The UK hotel market begins 2009 on an uncertain note. The full impact of the recession on the sector and the suppliers of hotel bedlinen has yet to be seen. Some are more optimistic than others.

Richard Yates from Linen Connect says 2008 was generally a good year for hotels, particularly those in the budget end, with high occupancy levels and some chains even looking to expand. However, with the sharp economic decline in the latter half of the year, many are wary of what 2009 will bring.

The key in such a market, Yates says, is price, which is why budget chains are most likely to suffer less than some of their counterparts.

In bedlinen, the move tocotton-rich blends has continued, as many see it offering more value for money. Polycottons are still popular across the sector because they offer a cheaper initial cost and because of the low level of shrinkage.

“But a 50/50 polyester blend doesn’t last as well,” Yates says. “As it ages, the polyester yarn greys off, so it starts looking older than it is.

“With an 80/20 cotton-rich blend, you don’t get that issue and there’s still a low rate of shrinkage, so it’s better value for money.”

Linen Connect offers a 80/20 blend cotton-rich duvet cover and is introducing a range of cotton-rich sheets and pillowcases in early 2009. There are more ideas in development, which should be released later this year. Yates says that these “will be an eye opener.”

Guest patterns change

Mark Woolfenden from Afonwen Laundry in Wales agrees that there has been a lot of growth in the budget sector over the last year, although he expects it to slow down in 2009. Guest overnight patterns have changed as well.

Instead of staying two or three nights, they are staying one night, which means more linen changeovers and more business for laundries. “Our volumes have grown dramatically – from 580,000 pieces a week to 850,000 a week in 2008 – and we expect it to grow to over a million a week in 2009,” says Woolfenden. The company opened a new laundry in Cardiff last June and was processing 285,000 pieces a week by the end of 2008.

He says the one big change is that the trend towards bespoke high-quality linen, which was prevalent at the beginning of 2008, has switched in the present economic climate towards greater focus on competitive pricing and cost savings. Hotels are beginning to look less at premium and more at budget lines of bedlinen, he says.

“There are early signs that one or two customers want to downgrade from Egyptian cotton to a

cotton-rich product, to save costs,” Woolfenden explains. “A few months ago, they were asking about higher thread counts.” Afonwen supplies two ranges of bedlinen to hotels – cotton-rich and 100% cotton collections from Richard Haworth.

The Prima range provides a 70/30 blend of cotton and polyester but, according to Chris Moore from Richard Haworth, it is the weave, which blends the materials in both directions, that makes this product stand out.

“You don’t get greying; it is easy to launder; and its shape retention is good,” explains Moore.

Beds are getting bigger

Beds are also getting bigger, as hotels vie in offering more luxury to the customer in an effort to build their competitive edge. Longer, deeper mattresses and larger pillowcases mean that laundries and linen suppliers have had to change what they are offering to fit the new requirements.

The Crowne Plaza, for example, developed a programme in the USA called Sleep Advantage, which aims to provide a consistent sleep experience across all of its hotels.

Rooms have cotton percale bedlinen, duvets and mattress covers. The companies trialled some sample rooms in the UK and now plans to roll out the programme across the country.

Other chains, such as Holiday Inn Express and Westin, are implementing similar programmes.

Moore says that to meet the changes implemented by the hotels, Richard Haworth has offered a longer sheet for the last 18 months. This is necessary to ensure that it can cover the deeper mattresses and allow for any shrinkage. It is now the standard sheet for 60% of the laundries it supplies.

Duvets have also become the standard for most hotels, mainly because they are more efficient for hotel staff when they are changing the linen in a room. However, duvets provide a particular challenge for laundries because there is no standard in sizing, which varies from hotel to hotel and sometimes even within the same hotel group.

As a result, many suppliers are now manufacturing duvets slightly larger in order to ensure they can cope with any variations in size.

Mark Lockwood from Hilden says the varying sizes of duvets provided quite a challenge for the company in the past but about 18 months ago Hilden changed its range of duvet covers. It now offers an extra-long, open-back style duvet that “fits everything.” It is available in single, double, king and superking.

The linen is available in 11 different colours but, in line with other suppliers, 90% of the bedlinen Hilden sells is white. It’s the easiest for laundries to handle and offers a clean, crisp image that does not have to be renewed every year.

Lockwood notes a growing trend for linen with a higher thread count, a 200 – 300 cotton percale that gives a softer feel to the skin, to help them provide a little more added value to customers.

“Five years ago, cotton percale was not freely available to laundries. It was seen as a niche product,” says Lockwood. “Now it is widely available and more cost effective to provide, so it’s becoming more of a volume product and demand is growing.”

In response to such demand, Chris Moore says Richard Haworth is expanding its Prima range to introduce Prima Percale, a 200-thread count range of duvets, sheets and pillowcases for the higher end of the market.

The company was also asked to develop a Prima duvet cover in satin stripe and now has plans in place to convert its Prima ranges to Prima Percale and Prima Satin Stripe.

Despite the demand for bigger and more luxurious sleeping environments, one area that is beginning to suffer in the hotel sector is the conference and banqueting side of the business, particularly in three- and four-star hotels. The big office Christmas party seems to be a thing of the past, at least while the country is in recession, and many companies are telling their staff to look at the budget end of the market when overnight stays are required.

In order to compete with the budget hotels, some three- and four-star hotels are “sharpening their swords”, says Chris Kingsford from Tonrose.

Kingsford says he recently stayed in a three-star hotel and the difference between it and a budget hotel was negligible.

Higher cotton content

Like other suppliers, Tonrose is following the market trend away from 50/50 polycotton to blends with a higher cotton content and higher thread counts. The Ultima range provides a 70/30 blend in duvets, sheets and pillowcases in both plain and satin stripe.

“Our two key products will be a plain duvet cover and a satin striped duvet cover, enabling us to go to the mills and demand bigger runs in weaving,” Kingsford says. This is important as laundries look at ways of streamlining to meet any potential downturns in demand and the impact of the weak UK pound.

However, the exchange rate could also work in favour of British hotels, particularly if Brits decide to holiday at home and Europeans take advantage of favourable currency rates to travel to the UK.

Kingsford says the squeeze has mainly been felt in the mid-range hotels and those at the top end still have money to spend. However, Andy Jamshidzadeh from DG Textiles, which supplies top end hotels, says he is seeing signs of a slowdown there too.

At the beginning of 2008, DG Textiles had good demand from hotels wanting Egyptian cotton sheets and duvet covers. Hotels placed orders for new stock on a regular basis.

However, the last half of the year was very quiet as occupancy rates fell and hotels began to hold off replacing old stock.

DG Textiles supplies only 100% cotton, which is still the bedlinen of choice for most five-star hotels wanting to provide a luxury feel and look for their customers – and Jamshidzadeh doesn’t think that is likely to change.

Thread counts of 200 – 250 are most popular in hotels where sheets need to be more durable, in order to stand up to four or five washes a week.

“Processed at 70C with starch, they come out crisp, feeling good and looking impressive,” according to Jamshidzadeh.

As 90% of the linen DG Textiles supplies is in white, a different selvage colour helps to differentiate one hotel’s linen from another. Duvets are supplied mainly in “envelope” style, without poppers or other means of sealing so that they do not get damaged during the laundering process.

It also means they are quick and easy to fit on the bed.

Jamshidzadeh is not optimistic about the effect that the present economic downturn will have on the industry. It is only as the year progresses that the true impact on the hotel sector – and on those who launder and supply bedlinens – can be assessed.