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PHOENIX-In light of the recent upheavals on Wall Street and the ongoing credit crisis, a group of lodging executives speaking on the second day of the Lodging Conference 2008 said they have modified their firms’ strategies in light of today’s environment.

Ted Darnall, COO of HEI Hotels & Resorts of Norwalk, CT, and Monty Bennett, president and CEO of Dallas-based Ashford Hospitality Trust Inc., said they are carefully monitoring their capital expenditures as it pertains to asset improvements. Both executives participated in a panel entitled “The Great Hotel Owners Debate.”

For instance, Darnell said hoteliers used to have easy access to debt to fund renovations. “That period is gone for awhile,” he said, adding his firm now focuses only on those upgrades that will bring in customers.

“Capital is dear,” Bennett said. He noted that while Ashford still spends above its capital reserve requirements to keep its hotels up to date, it has cut back on discretionary expenditures, like a spa to a property.

Meanwhile, Charles S. Henry, president of Hotel Capital Advisors Inc. in New York City, said no one has yet figured out how to take advantage of this current credit dislocation. However, he added that now might be “the time to start buying hotels again,” particularly poorly operated hotels in the US.

Yet, Bennett pointed out that the bid-ask spread between buyers and sellers is getting wider and deals are taking longer to get done.

Unlike previous down cycles, hotel operators this time around might want to hold off on deeply discounting room prices. Stephen P. Joyce, president and COO of Silver Springs, MD-based Choice Hotels International Inc., said his company’s franchisees are, to date, holding the line on rates. For its part, Choice encourages its franchisees “to do things to induce demand” rather than cut prices. Although he conceded that sometimes a hotel must discount to remain competitive in its marketplace, he said “travelers are going to come whether or not you drop rates.”

The hotel industry is closely tied to the airline business and in that regard, one panelist, Paul Brown, president of Bellevue, WA-headquartered Expedia North America, offered some discouraging thoughts. He pointed out that airlines are cutting seat capacity. “Some markets are going to take it on the chin,” he forewarned. He said that even if travelers ante up the increased airfare, they are likely to cut back on their lodging expenditures.

As for when the present economic malaise will end, Henry said the recession of the early ’90s took five years to work out. Bennett said it depends on the form of the bailout being discussed in Congress and how quickly banks will start lending again.

On the upside, Darnell pointed out that with debt “virtually impossible” to get, less hotels will be built, which helps the industry as a whole.

The panelists did speculate on what the mood of the conference–and by association, the industry–will be next year. Joyce said he expects modest declines in 2009. Bennett said he anticipates the hotel industry will be “bruised and feel pain, but we’ll be in a recovery and not know it.” The Lodging Conference, which drew more than 1,400 attendees, ends today.

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