Hospitality Trends

An ex-Holiday Inn Executive is Behind a $500 Million Plan to Jazz Up Troubled Hotels

Ken Hamlet, the former CEO of Holiday Inn, intends to use a $500 million war chest to acquire limited-service hotels (those without facilities such as a restaurant or spa) and reposition them as properties with a more upscale customer experience.

Consider it adding more of the Four Seasons experience to roadside hotels, as Hamlet put it.

He was CEO of Holiday Inn for nine years in the 1980s and early 1990s, and during that time the business was purchased by IHG and introduced or acquired brands such as Embassy Suites, Crowne Plaza, Hampton Inn, and Harrah's. Rather than starting his fund, Hamlet joined Olive Tree Hotels & Resorts, a hotel investment group where he now serves as CEO, to pursue deals.

“I began to think of maybe now is a very good time to take advantage of getting back into the hotel industry and purchasing distressed assets or buying assets that were well-located, well-branded, relatively well-managed, and that were being distressed and only needed additional capital to get them up to 2021 standards,” he said this week.

The only thing is that there is a litany of hotel investors drooling about hotel investment prospects that did not come true before the pandemic.

Investment firms such as CGI Merchant Group, in collaboration with New York Yankees baseball legend Alex Rodriguez, and Bainbridge DXS are also scouring the market for hotel acquisitions of hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years. Dreamscape Cos., owner of the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, has more than $1 billion in cash to purchase hotels, including troubled business-transient and convention-focused properties.

Olive Tree's capital distinguishes itself by concentrating on limited-service hotels in a mix of the 75 major U.S. cities as well as some secondary and tertiary markets such as Las Cruces, New Mexico. As long as there is a nearby demand driver, such as a hospital, university, or office park, the company can seek a deal. The majority of buyers are looking for troubled hotels in metropolitan markets or resorts in drive-to and leisure destinations.

Olive Tree intends to upgrade its guest rooms with more innovative features, such as automated check-ins and co-working-inspired workspaces in public areas. But, in addition to the technology, Hamlet desires enhanced client support, such as staffers adding personal touches to the guest experience, such as a bottle of wine or glass of champagne delivered to a room or hors d'oeuvres and chocolate bars in the lobby.

The move is reminiscent of how Holiday Inn became a brand. Kemmons Wilson established the roadside motel business in the early 1950s after becoming dissatisfied with the choices offered on a road trip between Memphis, Tenn., and Washington, D.C.

He set out to fix it because there was no consistency or quality in the accommodation experience. Olive Tree intends to replicate the success of existing limited-service hotels that are underperforming.

Many of Olive Tree's acquisitions would be branded by major companies such as Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, and IHG. However, the company is not opposed to maintaining property independence or even launching its brand.

It is unclear when any of those acquisition goals will become available. Olive Tree reportedly has one hotel under contract and another "in the works."

Due to a mix of bank forbearance on mortgages and several rounds of federal stimulus by offerings such as the Paycheck Protection Program of forgivable small business loans, there haven't been as many distressed hotel properties exchanged throughout the last year. The Olive Tree team does not anticipate having to wait much longer.

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