HB ON THE SCENE: At Hunter Conference, Execs Deliver View From the Top

ATLANTA—While optimism was the buzzword among hospitality leaders and dealmakers attending the 29th annual Hunter Hotel Investment Conference here, C-suite executives on the panel “A View From The Top” were also looking beyond the buoyancy to provide a 30,000-ft. view of the ideas and concerns that may shape the near and distant future.

Moderated by Kirk Kinsell, principal of Panther Ridge Partners LLC, an investment and advisory group, the panelists included David Kong, CEO, Best Western Hotels & Resorts; Liam Brown, president of franchising, owner services and MxM select brands, North America, Marriott International; and Rob Sarver, chairman and CEO, Western Alliance Bancorporation, and owner of NBA’s Phoenix Suns.

Being six months post-Starwood merger, Brown’s outlook remains steady for the second quarter and remainder of the year: “Our perspective would be the first quarter gives us no reason to think our guidance for the year is any different. Our guidance is between a .5 and 2% RevPAR growth. January was pretty good, mostly due to the fact that we had an inauguration in Washington, DC, which was large exposure. February and March is much as we thought it would be. GDP continues to grow, albeit slow and steady, and from a RevPAR perspective we’re not anticipating any change in our guidance.”

Best Western’s first quarter is shaping up much better than estimated, according to Kong. “When we started the new year, I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “Thankfully, the RevPAR growth is up by almost 3%. I was looking at advance bookings through the summer months and I was very encouraged by that, up by about 12%. I’m very encouraged about the rest of the year.”

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While seeing some positive signs, Sarver pointed to the new White House administration and whether or not policy will impact the hotel business. “We’ve seen the loan pipeline pick up and there’s optimism, but will it be confirmed and executed by the new White House administration? I’d like to see what will happen with tax reform and infrastructure spending, so I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said.

Speaking of President Trump, Sarver also noted there have been some surprises: “The stock market’s reaction was stronger than I thought. Everybody got optimistic after the presidential election. Are all those campaign promises happening, and how will it affect the market? When you look at newspapers, what’s being talked about will not drive employment growth and that is what drives travel. It’s a wait-and-see situation. Republicans have to prove they can get things done.”

“Scale wins at the end of the day,” said Brown, steering the conversation back to the business at hand. “We’re currently digesting an elephant [Starwood]. From a practical and tactical standpoint, we’re getting our arms around the business. We believe with the acquisition revenue and cost synergies, the merger is a great value proposition in the customer and business view. We will have a clear value proposition for each brand and there are big opportunities from a cost revenue standpoint. It’s a great deal for owners and guests.”

While M&A is altering the lodging landscape, Kong noted that the pace and scale of change, in general, is always on his mind. “It’s the competition in loyalty programs, product experience, etc. OTAs are constantly evolving and Airbnb is not standing still. They’re going into the luxury segment and becoming more formidable,” he noted. “Google is monetizing search engines and there is this siphoning off to the OTAs. If we’re not advertising on Google, the business lands somewhere else. It makes it expensive to operate and tougher to compete. We must pay attention to customization. People want options. It’s all an effort to make sure our brand has different experiences and price points the customers are looking for.”