By Al Barbarino
While Tom McConnell specializes in some intricate financial dealings as head of Cushman and Wakefield’s Hotel Transaction Group, he never loses sight of his old school roots in the hotel business.
In the late 1970’s, following a stint as a bartender after graduating from Brown University, he worked a desk clerk job at the Hotel Viking in his hometown of Newport, Rhode Island. They were “simpler times,” the executive managing director recalled, but it wasn’t easy either. He worked roughly 70 hours a week during peak season, doing everything from checking visitors in to folding sheets before settling into an operations role.
“It was intense,” he said. “After two years I pretty much did every job in the hotel.
“My real dream was to be one of those general managers who worked in a ski area during the winter and a resort in the summer,” he added, laughing heartily, “It was a totally fantasy, but I was 22 – what the hell did I know?”
He joked that he originally took the job to “meet girls,” but in all seriousness, the married father of two adult boys said it gave him a crucial “grounding” in the industry and a strong feel for the “check ‘em in, check ‘em out” operations at a hotel, helping him to better relate to his clients today.
He ultimately attended Cornell University, earning a graduate degree in hotel administration – back when the program was a mix of the old and the new. With classes like “food chemistry” mixed in with accounting and finance courses, one minute McConnell was cooking an omelette, the next he was learning about net present value and the capital asset pricing model.
Though his resort management dreams slowly subsided, his first real look into the financial side of the business laid down the foundation that would help him transition into lead financial advisory roles in the future.
“It was really during hotel school that I really got turned on to the nuts and bolts of the numerical parts of it,” McConnell said.
He would eventually land lead roles in hotel advisory and consulting at firms like Arthur Andersen and CB Richard Ellis, before joining Cushman and Wakefield in 2005, where he specializes in advisory, brokerage and asset management.
The firm’s acquisition of real estate banking specialist Sonnenblick Goldman in 2007 allowed the firm to push further into the financial hotel space, McConnell said, who now devotes much of his time to recapitalizations – the shuffling of debt and equity – and related consulting and refinancing services for hotels located in New York, around the country and throughout the world.
One of McConnell and his team’s biggest deals last year was the recap of the Crown Plaza Hotel in Times Square, a “wicked complicated” deal, according to the native New Englander; and The Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, California. The current Cushman and Wakefield portfolio includes the sales efforts on behalf of the owners of the LaGuardia Marriott and the Marriott Courtyard on 92nd Street.
The executive called the hotel business, especially the financial side of it, a “relatively insulated industry,” scratching his head to come up with a handful of executives who have been at it as long as he has.
His seven-man, New York-based group, with Jared Kelso as his second-hand man, is made up of “hotel lifers,” all having gone to hotel school or worked in hotels and in tune with the financial nuances of the business, McConnell said.
He looks to the future with optimism – dubbing 2012 “year two of the recovery cycle,” as rates and occupancies rise with strong tourism and the “tech revolution” ignited by Google – and to the past with a bit of nostalgia.
“It’s been fun – that’s for sure,” he said.