NYU: As You Await Recovery, Don't Let Your Guard Down


Let's get all of the context out of the way early: I've been with Hotel & Motel Management for two years; this was the first NYU conference I've attended, I'm only 26 years old; the 24-hour media cycle sometimes makes me believe some issues are worse than they really are.

Some may see my perspective on industry cycles and historic trends as naive. But I just want to make sure everyone isn't so ready to experience a V or a U (or any other letter that's positioned to inevitably turn upward), that they let their guard down for another turn in public sentiment.

(Oh, one other piece of contextual information—I'm a die-hard Cleveland sports fan. I'm genetically pre-disposed to have my guard up and to be pessimistic, even in the best of times. For example, when the Cavs were in the playoffs this year, all it took was one loss to the Boston Celtics before I sounded the alarm bells and packed in my optimism. I know it's silly, but, as always, this outlooked prevailed and my team lost again. No championships since 1964—can't argue with the numbers.)

So, what does this have to do with hospitality? At the very start of the first opening session at this year's NYU conference, producers showed a video montage of events from 2008 and 2009—of all the catastrophes that happened. The recession; the AIG effect; and Swine Flu to name the biggies. And then the montage turned to 2010, and the images were only positive. The montage reflected the climbing demand numbers, which reflected a majority of the sentiment among panelists and attendees: 2010 is looking good; the recovery is around the corner.

And it makes sense judging from past recessions. Everything moves in a cycle. We went down in 2008 and we're starting to recover now, so, inevitably, the trend just continues, until it peaks and then it goes back down. Cyclical. We're just all along for the ride.

I agree with using historic trends as guidance. If we don't learn from history, we're doomed to repeat it. Well, a lesson I've learned from history, as illustrated within this last decade, is crazy stuff happens when you aren't expecting it. For example, what really caused the industry to crash in 2008? It was an economic meltdown that many said was unpredictable (which also indicates it wasn't exactly cyclical because we all would have predicted it, right?)

The elephant in the room during the opening day of NYU, other than average daily rate numbers, is the lingering fear of the unknown. The problem is, there is still a lot happening outside of this industry that isn't positive.

Monty Bennett, CEO of Ashford Hospitality Trust, mentioned how the continued instability of certain financial markets (mainly Greece) can quickly spread to others markets (Greece is already spreading into Spain). And he said U.S. debt levels are not far off from those countries.

Andrew Cosslett, CEO of InterContinental Hotels Group, cautiously echoed these sentiments, saying: "If the Euro continues to be a problem, that again could be difficult."

Richard Kelleher, CEO of Pyramid Hotel Group, said we will "experience a V recovery … unless of course there is another terrorist attack." (Well, let's not forget there almost was one in Times Square recently. What would have happened had that bomb went off?)

Kelleher also was concerned about hotels in the West: The supply conditions in San Diego, the boycott in Arizona, the group business and supply concerns in Las Vegas—"the West has own set of conditions," he said.

Mark Hoplamazian, president and CRO of Hyatt Hotels Corp., mentioned two macro issues that could still hamper the recovery: unemployment and the housing crisis. (Lalia Rach quoted unemployment at 9.5 percent.) "Those macro issues actually have the most to do with consumer confidence," Hoplamazian said.

And referring to the recovery, he said, "These things are not measured in weeks or months, it's a longer duration."

Most of all, many people asked about the oil spill in the Gulf.

Anecdotally, David Kong, president and CEO of Best Western International, said since Friday, he's heard from individual owners in the Gulf Coast that they've had a tremendous amount of cancellations.

"They also said the number of bookings coming in has dropped significantly," he said.

Arne Sorenson, president and COO of Marriott International, mentioned how the photos of the animals covered in oil brought the tragedy home to a lot of people.

"As it gets further east and around the [Florida] Keys, the markets get bigger and bigger. And if it comes up the East coast, it gets that much more disconcerting," Sorenson said.

The oil spill is my main basis for this concern. As of now, that leak has not stopped. I've heard that every 10 days is another Exxon Valdez oil spill, with regards to the oil coming out of this current leak. To me, it's tough to get fully pumped about a U or a V recovery when there is literally another catastrophe still happening in this country, with no solid solution. Just dealing with our industry, the oil spewing out of the gulf could potentially affect summer vacation areas for years or generations to come.

And not even that, but just the fragility of the world economy in general leaves me uneasy. That montage that started this NYU conference showed a whole bunch of unfortunate incidents, and that was just within one year—last year. We didn't plan for those events or consequences; they just happened.

Obviously I wouldn't recommend playing by a strategy of constant fear. But I just suggest moving forward with an acknowledgment for the times we are in. There's still a lot happening across the globe that's worthy of being put into a depressing montage, no matter how high demand might be year over year for a few months.

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