Hilton selling the Waldorf Astoria for $1.95 billion

The day before yesterday, Hilton (HLT) announced it had agreed with Anbang Insurance Group of China to sell the Waldorf, the flagship of the Hilton chain, to the five-year-old mainland financial conglomerate for $1.95 billion.  Hilton will retain an unusually long 100-year management contract to run the hotel (terms not disclosed).  The Hilton will also undergo a substantial facelift “to restore the property to its historic grandeur”  (no details on how much or who’s paying).

When I began following the US hotel industry as an analyst in the early 1980s, US hotel firms were just beginning to transform themselves from owners of hotel properties into managers of hotels owned by others.

Why do so?

–Historically, ownership of hotels has been a low-return enterprise that ties up immense amounts of capital.

–In my experience, hotel management contracts involve the manager taking large slices of the property’s revenues, cash flow and profits–leaving the owner with tax benefits (e.g., depreciation) and the possibility that the property will increase in value.

As I see it, hotel owners fall into one of several categories:

–local businessmen who want the prestige of saying they own the town’s name-brand hotel/motel, and who prize potential tax writeoffs highly

–billionaires who want the same thing, only with iconic properties

–flight capital, where the owner’s interest is less with potential return than with the presumed safety of having “just in case,” non-portable assets located abroad

–national champions, that is, institutions that either officially or semi-officially represent their home governments and who are signalling their country’s rising status.

 

I see Anbang as falling into the last of these categories.  Its justification to itself likely also includes geographical diversification and its perception that real estate investment opportunities on the mainland are not as attractive as the Waldorf.  IN its defense, Anbang can arguably also make more imaginative use of a city block in a prime section of Park Avenue than Hilton has been able to.

All in all, though, recent Chinese deals for Manhattan real estate mostly call to mind the top-of-the-market foray of Japanese firms into Manhattan in 1989 (think:  Rockefeller Center, which turned out pretty badly for Mitsubishi Estate).

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