• Accor takes first big step

Accor's restructuring has taken an important step-forward with the expected disposal of its half-share in business travel outfit Carlson Wagonlit Travel.

But if anything, the move has only highlighted the potential that remains locked-up in the French giant as it seeks to focus on hotels and services.

The 50% stake was bought for $465m by Carlson, the partner in the business since 1997, and One Equity Partners, the venture capitalist firm that is affiliated to JP Morgan.

Carlson is separately buying CWT rival Navigant International for $510m, in a move that doubles its presence in North America. The deal means the third-largest travel management company in the US has bought the second-largest and it leaves Carlson as trailing only American Express in this business.

Announcing the CWT deal, Accor's chief executive said: \This divestment is the first step to the refocusing on our two core businesses: hotels and services. It is perfectly aligned with the new strategic direction announced by the Group.\

Accor is understood to have secured a three-year partnership arrangement with CWT to give its hotels preference on its system.

But this is true only up to a point. In particular, the new strategic direction has not been elucidated with great clarity so far. Much more information is needed on exactly what Accor intends to hang on to.

The \other businesses\ section during Accor's results presentation for the first quarter listed casinos (Lucienne Barriere), restaurants (Lenotre and others) and onboard train services.

Presumably, all of these are set to go as they are neither hotels nor vouchers. Notable by its omission is the stake in Club Med. Sold-off already are businesses such as facility management in Brazil and public catering in Luxembourg.

Accor has been clearer on its real estate strategy and has to date sold-off 52 of its 200 non-core hotels. But the group may yet be forced to be more aggressive with how much hotel property it brings to market.

A likely bugbear with investors is its plan to recycle the capital it is raising via divestment into expanding its hotels business. Most would prefer to see the company focus on growing by franchise and management contract rather than using its balance sheet.

The challenge for Accor, however, is in taking on global brand owners such as Marriott International or InterContinental. Outside of the territories it already dominates, even its budget brands struggle to gain a footing unless it deploys its own capital.

Those investors buying into Accor appear to be doing so on the belief that there is more divestment to come and that the capital raised is going to find its way back to shareholders.

If this is not the case, then when it becomes clear Accor is sticking with its intention to use the cash to expand its hotels business, there could be a nasty bump. Colony Capital, with two seats on Accor's board, may then force the issue.

Meanwhile, Accor can placate investors with its steadily improving results. The first quarter showed hotels growing sales by 9.5% thanks to the opening of 57 properties. On a like-for-like basis, sales were up 5.2%.

Easter helped a bit by falling in April and thus boosting March figures, particularly for midscale and upscale properties that are mostly frequented by business travellers.

The strongest revpar performance was in Germany and Italy with hikes of 12.7% and 13.6% respectively. France was more subdued, up 1.6%, partly due to the impact of the renovation programme at the 128 hotels bought by REIT Foncier des Murs.

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