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Defending the Low Cost Position

The last couple of years have been very tough on the hotel industry. Now, some of the mainline hotel companies are starting to recover, but the high-end hotels continue their prolonged suffering. A typical example are the Four Seasons hotels. Last year the occupancy rate at the chain’s hotels was below 60% and revenue per available room, a key measure of sales, fell 26%. There are 82 Four Seasons hotels. At least 12 of them reputedly are near the breaking point.

The Four Seasons Company no longer owns any of its 82 branded hotels. It, like most of the hotel chains, sold off its hotels in the 80s to companies and investors who had more willingness and ability to carry high levels of leverage on the hotel properties. The Four Seasons, and most other hotel chains today, manage their brands but don’t own them.

The hotel brands tightly control the quality of their hotels through their management agreements. The management company receives a management fee of a percentage of the branded hotels’ revenues and also gets a percentage of the hotels’ profits. The hotel investor gets the use of the brand name and must conform to the rules as written in the management agreements. This arrangement allows for a disconnect between the interest of the hotel property owners and the hotel brand owners. The property owners may wish to find cost shortcuts that the brand owners abhor because the cost savings sully the brand name.

The founder of Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts watches carefully over the brand he created. Isadore Sharp is the founder and Chief Executive of Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts. He started with his first hotel in 1961. He built the company into the chain it is today by providing top notch service to its affluent guests. In the past, the company has weathered market downturns as relatively minor bumps in the road. This downturn has proven to be different. In this downturn, several property owners have petitioned the brand management company to reduce costs, sometimes at the guests’ expense. (See the Symptom & Implication, “The industry is reducing costs aggressively” on StrategyStreet.com.) Mr. Sharp will have little of it.

Mr. Sharp, who remains CEO of the company and 10% owner of Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, agreed to some cost savings that have relatively little impact on the guest. Hotels may now outsource their laundry. They may simplify menus in the restaurants and even close a restaurant on slow nights on those hotels that have multiple restaurants. Some hotels may discontinue stocking fresh flowers in the lobbies as long as they replace those fresh flowers with sculptures or ornate vases. The property owners may also combine management positions and cross-train employees to work in multiple departments. Mr. Sharp believes that a guest will not see these kinds of cost savings in their visits to a Four Seasons Hotel.

But he refuses to go along with other cuts proposed by some property owners. The property owners may not combine the concierge desk with the check-in duties on the graveyard shift. Mr. Sharp insists that hotel employees continue to turn down guest bed covers each evening. He also refused a request to end room service during the middle of the night. All of these changes a guest would notice. (See “Video #46: The Place of Cost Management in Hostility” on StrategyStreet.com.)

These decisions by Mr. Sharp tell us a lot about why he has been so successful in his career. He keeps his attention focused on the quality of his guest experience, despite the short-term cost of continuing that form of Reliability. Profits may dip in the near-term, but he believes they will hold up in the long-term as customers return for the consistent quality of high level services they associate with the Four Seasons brand.

Mr. Sharp is protecting the ultimate low-cost position. We have found in our work and research in many industries that the low-cost position in a market is the ownership of a satisfied customer relationship. A company that owns a satisfied customer will not lose that customer to any other competitor unless that competitor can offer a similar product at a discount that begins at 15% and usually is more. We have not seen any market where peer competitors have cost structures that vary from one another by as much as 15%. Hence, the ownership of a satisfied customer relationship is the equivalent of having a 15% of revenue cost advantage on your peer competitors.

Posted 7/12/10

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