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NEW YORK CITY-”We’re all in this together,” said Robert Hazard III of Hersha Hospitality Trust, explaining that portfolio owners, brands and franchisees have the same goals and similar struggles as the economy flags.

The neon glow of Times Square played host to RealShare’s Third Annual Hotel Investment Summit: The Upside of the Downturn. Hotel experts and the lodging industry elite assembled in the Marriott Marquis and mingled under an optimistic aegis, attempting to find rays of sunshine in the gloomy hospitality outlook. After the morning keynote speakers, a panel gathered in the afternoon to enlighten its audience with the scope and efforts of brands in the Brands to the Rescue panel, which begged the question: ‘What are the brands doing to assist owners getting through the downturn?’

Moderated by Real Estate Forum’s senior editor–as well as editor of Real Estate New Jersey and GlobeSt.com’s own hotel expert–Maria Wood, the panel consisted of Hazard, VP of acquisitions and development for Hersha; Laura Benner, VP of real estate portfolio management at Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc.; William Fortier, SVP-development, Americas at Hilton Hotels Corp.; Shane Platt, VP franchise sales-west for Choice Hotels International, Inc.; and Gina-Lynne Smith, president of value Place Franchise Services, LLC.

Platt, did not mince words on the focus of brands, saying, “Decisions must be made by ROI.” Brenner concurred saying, that Starwood in particular was focusing on the long-term, meaning a concentration not just on revenue generation, but revenue management and educating owners.

Smith pointed to Value’s effort to hold meetings with struggling franchises to help them refocus and simplify their efforts, noting that after these meetings the franchises tended to trend up 20 to 21 points in occupancy. The idea is to diagnose better techniques and focus brand standards, she explained. Meanwhile, Choice Hotels holds free seminars for franchisees to share best practices, such as how to clean a room more efficiently, then putting some of those practices online for those owners that couldn’t attend the seminars. Fortier pointed out that not only are these types of seminars good for the owners, but that “our best owners take advantage of” programs the brand offers.

With the negative turn on corporate vacations, as well as a rise in ‘stay-cationing,’ the lodging industry, specifically, struggles with luring customers in a frugal environment which has reached almost operatic proportions. The fierce competition has created a bellicose atmosphere of rate-cutting, but Benner disagreed with this model.

“Cutting rates, long-term, does not increase your revenues,” she said. Starwood tries to show what other things a franchisee can do to reduce expenses, thus raise revenue, she said. Fortier noted an effort from Hilton, for example, to extend brand standards, which in many cases can help free up capital for owners to keep up more critical standards. The panel concurred across the board that education can help more than anything else.

Hazard sees the rate cuts as a harder problem to solve, particularly in New York City where rates are “set by the dumbest group out there,” meaning it was impossible in the digital age to not lower your rates once a competitor did. He pointed to the plethora of websites, such as Priceline or Travelocity, which easily shows side-by-side rate comparisons, in many cases making some markets prone to races to the bottom in an effort to lure customers.

Among the coping mechanisms, however, Platt sees a half-full glass where others may not. He advised that, if companies have money available, the pricing was good to purchase property for new development. By the time you finish construction, he noted, you’ll be ready to open right when the economy is turning around in a few years.

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