Demystifying the hotel buy-side due diligence process

Aradhana Khowala By Aradhana Khowala
Uploaded 07 March 2014

Any investor considering a hotel acquisition needs to validate the key assumptions being made about the transaction and ensure there are no skeletons in the closet that can impact the future of the business. Analysing and validating those financial, operational and strategic assumptions as part of a buy side due diligence process is like focusing on the mostly invisible parts of an iceberg. Although it might seem like an expensive way of buying peace of mind it can be a very effective way to verify if the hotel and the deal is the right fit for you. Here are seven easy steps to assure you get what you pay for.

1. Have a vision for the asset and work that vision
A core mandate of any buy side due diligence exercise has to be to not only improve your understanding of all the relevant issues as a potential new owner but also highlight the strengths of the asset as well as focus on the weaknesses that can be fixed and opportunities that can be exploited under your new ownership. Whilst there will be some asset deals that are straightforward transactions, the stand out ones which really add value are those that involve fundamentally altering the profile of the asset. This is especially relevant for Boutique hotels as they are not merely acquired as part of a market entry strategy but oftentimes involve a unique vision for the hotel. As an example, 134 years ago the Spitbank Fort in Portsmouth was a key component in the protection of British waters against a possible invasion from France and today it has been turned into a stunning nine bedroom boutique hotel. Similarly, the Hotel Liberty in Boston is a great example of how a unique and bold vision can infuse fresh, eclectic spirit to a century old prison and make it relevant and current.

2. Choose a hotel specialist who operates in your space
Bulk of the real estate transactions in the commercial space (office, retail etc.) deals tend to be one-dimensional with clear rents and/or leases. However, a hotel asset is a completely different animal. One has to be cognizant of all the operational elements of the asset in what is a highly cyclical industry. Hence, to really understand the target hotel's underlying business risks, operational strengths and weaknesses, and issues impacting the transaction, you want to have sector specialists on whose experience you can depend upon. It is vital that the chosen team has experience in the local market and preferably they should concentrate in the niche and segment your proposed acquisition competes in. For instance, a buy side team for a boutique or trophy asset will have different focus and priorities compared to one for a budget hotel acquisition.

3. Cookie cutter solutions vs made just for you
It is critical that a buy-side due diligence mandate has to be customised to a specific owner/investor and transaction. All of them by default have to assess the target hotel's earnings and cash-flow quality, reviews the operational trends, key business performance metrics, working capital requirements, balance sheet commitments and finally management projections. However, your chosen due diligence partner also needs to resonate and imbibe your long-term goals to ensure if and how the deal fits your overall goal.  As an example if you are seeking to acquire a boutique hotel in London with the aim of having a base for your family and friends during the three months in summer, it is imperative to have your due diligence team factor in your overarching aim into the analysis and value the deal accordingly.

4. Getting all the information to hand
A buy-side due diligence process is so important because it minimises the disparity between the information held by the buyer and the seller about the hotel asset. A hotel is not the most liquid asset and the idea is that by enhancing your understanding of the target hotel's business there is a higher probability of the deal achieving its objectives. A rigorous and objective due diligence which covers the unavailable and sometimes hidden bits of information like the base of an iceberg also means you as an investor can focus on structuring and negotiating the deal right - steps which take considerable time and resources. You don't want to miss anything and buy side due diligence is a good step towards ensuring just that.

5. See through a "window dressed" deal
In the fashion industry, the impact of makeup and role of air brushing is an open secret. Unfortunately, in the hotel industry a lot of Information Memorandum's and fancy brochures convert into rather poor excel valuation models and one can't be too sure of how much to discount the marketing spiel. Many acquisitions that look great on paper have a less-than-optimal outcome.  Hence, to ensure you are not buying into someone else's worries, stay objective and don't let your love for the asset cloud or dilute the importance of a comprehensive review of the asset's business plan or potential.

6. Have a deal checklist and validate the assumptions
To maximize the effectiveness of the due diligence process and to ensure all bases are covered, ensure there is a checklist that covers all of the documentation and other information required to complete the process. This checklist would normally include a comprehensive and wide range of financial, legal, product, market, competition, sales, customer, regulatory, environmental, management and personnel information. It is all too common to have deals fall through right at the end because a previous assumption about structural slope or crack in the wall was not confirmed and the new revelation means a price revision or adjustment. Because your bid is based upon a set of assumptions you don't want to deal with any last minute surprises.

7. Recognise that art is priceless
Finally, like great art, some hotel deals are priceless. Because of its rarity, quality and uniqueness, its value is way beyond a simple valuation or one that comes up as justifiable based on the result of a buy side due diligence exercise.  This effectively means that some assets have a value based on what someone is willing to pay for them and in some cases it might be a few or many millions more than its true value.  For these type of assets either participate in the bidding war because you can afford it or happily walk away knowing that some assets transact without and at prices way above what is reasonable or as advised by your due diligence team. As an example if the Burj Al Arab in Dubai or the Ritz in London is ever for sale in the market it is not going to be bought for what it is worth but instead for what the hotel's stand for in the respective cities.

In summary, if you are debating whether you can derive value from a buy side due diligence exercise for you next hotel acquisition, bite the bullet, get organised and remember, the more you know the better questions you can ask.

Aradhana Khowala is managing director and partner at Bridge.Over, a boutique strategy consulting firm dedicated to solving business challenges for hospitality visionaries across the globe.

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