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Sat, Jul 12, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Marriott, Starwood rally as hotels begin recovery

BLOOMBERG

Free Swedish massages, Rolls-Royce rides and dining vouchers are helping to refill hotel rooms in Asia, prompting investors to buy stocks such as Marriott Interna-tional Inc and Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc.

Hotels from Hong Kong to Singapore and Indonesia are offering incentives to bring customers back after the Bali bomb attack in October, the Iraq war in March and SARS virus outbreaks in April and May prompted companies and tourists to cut travel, causing Asia's worst tourism slump and emptying hotel rooms.

Since the war ended and SARS subsided, hotel occupancy in Hong Kong has risen to about 40 percent from less than 10 percent in April, according to the city's hotels association. Hotel stocks have surged.

Raffles Holdings Ltd, owner of the 116-year-old Raffles Hotel in Singapore, is trading at a one-year high even though analysts expect it to post an operating loss for the second quarter, its first since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

"There's no question earnings are going to be hit this year, but the market looks ahead six months, if not a year, and you want to be buying these things when they're down," said Mark Mobius, managing director of Templeton Asset Management Ltd, who oversees US$7.7 billion in 33 asset portfolios.

Mobius said his funds bought airlines and other travel-related stocks during the SARS outbreak, which struck hardest in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Canada and Singapore.

Morgan Stanley Capital International Inc's World/Hotels, Restaurants & Leisure Index has gained more than a third since the end of March.

Shares of Marriott, the largest US hotel company, have risen by a fifth since the start of the year to a 13-month high. Starwood, which owns the Sheraton and Westin chains, is up more than a quarter.

Hong Kong's Peninsula hotel, the city's most expensive by room rates, offered local residents a two-night package for HK$2,950 (US$378) that includes a free Rolls-Royce ride and dinner for two. UBS Warburg estimates the package to be worth HK$13,000.

The Pan Pacific hotel in Singapore offered guests packages priced at S$220 (US$125) a night that include free Swedish massages, dining vouchers and a room upgrade.

Some "hotels have not brought the room rates down but offered other packages," said Ong Choon Fah, head of research at DTZ Debenham Tie Leung, a real-estate consultant and broker of properties, including hotels.

"Once you lower the rates, it's harder to raise them again," Leung said.

Most of the guests that have begun to return to the region's hotels are business travelers, hotel managers said.

"Business travelers who shelved travel plans are coming back in full force," said Aveline Chan, who helps manage US$600 million in Asia for Commerzbank Asset Management Asia Ltd.

She declined to say which hotel or airline stocks she holds.

John Mims, Asia-Pacific vice president of sales and marketing for Starwood, said occupancy in Bali, Indonesia, has risen to as high as 60 percent from as low as 10 percent after the bomb attack, while in Thailand the Westin Bangkok is full again.

"Companies are saying they're ready to rebook," Mims said.

"People have to get on with business -- they've been delaying trips, but you can only postpone a meeting for so long," he said.

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