To say the decision by Accor Hotels to open a "marketplace" has divided opinion would be a bit of an understatement.
The global hotel chain announced in June this year that it would be allowing its consumer-facing brand to become a distribution network for independent properties that are looking for wider access to potential guests.
The idea is a blatant fight against online travel agencies and seemingly is trying to woo non-affiliated hotels to Accor to have a new channel on AccorHotels.com, the new name and home for Europe’s largest hotel group.
By increasing the inventory available to users, traffic will follow - at least that's the plan.
Even if the user is not booking with an Accor Hotel, at least they are not offering loyalty to an OTA.
Accor is hedging that this then translates to better margins by reducing the volume of bookings leaking over to OTAs, and thus making a dent in the 10-20% commissions paid by many hotels to the middlemen.
The company is now on a bit of a charm offensive to convince the market that the idea is sound, at the same time as trying to sign up as many independent hotels as it can.
Speaking at the WebinTravel conference in Singapore this week, deputy CEO Vivek Badrinath (who recently joined from mobile giant Orange) reiterates the company wants to have 10,000 properties on the platform from 300 markets within three years.
During a more detailed discussion on the strategy, senior vice president for digital and ecommerce, Romain Roulleau, claims some 500 properties are already waiting to go live and it aims to have between 3,000 and 5,000 on the platform in 2015.
In response to a question about whether Accor can compete as a small "dolphin" with the "sharks" (in other words, the OTAs), Roulleau says:
"Dolphins are smarter than sharks!"
Cheeky quips aside, Roulleau says the company knows that if it wants to wrestle back some control over hotel distribution from the giants in the intermediary world (i.e. Booking.com and Expedia) then it will "have to be more creative".
The devil in all this will inevitably be in the detail, not least with how Accor decides to curate the properties (rather than it being a completely "open" marketplace).
Roulleau says they will be targeting specific cities, carrying out on-site inspections and only including properties with high TripAdvisor rankings.
The strategy clearly has its detractors, from both rival chains and independent hotels.
Senior vice president for global distribution at Outrigger Hotels and Resorts, Dan Wacksman, says it is "good for consumers to have choice, but not sure what problems it solves".
Intercontinental Hotels Group is even more sceptical and, at present, will not be following suit.
Nick Barton, the group's chief commercial officer in Asia-Pacific, argues that consumers book a hotel stay "based on trust" and that "strong brands create loyalty", rather than simply opening up all-comers to a marketplace of non-branded properties.
"Independents will not move the needle on hotel distribution - the OTAs are too powerful and they [independents] are too dependent on them."
Others are also unsure about the Accor strategy, with Ben Jost, co-founder and CEO of TrustYou, claiming Booking.com has become "the brand for independents" anyway.
So in this battle between the creatures of the sea, what can independents do - instead of joining the Accor party - to fight the dominance of the OTAs?
- Demonstrate to potential guests the value of booking direct with a property (pre-stay customer service, availability of additional services, etc).
- Digitising what were previously analogue services (pre-stay check-in, mobile apps, etc).
- Enhance the trust of a property (be transparent, improve and manage online reputation).
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