July Issue: Be Our Guest

Why Asian investors love U.S. hotels.
New York Palace Hotel - Tower shot
New York Palace Hotel

By Gail Kalinoski, Contributing Editor

From legendary names like the Waldorf Astoria to three- and four-star properties around the United States, investors from Asia are making a splash in the hospitality market.

By the end of May, Asian investors had already snapped up $2.3 billion in U.S. hotel properties, dwarfing the $140 million worth of acquisitions during the first five months of 2014, according to JLL’s Hotels & Hospitality Group. The total could hit $5 billion by year’s end.

Hospitality experts point to several reasons why Asian hospitality investment is soaring: the improving U.S. economy and strong dollar; solid hotel fundamentals; good yields with fewer risks compared to other real estate assets; and moves by Chinese regulators to ease restrictions on capital flowing out of the country.

“We think they are just getting started and they are going to continue to buy, with a focus on gateway markets like Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New York and higher-end properties,” said Lukas Hartwich, a senior lodging analyst with Green Street Advisors.

Cushman & Wakefield Inc.’s Global Hospitality Group tracked at least 28 hotel acquisitions dating back to the summer of 2013. It was in mid-2014 that the pace started picking up. The deals have a distinctly coastal flavor: Cushman & Wakefield tallied nine transactions in Manhattan; three in Los Angeles; two in Orange County, Calif.; three in northern California; three in Washington, D.C.; one in Northern Virginia; and two in Miami.

While investors from Asia, particularly those from China and South Korea, have been buying U.S. hotels in increasing numbers for several years, Hartwich pointed out that “the activity has picked up in recent quarters.

“The Chinese insurance companies came out of nowhere and bought the Waldorf Astoria, the Baccarat and a few hotels in Sydney (Australia),” he told Commercial Property Executive. “They are paying really aggressive prices.”

Those prices have been the most aggressive in New York City, where Anbang Insurance Group Co. acquired the 1,232-key Waldorf Astoria New York from Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. last October for $1.95 billion.

In early June, a subsidiary of Lotte Group, a South Korean conglomerate, entered into a contract to buy the New York Palace Hotel in Midtown Manhattan from Northwood Investors for $805 million. Hotel Lotte Co. is scheduled to close the acquisition by late August. The 909-key property will be Hotel Lotte’s first in the U.S.
Between that pair of blockbusters, China’s Sunshine Insurance Group Co. bought the Baccarat Hotel New York for $230 million, or more than $2 million per key, from Starwood Capital Group in February, the month before the hotel opened.

Last year, another Chinese player, Keck Seng Investments, added two Manhattan hotels to its portfolio—the 398-key Sofitel New York, which it bought for $272 million, and the 173-key SpringHill Suites Marriott, acquired in an $82 million deal. The Hong Kong-based investment firm also owns the W San Francisco and Doubletree Alana Waikiki Hotel in Hawaii.
Southeast Asian hotel investors are also pursuing properties on the West Coast. Some of the capital is flowing into mixed-use projects, notably the $1.1 billion Wilshire Grand in downtown Los Angeles. Korean Air and Hanjin Group are teaming up on a 73-story, 1,100-foot-tall tower, which will be the tallest building west of the Mississippi River and feature the largest InterContinental in the Americas. Scheduled for completion in 2017, the 900-key hotel will occupy the 31st through 73rd floors and will be Korean Air’s first hospitality asset in the U.S.

In late December, Sichuan Xinglida Group Enterprise, a Chinese development firm, acquired the 1,004-key Los Angeles Airport Marriott for about $160 million through its U.S. subsidiary XLD Group. A month later, Aju Hotels and Resorts, a division of a Korean conglomerate, bought the 354-key Holiday Inn San Jose, for $53.5 million, according to JLL.
Gilda Perez-Alvarado, executive vice president & Americas lead for JLL’s Global Hotel Desk, said that Asian investors view the U.S. as a safe haven because of strong economic fundamentals, like steady job growth.
“The U.S. dollar is strengthening and it’s also very good for Asian investors who are sitting on dollars themselves to invest in a market that is going to appreciate,” she told CPE. “They also see it as a very good hedge as a foreign exchange risk to park their money here.”
Perez-Alvarado said that Chinese investors, in particular, are looking for opportunities beyond Asia. “They are under pressure to diversify their portfolios right now,” she explained. Those in the hunt include pension funds, insurance companies and other institutional investors.
Also looking for assets are Chinese syndicates that are focusing on select-service properties, often in secondary markets that promise attractive yields, Perez-Alvarado added. Chinese nationals residing in the U.S. or Americans with Chinese roots usually source the deals, underwrite the assets and handle the negotiations, she noted.
Asian investors have been active in U.S. commercial real estate since the 1980s, when Japanese companies like Mitsubishi Estate Co. bought Rockefeller Center and Mitsui Fudosan Co. acquired 1251 Sixth Ave. in Manhattan. Mitsui Fudosan is now part owner of the Hudson Yards mixed-use development in Manhattan, which will include an Equinox luxury hotel.

Tom McConnell, executive managing director with Cushman & Wakefield Capital Markets’ Global Hospitality Group, said the resurgence in Asian investment began in 2013. A year earlier, the China Insurance Regulatory Commission relaxed the rules for Chinese insurance companies making deals overseas. In another major move, late last year the nation’s Ministry of Commerce stopped requiring approvals on overseas investments valued at more than $100 million.

McConnell noted that hospitality investment is up in the U.S. because the market is stronger than it has been in years. The June edition of PKF Hospitality Research’s Hotel Horizons report forecasts that the U.S. market will continue to be “extremely strong,” with RevPAR expected to rise 7.2 percent this year and 6.8 percent in 2016.
PKF notes that the decrease in 2016 “should not worry hoteliers because the growth in average daily room rate (ADR) will drive the increase in the RevPAR, which ultimately is more profitable for hoteliers.”

Some of the Asian buyers are looking to acquire high-end properties for long-term holds, McConnell added, noting that owning luxury hotels “carries a bit more prestige in Asia than it does with U.S. investors.”

In general, McConnell said that Asian buyers take a “longer-term outlook” than U.S. REITs or private equity, which often hold onto a property for three to five years, compared to perhaps 10 years or more for Chinese or Korean investors.

“They are looking at assets that are going to be relevant for a long time, are earning good returns and growing pretty quickly. Hotels check all those boxes,” concluded Hartwich of Green Street Advisors.

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