• Bidders line up for UNA

Italian four star hotel chain UNA is in play, providing a rare opportunity for international brands to add a presence in the fragmented Italian market.

The Florence-based group has 31 hotels across Italy, and will be sold shortly by the banks that control it. Of the total, 17 hotels are owned, including properties in Rome, Milan and Florence, while a further 14 properties are operated under the UNA flag. Media reports suggest at least four bids have been tabled, led by Starwood Capital, Spanish hotelier NH, Accor and a local investor, Tamburi Investment Partners.

Currently a pool of Italian banks, including UniCredit and Banca Montel dei Paschi di Siena, hold ownership of the group, after previous owner, Tuscan businessman Riccardo Fusi, placed the company in bankruptcy protection in 2011. Agent Colombo & Associati have been working to sell UNA, with an end 2014 deadline for best bids.

While the bids have not been made public, the Wall Street Journal suggests some cherry picking of the portfolio. It states Starwood’s EUR200m bid is for ten of the owned hotels, plus the management company.

The strength of interest in the properties illustrates the challenge for brands of creating scale in the Italian market, which remains one of the most fragmented in the EU region. Research by Horwarth HTL reckoned the Italian market had around 1,235 chain hotels in 2013 and over 146 brands. Of these, just 510 hotels were under international chains, with chain penetration put at 12.7% of the overall market. Much of the international brand presence is in the luxury and upscale segments.

Aside from marketing brand Best Western, Spanish group NH is the largest international brand, with 50 properties, followed by Accor’s Mercure with 25. The majority of a top 20 listing of brands is filled by domestic operators  – with UNA the largest.

UNA is a relatively new brand, founded in 2000 and expanded through the following decade. The hotels predominantly operate under the UNA flag, with five listed under the subsidiary UNAWAY brand.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the fragmented market in Italy, the recession has brought few opportunities to buy into the market. Italian banks have not had to carry the liabilities in the sector at scale, or have been unwilling to declare them all together.

However, the country is keen to ensure it improves its hotel assets to grab its share of the tourism market, something underlined by the recent EUR60m cash injection made by the state-backed Fondo Strategico Italiano in luxury operator Rocco Forte Hotels.

Maurizio Tamagnini, CEO of the FSI, painted the investment as one supporting the development of the Italian tourism industry. “The partnership with the Rocco Forte Hotels group is the first concrete step in the development of the Italian tourism industry by FSI.” Forte plans to expand his boutique chain in Italy, though the luxury and upscale sector of the market is the one that has seen most international brand growth in recent years.

 

HA Perspective [by Chris Bown]: Italy’s hotel market remains curiously closed to international brands. Few have made much progress in building a presence in a market that ought to be ripe for international expansion. As it is, foreign visitors have to pick from a bewildering variety of local brands that end up looking, well, very Italian. Hence the scramble to grab UNA and get some scale on the ground.

Despite promises from the Italian government that it would be selling assets, little has yet come forward to suit the hotel industry. And Italian banks seem far less concerned than their counterparts in other areas of Europe, to clear out their problem loans – perhaps they don’t have any, apart from UNA. Or maybe the interest in the UNA sale will act to stimulate other assets to come to the market.

The FSI’s recent investment in Rocco Forte raised eyebrows, with the Italian press less than happy about an investment in a “foreign” hotel group. If they are serious about encouraging the tourism sector, perhaps the Italian government should lean on their banks to clear out their non-performing assets in open sales; there’s plenty of international capital – and international hotel brands – ready to join the party.

 

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