Carlson Hotels, which has 964 properties in 70 countries worldwide and looks to have more than 1,000 by the end of the year, is one of the many hospitality companies that is looking at an unexpected boom time for the industry. Though the economy is down, travel worldwide is up, and small to large hotels are being traded and developed around the globe. Companies are launching and expanding new brands, and enjoying times not seen since before Sept. 11, 2001, says Paul Kirwin, the new president of Carlson Hotels Worldwide.He served the past five years as president and managing director of Carlson Hotels Asia Pacific, and reports to that the growth he sees in the US is exponentially larger in the rest of the world. So was this move a promotion for you?

Kirwin: It’s not necessarily a promotion, I’m returning to run the America’s division, it’s a much larger division than our Asia division. I really enjoyed being in Asia, but there’s some excitement to come back to the US, especially for my family. How is the industry doing in this tough economy?

Kirwin: I think while there remains some question now in the US market as to what the economic prospects are for the economy for the next year, really the hotel industry is better suited for a slowdown than in previous slowdowns. While the industry has had some of its best years, in the amount of new hotels built, it is actually low compared to what had previously come online. It’s the nature of our business that it takes time for new supply to be added, there tends to be a lag in the pipeline when there’s growing that’s out of line with market demand, and that should help our industry cushion any impact as consumers cut back in the current environment.I think the industry, including us, also anticipated this new tight credit market, and have reduced the number of hotels planned or slowed the development over the next year or two.Generally, what we find is that regardless of the economy, as long as there’s good operating results, there’s going to continue to be new development. While it may not be a boom time over the next couple of years, the industry is still healthy. We’re pretty optimistic about the next couple of years. What do you see as some of the current trends?

Kirwin: You have to consider the trend of who is the consumer we’re trying to reach. Baby Boomers are still the biggest spenders demographically, but progressively they will retire and the primary business traveler will be Generation X and Y. There is a big shift in consumer interest there, they are probably concerned with having the technology in a hotel room, technology that they’ve grown up with and used regularly, at their fingertips and convenient. We’ve tried to accommodate that by of course having wireless internet, but also linking their technology, such as the iPod, to things in the room.We’re also seeing that the hotel lobby is being seen as a communal meeting place, for socializing and eating, in some ways the same way you see what goes on in a coffee shop, that’s increasingly what the younger consumers are looking for.On the flip side, there continues to be growth in the meeting and conference market, especially as the world globalizes, and you’re seeing larger hotels being built in readily-accessible, major markets and major airports.One of the trends that is well under way that gives us confidence is that because of the struggles of the economy, the weakening dollar is attracting international travelers to high levels, we’re getting back now to pre-2001 levels, and we’re expecting to zoom past that. The strength of the Euro is a very strong presence in Europe and Asia. Okay, how does the rest of the world fit into the equation?

Kirwin: In the foreign market, so many countries have developed economic growth policies over the last 20 years, since the fall of communism there’s been really strong economic expansion in places like Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe and even places like Africa. There’s really been a boon in travel occurring all over the world, and it’s going to continue for years and years to come as individuals reach minimal income levels – one of their first aspirations are to travel. You can chart the growth path in travel along with the economic growth of China, India and Eastern Europe, and forecast it well into the future.We are building hotels at a rapid pace. In places like India, there’s a tremendous shortage of hotels, we have 30 hotels under construction there. They need thousands of hotels, and they will have them, that forecasts a strong growth for our industry, all around the world. One of our strategies is that, as we pass 1,000 hotels in 2008, we’re looking to add 10% to 15% on that number over the next few years, about 100 to 150 hotels in each of the next few years.

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