Laura Benner is an accomplished hotel executive with over two decades of experience in hotel operational and real estate asset management. Named among the elite slate of 13 for Boutique Design’s 2019 Women Leaders in the Hospitality Industry, she is a thought leader in hotel real estate and a sought-after speaker who has presented at notable conferences and educational institutions such as the NYU International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference, the Phoenix Lodging Conference, Cornell’s Baker Real Estate Program, and Marriott’s General Manager and Owner Conferences.
Throughout her career, Laura has played critical roles in asset management, dispositions, acquisitions, and consulting involving more than 400 hotels valued in excess of $10 billion. Her résumé reads like a Who’s Who of the most prominent hotel brands and hotel companies in the world—Four Seasons, Westin, Ritz-Carlton, Hyatt, Courtyard, Residence Inn, Marriott, Starwood, the famous Gramercy Park Hotel, the historic Greenbrier Resort, and the list goes on. As a Six Sigma Master Black Belt, Laura’s knowledge spans multiple areas within hotel asset management—operations, process improvement, strategic planning, valuations, renovations, design, hotel brand initiatives, budgeting, and contract negotiations.
Laura currently serves as senior vice president of hotel asset management for Colony Capital, Inc., a leading global digital infrastructure, real estate, and investment management firm with $47 billion in assets under management and 20 global locations. She is responsible for the asset management of 157 hotels valued at more than $2.5 billion. Laura focuses on creating value through the implementation of effective operational and real estate asset management, and when overseeing hotel renovations, Laura closely analyzes both ever-changing consumer preferences and profit maximizing improvements. We had the privilege of sitting down with Laura to find out more about what it takes to keep hotels thriving in a highly competitive and evolving marketplace.
You are currently responsible for the asset management of 157 hotels—20,000 rooms. Generally speaking, what does a typical day look like for you as a hotel owner executive?
My responsibilities include multiple areas in a large number of hotels, so my typical day requires efficient multitasking. On any given day, I may shift from selecting carpet for a guest room renovation to reviewing operating and capex budgets, or from finding value-add uses for non-revenue-generating real estate to developing asset sale strategies. It’s difficult to distill all the facets of my work, but to put it simply, I create value for hotel owners.
Can you give us a few examples of successful value-add/ROI initiatives that you’ve executed in your career?
There are a lot to choose from, but two examples come to mind. When I led the asset disposition program at Starwood, I always implemented a competitive bidding process. This disciplined approach to marketing hotels enabled me to maximize our selling prices. For example, I was able to increase the sale price of one hotel by 65%, which amounted to several million dollars.
Another example involved underutilized real estate at the Marriott Miami Airport hotel. In the lobby, there was a small Starbucks that would close daily at 5 p.m. Every time I visited the hotel, it bothered me to see the dark, closed space when I knew that it could be generating revenue at all hours. When I renovated the hotel in 2018, I enlarged the space and converted it to an all-day food and beverage grab-and-go concept, enabling revenue generation 24 hours a day. This ROI project was very successful and far exceeded initial financial return expectations.
What should hotel brands be focusing on to successfully navigate the challenges of the pandemic and to thrive in the future?
The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing hotel brands to re-evaluate their long-term business models. As operating costs, such as labor, benefits, property taxes, and insurance, continue to increase, the brands need to alter some of their operating standards so that owners can maximize profits while maintaining guest satisfaction.
For example, I’ve been saying for years that hotels should charge for housekeeping, which would generate incremental revenue to help offset higher housekeeping costs. This change would also empower our customers, since guests would make the decision to opt in or out of housekeeping services.
In many industries, there are few women in the senior executive ranks. What have you seen in hotel real estate, and do you see opportunities for women to participate at senior levels in this industry?
I believe we need more women in senior positions in our industry. Recently, as a senior vice president of hotel asset management, I received a call from a man who told me that he dialed my extension from the company directory because I was the first woman listed, and he assumed I was a secretary who could redirect his call. This event highlighted for me the lack of senior women in the workforce and reminded me that there is still a lot of work to be done to fully involve women in the hotel real estate industry.
In another instance, not long after I graduated from business school, I attended my first hotel investment conference and found myself as one of very few women in attendance. Today, attending these same conferences as a senior professional, I still see the same lack of female representation. I believe this highlights the fact that there are still opportunities for the hotel real estate industry to benefit from the talents and perspectives of women.
You place a tremendous amount of emphasis on mentoring your team and providing guidance to those interested in hotel asset management. Will you tell us about this, Laura?
Many leaders evaluate colleagues by simply checking boxes on a form. That is not me. As a manager, I help my team succeed and identify areas for them to pursue that would advance their careers. For example, we work together to select hotel real estate classes, conferences, and/or seminars that would provide professional growth opportunities.
Also, students from Cornell, my alma mater, often reach out to me for advice about pursuing a career in hotel asset management. I’m always happy to take these calls and to give my best advice based on my own experiences. Supporting and mentoring my team and sharing my experiences with others are both important and rewarding to me.
SVP of Hotel Asset Management — Colony Capital, Inc.
New York, NY