BACKGROUND: Single-centre studies have suggested that enhanced recovery can be achieved with multimodal perioperative care protocols. This international observational study evaluated the implementation of an enhanced recovery programme in five European centres and examined the determinants affecting recovery and length of hospital stay. METHODS: Four hundred and twenty-five consecutive patients undergoing elective open colorectal resection above the peritoneal reflection between January 2001 and January 2004 were enrolled in a protocol that defined multiple perioperative care elements. One centre had been developing multimodal perioperative care for 10 years, whereas the other four had previously undertaken traditional care. RESULTS: The case mix was similar between centres. Protocol compliance before and during the surgical procedure was high, but it was low in the immediate postoperative phase. Patients fulfilled predetermined recovery criteria a median of 3 days after operation but were actually discharged a median of 5 days after surgery. Delay in discharge and the development of major complications prolonged length of stay. Previous experience with fast-track surgery was associated with a shorter hospital stay. CONCLUSION: Functional recovery in 3 days after colorectal resection could be achieved in daily practice. A protocol is not enough to enable discharge of patients on the day of functional recovery; more experience and better organization of care may be required. Copyright (c) 2006 British Journal of Surgery Society Ltd.