If investors groused that the hotel industry was weak in 2008 and worse this year, maybe they should tear out the pages of a calendar for 2010 -- or start thinking about 2011.
Like their friends in the gambling industry, hotel operators are being battered by a one-two punch of reduced consumer and business spending as well as by expansion plans developed when times were better.
A new Fitch Ratings report painted a picture of "weak" operating trends "well into 2010" and possible stabilization next year. A "meaningful" recovery is "not likely" until 2011, and even then the recovery will be "modest."
Expect the next 18 months to bring a "great deal of fundamental stress" for the industry, followed by a "very strong recovery in fundamentals," analyst David Loeb of Robert W. Baird & Co. recently told The Wall Street Transcript.
Are share-price gains sustainable?
The downbeat near-term forecasts may come as a surprise to shareholders of hoteliers like Marriott International
Back in October, Fool contributor Chris Jones cautioned investors about Marriott's stock surge, and I'll broaden the alert now. Don't be mesmerized by gaudy gains, unless you checked in at the bottom and then got out.
There's also the illusion of 52-week highs for many companies in the midst of a recession, and hotels are no exception. Although shares of big hoteliers are up this year, they are nowhere near their peaks in mid-2007.
But don't just take my word for it -- for most large-cap hotel companies, consensus equity-analyst opinions range from lukewarm to tepid. Wyndham is the sole big name whose buy ratings exceed the combined neutral and sell ratings.
"We think that the stocks tend to be a bit overvalued here relative to current fundamentals," Loeb said.
The casino connection
The stock behavior of lodging companies is much like that of casino operators, to which they're often joined at the hip. For example, Las Vegas Sands'
Like large hotel companies, many casino operators, such as Las Vegas Sands and Wynn Resorts
Although equity analysts have their favorites, the hotel industry in general doesn't support such sharp, continued stock price appreciation. Hotels tend to discount room rates, hoping to get customers to stay longer and to spend more on food, entertainment, and other services.
Dollars and discounts
Recent financial reports by casino operators -- from Las Vegas Sands to MGM Mirage -- demonstrate that a key indicator for their hotels' health, revenue per available room, or RevPAR, is down from last year. Ditto for the hotel companies.
An analysis by Smith Travel Research shows worldwide occupancy rates were off 11.8% for the first six months of 2009 versus the comparable period in 2008. RevPAR was down 23%. After four solid years of RevPAR growth in the U.S., RevPAR didn't grow last year and should continue downward again this year.
InterContinental, whose properties include Holiday Inns, reported a worldwide RevPAR drop of 15.2% for the three months ended Sept. 30 versus the year-ago period. Revenue fell 19%, as did operating income.
The big franchiser Choice Hotels International
If you build it, will they visit?
Despite the setbacks, hotel executives maintain their optimism, arguing that the industry will recover. That was what Hyatt Hotels
Optimism is reflected in expansion, even though Fitch Ratings points out that supply growth has been "above average," creating pressure on operating fundamentals.
By year end, Marriott will have added 38,000 rooms worldwide, or 5,000 more than it had forecast just two months ago. Marriott recently agreed to open 36 Fairfield Inns in Mexico, tripling the brand's presence and representing the biggest multi-unit development deal in Marriott's history.
Asia is a popular site for expansion as well. Starwood, which owns 982 hotels worldwide, including 24 in India, plans to add 15 more hotels in India by 2012.
With unbridled expansion, with supply growing at a high level, with unfavorable occupancy/revenue trends, and with stock prices having climbed, investors face a dilemma. If you invest today and believe you're getting in on the ground floor, just remember how you feel when you check into a hotel and are given a room on that floor.