The towel and robe market is currently illustrating two main trends.

The desire for heavyweight quality products continues at the mid to top end so hotels are still looking for 100% cotton towels of 500gsm and in some cases even higher.

But underlying this trend both hotels and rental laundries are very much aware of the need to watch costs. The exchange rate in particular is having a knock-on effect on business.

There is still some optimism and Richard Yates, national account manager for Linen Connect believes that to some extent the trends from last year are continuing. The standard in mid-market hotels still seems to be a 500gsm towel , whereas a few years ago it was 450gsm.

Meanwhile in the five-star sector, there is still a strong preference for luxury 600/650gsm ranges as the norm. Yates believes that there is still some buoyancy in the UK hotel market, with people staying in this country for their breaks rather than going abroad.

He says that January and February was a period of rapid sales for his company and his laundry customers were reporting the same effect. However, he still notes a cost-conciousness in the market.

Laundries will try and run a pool system a little longer, and suppliers are being affected by the exchange rate. “Even mills we’ve used for years are pricing per order now,” says Yates. “Obviously we are trying to keep increases to a minimum.”

He points out however that pricing relates not just to the product but to the company’s whole package, which includes quality and service.

Linen Connect keeps excellent stock levels and can supply products quickly. Next day delivery may be available, even if an order comes in late in the day.

Search for value

While the desire for quality is still apparent, the cost consciousness that is pervading all areas of business is having an effect.

At Hilden, sales director Mark Lockwood confirms that there is still a move to upgrade towels. Hotels are looking for value and for Turkish or Portuguese products which offer a better finish.

The company’s biggest selling line is a 100% cotton towel.

Yet the biggest growth area is now a cotton-rich 80/20 polycotton towel with a 450gsm weight.

Lockwood says that this has the advantage of offering a longer life and he believes it is more efficient for laundries, Hilden’s main customer base, as it will dry more quickly. Such a product will offer soft yarn and good absorbency.

Hilden offers the cotton-rich blend in a plain white towel and a spa towel with blue header bands.

He reports that the hotel sector slowed at the end of 2008/2009 but in March trade levels seemed to be returning to some kind of norm.

On pricing within the market, Lockwood agrees that the biggest effect has been from the exchange rate, especially that of the dollar.

The company has tried to keep increases to a minimum, but in the current climate he believes that there is an understanding that prices have to increase.

Evolving market

Change within the hotel market and textile rental sector tends to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, says Mark Shotton, deputy managing director of textile supplier Tonrose.

As costs have risen, every laundry is looking for products that can help to cut their costs.

The bedlinen sector has seen a move from cotton to polycotton and here Tonrose has introduced polycotton sheets under the brand-name Ultima.

As far as towelling is concerned, he says that the best towels are Turkish which are 100% cotton. That is undoubtedly where the top quality market lies.

But the company is now conducting a research project into whether there would be a benefit in introducing polycotton into the towelling range.

In the main Tonrose deals with the rental laundry sector. This is where Shotton’s own background lies and he is therefore sympathetic to the idea that the option of a cheaper-to-launder towel might be attractive.

Initial findings have shown that there is an interim benefit for the laundry but the big question is: “Would a polycotton towel mean a loss of quality?”

Research continues, and Tonrose is also talking to detergent suppliers. For the time being the range is only 100% cotton, but there is a possibility of introducing an Ultima brand polycotton towel.

However Shotton stresses that the company would discuss the findings of its research with the mill.

Even if that project went ahead, Tonrose would remain very much aware of the customer who wants to remain with the best, a heavyweight 100% cotton towel. Quality is important.

The company knows that it can supply a towel with polyester in the ground and that laundries might find it an attractive option for some customers, providing the quality was still satisfactory.

Shotton takes the view that it is important to avoid populating the pool stock with low quality, just for the sake of reducing costs in the short term.

A couple of years down the line, that could lead to a situation where the economy has improved but the laundries have large quantities of low quality products.

Tonrose is best-known for its table linen and Shotton realises that towels currently only account for a small proportion of the company’s sales compared with the proportion that they account for in a rental laundry. His aim is that his company’s mix of products should mirror that of the laundries’ ranges more closely. It would be a question of offering good quality, better quality and best.

Andy Jamshidzadeh, director of DG Textiles, has experience of the market both as a qualified production engineer who ran his own laundry and also a supplier, but for the past 15 years he has focussed on the supply side.

Slow down phase

Jamshidzadeh recognises that the market is currently in a slow down phase. Hotels are suffering a lack of business and are being cautious.

Nevertheless he affirms the importance of quality.

The UK is very traditional. Most of the four- and five-star hotels want good quality and that means 500gsm towel, bathrobes of 500 – 700gsm and bathmats of 700gsm.

These are 100% cotton and mainly imported from Turkey.

Reflecting the traditional nature of this market, 80% of the demand is for white towels.

He recognises that there is a demand for lesser quality but he says the towel doesn’t last and in time begins to look thin.

He believes laundries want a long lasting product and know that 350 – 400gsm products will not last.

Cost awareness

At Richard Haworth, Chris Moore recognises the two main trends of the market, the need to watch costs in the shorter term but also the continued emphasis on quality.

In the current market conditions, everybody is watching costs and this is reflected both in a move to lighter weight towels and the move to introduce towelling with a polyester ground.

Such a product does have a slightly lower cost but without affecting the aesthetics or its ability to dry the body. It also has the potential to reduce a laundry’s tumble drying and production costs although this is yet to be proven.

The top end of the market continues to buy heavyweight towels, but is currently reducing its orders and taking a make-do approach by re-using towels as much as possible.

Laundries are also making economies by holding stock longer and avoiding ragging product – particularly where supplies to mid-market hotels are concerned.

Hotels are also starting to wash smaller items in house and sometimes investing in machinery and stock to do so as they feel it could save costs in the long term.

However overall, at the top end of the market hotels want to add value and see heavier weight towelling and robes as helping to differentiate their brand.

For the same reasons there is still demand for Jacquard-weave products and embroidered logos.

The bathrobe market is seeing similar trends to those exhibited in the towel sector.

Hilden’s Lockwood says the growth area is in 100% cotton robes of 500gsm and there is also an increase in embroidered products.

Hotels see them as a way of differentiating their brand. Lockwood finds that textile rental customers consider robes as an extra source of revenue, either from rental sales or direct sales to hotels.

Mark Shotton at Tonrose says the belt question is an issue with bathrobes. Should bathrobes be supplied with loose belts, or with the belt attached?

Loose belts become separated from the garments and the laundry can find itself with a collection of belts. If the belt is sewn in, then the robes may get kicked around and can become damaged more quickly.

Separate brand

While Tonrose deals with textile rental laundries, it recognises that there are some related products that hotels cannot always get readily through the laundries.

It has therefore launched a separate brand, The House of Linen to supply hotels directly with ancillary items such as shower curtains and slippers.

Shotton does not feel that this will be a direct competitor to the rental laundry sector, but should there be a clash with one of the laundry customers, the new brand would either steer round it or look to form some kind of joint approach with the laundry concerned.