Airlines and hotels: the travails of accommodating a recovery

Market conditions are turning for the travel and hospitality industry. More people are leaving home behind for a while, and they are again willing to open their wallets to do so. Especially in the highly coveted business travel sector, seats are filling and rooms are being occupied. So, it would stand to reason that airlines and hotels would move to address the increase in demand. Unfortunately, accommodating growth can be risky in these industries. Every step must be made carefully and deliberately, with a plan for taking existing demand to a higher level.

Think about your local grocery store. If cans of corn start to sell aggressively, the store can examine the trend and order more for the following week. It may have to allocate a bit of extra shelf space, perhaps at the expense of canned peas The risk isn’t that high, though, because demand can be handled in smaller increments.

The core product isn’t as flexible in the travel and hospitality business. As people look to book more rooms or flights, a hotel or airline can’t simply add a bed or a seat. Airlines can add routes (or restore those that have been cut), but that creates a new problem.
Assume that demand for a particular route has grown from the norm to the point that another one third of a plane’s seats would be filled. New revenue is coming in the door, but cash is also going out to cover the cost of operating the flights. To make this growth profitable, the airline may have to fill more of the seats on that new flight. To accommodate demand, essentially, the airline will have to create even more.

This is the reasoning behind United Continental CEO Jeff Smisek’s remark on an earnings call recently, as reported by the Associated Press, “We will not grow for growth’s sake, but only if we can maximize our profitability by doing so.”

For the hospitality industry, the challenge can be even greater. A major chain may see an opportunity to take on more guests by adding another property, but this doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, effort and capital to get a hotel up and operational, especially in a major city. During the time it takes to plan and execute an expansion, market conditions can change substantially, as the hospitality industry learned with the credit crisis of 2008. Real estate and financial market conditions can have a magnified impact on the hotel business, and the underlying drivers move far more quickly than those supporting increases in rooms capacity.

Projects already in the works in 2008 left the industry with more supply than it needed in 2009 and 2010, and demand for rooms, according to travel industry research firm PhoCusWright, isn’t expected to return to 2007 levels until next year. This means that net growth won’t begin until 2008.

Think about it: plans that may have begun to be executed in 2007 won’t deliver results for at least four years, maybe even five.

Managing supply and demand in the travel industry is, to say the least, a tricky business. Traveler purse strings are starting to ease, making life much rosier for airline and hotel company income statements. Taking advantage of this opportunity, however, is easier in theory than in practice. This year and next, we’ll see how the hotels and air carriers manage the perils of potential.

[photo by disparkys via Flickr]