While American Airlines’ Doug Parker argues that the aviation industry will no longer bleed as it did in years’ past because of fundamental changes, financial services firm PiperJaffray provides a much more sobering assessment about “softening” travel fundamentals and the limits of traveler spending.

In a research note by Michael Olson and Samuel Kemp, PiperJaffray states that “travel’s expansion as a share of wallet has peaked.”

“Given a soft outlook in employment and wage growth, we believe an environment of low-single-digit revPar (revenue per available room) growth is likely to set in during the second half of 2016 and for the next several years …”  PiperJaffray states.

The firm seems to be saying that STR’s projections of 3-5 percent revPar growth for 2016, and 4 percent for 2017 are too high.

In other words, according to PiperJaffray, the good times are over — or soon could be in travel. And in contrast to the post-recession years in the U.S. when the health of the travel industry outpaced wage growth, increases in gross domestic product and “labor force improvements,” travel fundamentals are weakening and revPar growth will moderate when 2017 arrives.

Online Travel Agencies Vs. Hotels

PiperJaffray is not stating that “a regressive hotel environment” is in the immediate offing, but if a recessionary environment emerges then the online travel agencies will find themselves in a more favorable position than their hotel chain competitors.

Despite the hotel chains’ direct-booking campaigns — or more accurately because they are relatively in their early stages — online travel agencies have been gaining share from offline and hotel channels.

This would accelerate in the event of a recession, PiperJaffray contends.

“Moreover — should a recessionary environment emerge — OTAs would likely get preferable inventory allotments from hotels and accelerate share gains as consumers become more price-sensitive, thus creating a counter-cyclical effect,” PiperJaffray states.

If the economy behaves badly, PiperJaffray urges its clients to invest more heavily in online travel agencies than hotels.

“We believe investors should overweight the OTAs relative to lodging peers,” the financial firm states. “In flat and down cycles for lodging, the OTAs have typically fared better as a stock group. In a moderating environment, share gains and operating leverage opportunities will likely drive stronger EBITDA upside versus the core lodging sector.”

There has been a debate under way: Who will win in the book-direct campaigns by chains such as Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton and others to steal share from the online travel agencies? The question misses the point and would be better phrased as whether it will it be the hotel chains or online travel agencies that gain the upper hand during which phase of the economic cycle.

In hotel-online travel agency relationships and the economy, after all, nothing ever stays the same.

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Photo Credit: A traveler checks in for her flight at an American Airlines ticket kiosk at Lambert St. Louis International Airport in St. Louis. Jeff Roberson / Associated Press