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NYU Conference Goers Look for the Bright Side

If the mood at this week’s New York University International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference is any indication, the hotel industry is ready to believe full recovery is here, or at least very close.

Even though some speakers showed hesitation in light of sour economic news recently, most presenters and attendees admitted by the end of the three-day event that strong industry fundamentals will drive the business to better performance, higher valuations, increased volume of transactions and, believe it or not, the stirrings of new development.

Here is a rundown of some of the key presentations, discussions and quotes from the 33rd edition of the conference, which was held at the Marriott Marquis in New York City:

• While publicly traded hotel REITs have been grabbing most of the headlines for their aggressive hotel acquisition strategies ($7.7 billion in hotel purchases in the first quarter of 2011), other players are beginning to muscle their way into the hotel marketplace. This other money — private equity funds, in particular — see opportunities in different kinds of assets than do the REITs.

“Whereas public REITs focus on a more stable class of properties, we look for opportunistic returns that should be higher but also require more patience and effort to make those returns happen,” noted Mike Shannon, managing director of KSL Capital Partners, during the IREFAC panel.

As example, KSL recently paid a reported $115 million to buy the financially troubled InterContinental Montelucia Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz. That was followed by the closing of a $2 billion equity fund the firm will use to make other hotel and leisure acquisitions.

• HVS founder Steve Rushmore presented his annual buy-sell recommendations. He said hotel values won’t match their 2006 peak ($99,000 per room) until 2012, when they reach $104,000 per room.

He said cap rates will rebound slightly from last year’s historic lows of 4%. His 2011 cap rate predictions (based on a trailing 12-month performance) by segment: luxury, 3% to 5%; upper upscale, 4% to 7%; upscale/midscale, 5% to 8%.

His seemingly contradictory bottom-line advice was to buy hotel assets now, but don’t sell until 2012 or 2013.

• Lodging Hospitality Publisher Gary Dietz presented the Stephen W. Brener Lodging Hospitality Silver Plate Award to Randy Smith, founder and chairman of Smith Travel Research (STR).

In presenting the award, which LH has presented every year since 1962, Dietz commended Smith for founding STR in 1985 and growing it to become the unparalleled leader in hospitality industry research. One primary reason for Smith’s success, said Dietz, is his devotion to accuracy, confidentiality and integrity.

• The liveliest session during the conference was a two-man scrum between private equity titans Jonathan Gray of The Blackstone Group and Barry Sternlich, former Starwood Hotels chief and now chairman of Starwood Capital Group.

The saucy debate, moderated by CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo, highlighted their conflicting viewpoints on the state of the U.S. and world economies and the investment opportunities in commercial real estate.

Whereas the buttoned-down Gray was firm but circumspect in his optimism, the pugnacious Sternlich sounded as though the world is coming to an end. “I’m way more worried about the downside than ever before,” said Sternlicht. “It’s tempting today to get into deals, but I worry about how to exit them down the line.”

On the other hand, Gray said he recognizes the “headwinds,” but believes the “fundamentals are getting stronger all the time. As an investor, if you wait for the all-clear sign it’s probably too late.”

• As is typical, the conference produced a few notable one-liners from speakers:

In a speech about the need to fix the nation’s transportation infrastructure, conference chairman and Loews Hotels CEO quoted New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who once wrote that “flying from Hong Kong International Airport to [a New York airport] is like going from the Jetsons to the Flintstones.”

During the CEOs Check In panel, Frits van Paasschen talked about his (along with Starwood’s entire executive team) upcoming month-long trip to soak in the Chinese culture as a way to better exploit hotel opportunities in the country. In explaining the rationale for the trip, he said, “You don’t really know a country until you buy groceries there. I intend to buy groceries in China.”

Several panelists talked of hotel values in some cases beginning to creep ahead of replacement costs, the first step toward resumption of development activity.

Mark Elliott of brokerage firm Hodges Ward Elliott said it’s already begun in markets like New York City, where “hotels are routinely trading at $200,000 per key above what it would cost to replace them.”

Predicted KSL’s Shannon, “In a very short period of time, shovels will hit the ground and the supply glut will come back.”

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