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[IMGCAP(1)]NEW YORK CITY-At a time of economic uncertainty, lodging experts say that although things will most likely get worse before they get better, they are optimistic about the industry’s future, and look globally for investment. This year’s 30th anniversary New York University International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference, held at the Waldorf Astoria, attracted roughly 2,400 attendees.

[IMGCAP(2)]During opening remarks Monday morning, Jonathan Tisch, chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels, stressed the importance of the international visitor in today’s slumping economy and noted the growth of international development in the hospitality sector. His comments set the stage for the first session “One on One with the CEOs,” where panelists Jonathan Gray, senior managing director and co-head of the real estate group at the Blackstone Group, J. Willard Marriott Jr., chairman and CEO of Marriott International Inc., and Barry Sternlicht, chairman and CEO of Starwood Capital Group, all agreed that, looking forward, “international growth will be strong.”

[IMGCAP(3)]Sternlicht, who says that evolving a brand in today’s market, is the key to success, says that “there is no need for another hotel, but there is a need for another experience.” The US consumer is stretched, Sternlicht said. “The good news is that this industry has figured out how to make money during downturns.” He noted that things will most likely get worse before they get better, which he said could be 18 months from now, but “there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

[IMGCAP(4)]Gray, who is bullish about opportunities in the current economy, says he is prepared to take risks. He also agreed that the hotel business has held up well. “I am cautious in the US,” he said, “and I think it is going to take a while to get out of the economic slump.” Gray also pointed out that capital markets have gotten better, which he said “is helpful.”

Gray, Sternlicht, and Marriott Jr. all agreed that they are focusing on areas such as the Middle East and South America for investment although Sternlicht said that this doesn’t mean you should underestimate the US. “The Middle East is a tax free haven for new money,” Marriott Jr. said, adding that Russia is also an emerging market.

Gray noted that India, the Middle East, China, Eastern Europe and Mexico are all areas that are underserved. “There is huge opportunity for strong branded companies,” he said. “The greatest opportunities are when you are prepared to step in when other people won’t.”

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