Small-Hoteliers Huddle

September 12, 2008

About 150 managers of small hotels from around Central America will gather today in San José’s Radisson Hotel for their sixth annual conference, searching for ways to remain competitive in the face of a growing number of chain hotels owned by foreigners.

The irony of the venue is not lost on the event’s organizer, local hotel-owner and president of the Costa Rican Network of Small Hotels Jane Lemarie.

Small hotels don’t have the space to host a big conference. That is why the message of the conference will be strength through numbers, she says.

According to figures from the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT), about 2,500 hotels operate in the country, and 80 percent have fewer than 50 rooms. Yet the increasing presence of foreign hotel chains, like the Hilton, which recently announced a fifth project in Costa Rica, presents a challenge to smaller hotels with fewer resources, especially iBut Lemarie has a plan. She hopes that small hotels can better compete by emphasizing service and cooperating with each other as a network. Lemarie hopes small hotels can now attract European and U.S. tour groups by offering them rooms from several hotels in the network for the same price. For this weekend’s conference, only some of the 150 participants will stay at the Radisson. Most will be in San José’s small but upscale hotels, like Lemarie’s 33-bedroom Hotel Inca Real.

The network’s strength-in-numbers strategy goes hand in hand with an emphasis on service, which hotel owners hope will draw guests away from the large chains.

“A lot of people complain about the price, but I know they’re getting good service,” says Johanna Marín, manager of Fairamon Hostel in San José. Shared rooms go for $15 in the immaculate backpacker hostel that Marín began running four months ago.

The small hotel network is trying to change the dependence on word-of-mouth customers by publishing brochures and distributing them at international hotel and tourism fairs. The network started with just 10 hotels a year ago and now has about 180. It has more hotels than any of the other countries’ delegations that are part of the Central American Federation of Small Hotels, a conference sponsor.

Lemarie says she hopes the growth in the national tourism industry, which has continued for the past few years, means there is room for everyone, big and small.

“It’s growing everywhere,” she says. Yet despite steady increases in tourism, figures from ICT show a slight slowdown in the growth.

The owner of Casa Hilda, Luis Quesada, has noticed. The eight-room hotel in San José is usually at 80 percent occupancy in the high season, but dropped to around 65 percent this year.

“I don’t know what happened,” he says. Marín says she has been worried about slow business in her hostel but is comforted that it seems to be slow everywhere due to rainy season.

The forum ends Saturday night with a party celebrating Costa Rica’s Independence Day.

 

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