel leases from Travelodge following the break clause deadline on 18 November and told us it was talking to a further 35 owners about a possible change of brands. Not the sweeping change to the UK’s budget landscape many had drooled over, but a step in the flexible direction.
As Lionel Benjamin, co-founder, Ago Hotels, told us: “The first nine hotels to switch to the Ago Hotels platform is a real milestone, marking the culmination of a long journey to provide landlords with an alternative lease structure to safeguard their interests and the value of their investments.”
And another Travelodge CVA can only be around the corner. Opportunity will knock.
Airbnb is no longer a myth.
With antisocial being the new social, the pandemic was a chance for Airbnb to show its strengths; namely that you could go on holiday without having any contact outside your group and you could sit on a porch rocking back and forth, shotgun in hand seeing off interlopers if that was your bag. It was all very Walking Dead.
At Airbnb, the group showed that it wasn’t opposed to taking cash from some quite ferocious PE operators, teeing it up nicely for an obligatory IPO come the winter. And when it came, investors who had so far been denied a distress bloodbath piled in and the company was valued at $87.2bn in the opening day. Or just over two Marriott Internationals, if that’s how you choose to measure things. CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky said that he was “humbled” when really he meant “hungover” and the viewing masses speculated on whether being fancy on Wall Street meant that he was now going to have to buy a tie.
It will mean that Airbnb has to buy something, because sticking to its homesharing knitting isn’t going to keep investors thrilled for very long and 2021 is likely to see the platform having to pick a direction and stick to it, something it hasn’t shown a talent for in the past. Student housing indeed….
When all else fails, Accor.
A pandemic was never going to hold back Accor, the company most likely to…in any given scenario and 2020 was no different, other than chairman & CEO Sébastien Bazin’s new enthusiasm for paddle boarding, which meant it became Accor Offshore during the summer months.
Accor variously created a potentially global-wide cleanliness certification with Bureau Veritas, launched the idea of bedrooms as offices, dropped out of the CAC-40, started offering teleconferences between guests and doctors , announced a reorg, brought together its extended-stay hotel brands, branded private residences and Onefinestay brands under one roof, piled into innovation in the hunt for Travelodge in the UK, set up a fund to support workers under pressure, spread the rumour that it was making eyes at IHG, announced plans to consume Ennismore and had to pull out of a launch with Citroën and JCDecaux. which would have been even more interesting than something Elon Musk might do, believe me.
It seems churlish to choose a favourite Accor story of the year, but the IHG rumour, which appeared in the French press just after S&P downgraded the group, was very enjoyable indeed, although didn’t do much for the share price, so we were denied the months of picking apart the merger of, let’s call them ‘mindsets’, or the creation of the ultimate budget monolith.
What will Accor do in 2021? Only a fool would try and second guess the next move at Accor Towers, where they make 3D chess look like Connect Four. As we head into the festive break, there are rumours of A Big Europe deal, but Hyatt, not Accor, seems most likely to be involved. No special wisdom is needed to leap to this conclusion: the company keeps talking about how much it wants to get into Europe. And it has a stack of cash.
And we can only wish that for the rest of the sector in these most difficult of times. To 2021!