Without much doubt, more questions than answers will emerge from the New York University International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference, which starts in earnest Monday morning at the Waldorf-Astoria in midtown Manhattan.
Among the questions I have about this year's event:
• How many fewer people will be in attendance than in past peak years, when the number of registrants topped 2,500? The good news is a smaller crowd gives us more elbow room in the seriously overcrowded meeting rooms and ballrooms at the Waldorf. I know industry politics are in play, but event organizers must find a way to permanently hold this conference at the Marriott Marquis. Sure, the hotel has little or no soul, but it can comfortably hold a hell of a lot of people.
• Any lenders who show up will undoubtedly be swarmed by the masses of developers, would-be acquirers and owners desperate for refinancing. My guess is everyone I talk to will say money is available for the right deals, but no one will be able to give me any concrete examples. (The exception, of course, will be those looking to finance deals in the $10-million-and-under range. But even those transactions are still few and far between.)
• I pity the guys from Smith Travel Research, PKF Consulting and HVS who will be giving the statistical bad news about the industry—or at least the bad news for the first half of the year. If tradition follows, STR will be more upbeat than PKF, but nobody will have real good news.
• There's a lot of talk in the industry that billions of dollars of private equity are on the sidelines ready to pounce when pricing of hotel assets reaches the right prices for acquisition. Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels issued a report the other day that 23 such funds have formed specifically to invest in hotels. Their combined war chest tops $20 billion. This topic will get a lot of talk, but pinning down the particulars will be tough for those of us reporting on the conference.
• What will be the buzzword or catch phrase emerging from this conference? Way back when, during another recession, Darryl Hartley-Leonard of Hyatt told everyone at the NYU get-together to “stay alive â€˜til '95,” and ever since conferences seem compelled to produce a similar sound bite. In recent years, when the industry was flying high, the talk was what inning of the lodging cycle we were in. I listened as it crept from the second and third inning into the eighth and ninth before the game was called because of recession.
• Finally, the big sport for a reporter at the conference will be compiling the predictions of when the industry will turn the corner back toward prosperity. My guess is they will range from the overly optimistic (it's already started) to the seriously bleak (2011 or '12). As is usually the case, the real answer is somewhere in between.