The majority of small and medium-sized tour operators are choosing to do business with independent hotels rather than chain establishments.

These were the results of a recent survey posted by Tourism Update.

The fewer tourists an operator handles in Southern Africa in a year, the more likely they are to do business with independent hotels, the survey found. According to the survey, operators, both local and overseas-based, handling 10 000 or fewer tourists choose to work with independent hotels.

The survey found, however, that operators who handled more than 10 000 tourists in a year and chose to do business with independent hotels, did so based on the quality of service. However, other larger tour operators, such as Thompsons, continue to work with chain hotels.

Smaller operators are also becoming less concerned with commission levels and more reliant on other factors that reflect on their own service level, to determine whether a booking is made at a certain hotel, according to the survey.

The quality of service offered came out as the most influential factor determining whether a booking is made with a particular supplier, with 27% of tour operators saying it affected the decision. Another factor that ranked highly when determining where a booking was placed was client requests (24%), while availability (9%), star grading (5%), and commissions (3%) were also factors. Operators also mentioned location and budget.

Despite commission levels featuring lower on the ranking of determining factors, independent hotels also appear to already offer operators better commissions. A total of 37% of respondents said independent hotels offered them better commission rates, 23% said chain hotels offered them better rates, and 40% said both chain and independent hotels offered very competitive rates.

Apart from offering better commissions, the survey found that independent hotels also made STO more accessible to the travel trade, particularly for smaller businesses that bring in fewer numbers. More operators (90%) said the majority of independent hotels still offered them STO rates, compared with the 72% of operators who continue to receive STO rates from chain hotels.

While Charles Chakanya, Director of Victoria Falls Anytime, says both independent and chain hotels are contracting direct with the end user and offering cheaper rates than those offered by tour operators, some believe this is a practice associated more with chain hotels. “I feel that chain hotels are determined to cut out the middle man, not offering STO rates and only offering BAR rates. Independent hotels seem to be more willing to work with tour operators and establish relationships with us,” says Jenieen van der Heever, Operations Manager at Perfect Safaris.

Commission rates are not the only factor driving business towards independent hotels, where tourists often associate such hotels with an “authentic experience”.

Another respondent said independent hotels were also able to make decisions more quickly than chain hotels and were more flexible about catering for specific requests. Operators who said they did more of their business with independent hotels, said the reasons for this were the quality of the service as well as requests made by the client. Karen Short, Senior Travel Partner at Dynamic Group Travel, says she’s seen an increase in VIP clients from the US market who prefer independent hotels and the exclusivity they offer.