Delight in the details: How Andrew Benioff builds hotels that stand out

Andrew Benioff’s career in hospitality started as an intern at a Japanese Ryokan and led to his present role as Founder and Managing Partner at Llenrock Realty Partners, a Philadelphia-based hotel development and investment firm.

“I’ve had a fairly winding career and never followed a very strict plan on where I was going – but took opportunities as they’ve come along,” he told me. 

By following his curiosity and opportunity, his firm has evolved as he’s discovered new passions and areas of potential within hospitality.

After management roles at Nikko Hotels and Ritz Carlton, Andrew began his investment career at a mortgage banking firm raising capital for others. From there, he went into partnership with another colleague to do commercial real estate investment and development. in 2018, he decided to focus exclusively on independent hospitality.

“My role today allows me to combine my commercial real estate, capital markets, and deal structure experience with my passion for hospitality. My firm focuses on developing and acquiring very experiential independent hospitality properties.”

In this article, we’re going to cover:

Developing hotel properties as brands 

“I feel every hotel property can be its own brand,” Andrew shared. “While others are doing amazing things building multi-property brands, I am more interested in focusing on one property at a time and doing a deep dive into what that property’s brand could be.”

This process often starts by walking the property to absorb what’s there and what surrounds it. 

“I try not to go into a project with the preconceived notion of what I want to do, and instead try to understand what that property wants to be.”

Developing clarity in a hotel’s brand promise

There are many ways to be successful in hospitality, and Andrew acknowledges the road to success isn’t black and white. “I have a lot of friends who invest in branded select service hotels and do extremely well.” But he also sees the objectives of many of those brands are different from what he’s building. 

“Hotels from the major brands are often extremely uninspiring – but they were not created to be inspiring. They were created to give people a sense of comfort and knowledge that the hotel they’re stopping at in New Jersey is going to be the same one they stopped at in Kansas. They’re not trying to create a sense of place but a sense of safety and calmness.”

That consistency is not the objective Andrew is building for.

“I’m looking for a guest that wants to be surprised and delighted. One that wants to explore something that may make them slightly uncomfortable. In the end, they want to think ‘I didn’t know I was going to do that but I did and it’s really amazing!’”

The process of developing a new hotel 

To illustrate the hotel development process, Andrew shared the story behind a project he’s working on in the Poconos in northeast Pennsylvania. 

Llenrock purchased a 130-acre parcel of land with a couple of small lakes on it. The plan is to create an environmentally sustainable, connected-to-nature, upper upscale hospitality project. A place with great food and beverage offerings that works equally well as a wedding venue or corporate retreat. Andrew’s dream is to turn the property into a haven for enjoying nature – whether that’s foraging for mushrooms or collecting honey from bees or just taking a walk on the paths around the property.

“I want to protect the property. I want to develop some parts but leave as much of it as possible and protected in perpetuity.”

This process begins by walking around the property thinking about what it could be in partnership with architects and designers and engineers.

“Everyone has their ideas of what we should do. I tried to take inspiration from places I’ve enjoyed but don’t want to just copy them. I want to create what I think belongs in this unique property. I want to create a feeling of belonging and community. I want it to feel like someone has been there a long time, even though it will have been recently created. I want something connected to the community but original and inspirational.”

The opportunity for providing hospitality inspired by nature

Andrew believes there’s a big opportunity today to provide hospitality inspired by nature. And that’s important with so many stressors in the world right now that predate the pandemic: everything from divisive politics to extreme climate to economic pressures. 

“No matter what business you’re in or what you’re doing for a living, or where you are in society, you’re going to have a lot of stress from one of those factors. It’s a lot to take in. I often find it overwhelming.”

This is where the opportunity to provide hospitality comes in. “What a lot of people need is not only a vacation but a chance to connect with nature and quiet their mind a little bit and get off of electronic devices.”

Andrew finds this in his new property even when he’s there for an hour or two. “It’s really quiet. You can’t hear any sounds. No cars – only birds and water. I find that important to connect to in some way.”

While relaxation in nature appeals to many, not everyone will be a fit for what Andrew is building. “There are people that want to go into northern Alaska and sleep in a tent and not see a single soul – but that’s not what I’m looking to create.”

“I’m catering to a traveler that wants to see nature, walk in it, but not get too dirty. People who want to return to a room with a really great bed, amazing sheets, and a great bathroom.”

Andrew wants to provide an ability to connect with nature in a sustainable way and feels he has the opportunity to do that with his latest development. “There’s an opportunity for guests to take something back with them, whether that is mushrooms and watercress grown on the property or fish from our lake that’s cooked by our chef.” 

“Engaging with nature in many different ways is an amazing way to re-energize and reduce stress in a short amount of time. I think it’s really important to do that, and that’s what I’m focused on.”

“Flow hospitality”

Andrew believes great hospitality is based on what he calls “two-way flow.” 

“If you think of the community or nature that surrounds a hotel, those surroundings flow into that property and the guests that are staying at the property flow out into the community. It’s a cycle that should continue around and around.”

If his guests only stayed on his property their entire stay, he feels it would be a missed opportunity for them. “I want them to get out there a bit on their own. I want them to walk around the surrounding area to engage in activities. And we also need the town and community and nature to flow into the property and be part of what we are creating as well.”

This is a significant difference from the many hoteliers that are trying to create a one-way flow of people onto their property and attempt to keep them on their property to spend money at the various outlets. While there’s a place for that, there’s also an opportunity for a far more integrated type of hospitality offering that Andrew is building. 

“Too many hotels are set up to provide a room and maybe a meal for their guests. They talk about community, but there’s really no community at all. There’s no connection to the surroundings. I’m sometimes disappointed with that. I think that interaction is important and should be offered.”

Andrew believes this type of interactive, activity-based hospitality should be offered as an option, not as a coerced experience. 

“It’s not like we’re some sort of family resort where at 3 pm it’s time for tennis, 4 pm it’s time for lawn ball, and at 5 pm we’re meeting for cocktails. We want our guests to go at their own pace and do their own thing. But I definitely think there’s an opportunity in providing a more modern way of traveling and experiencing local surroundings.”

This is a philosophy that can apply to all hoteliers regardless of their location. “Whether you’re in Pennsylvania or California or Singapore or Paris, explore that community and what’s going on there. Look for small things that might be a bit off the beaten path. Chat with local folks or go to a little art gallery, but get out of your comfort zone and really experience something that creates memories that will last.”

The importance of paying attention to the operational details 

Andrew has observed many in the commercial real estate investing industry are so focused on doing the next deal they overlook some of the potential that can be unlocked by paying attention to the details.

“A lot of people are excited about finding new deals, investing in them, opening the property, and then moving right on to the next deal. There’s a deal junkie culture. I know it because somewhere in me is also a little bit of a deal junkie, although it’s not just about finding the next one for me. I want to build a couple of projects that I can ensure are really, really well done and pay close attention to them.”

This is where Andrew differs from many other real estate developers and investors. 

“I want to be involved in running my properties for years to come. And that comes from my philosophy of there not being a goal or prize I’m looking for, but rather a focus on the journey. I want to enjoy the process.”

As he learned working for companies such as Ritz Carlton, it’s the little things that matter. 

“Paying attention to all the details when the property is up and running is something that’s really important for the ongoing delivery of exceptional experiences. Management companies with the best of intentions can take their eye off the ball and miss things. That’s why I believe in being an active asset manager. Always looking at the operations. How are we doing? How effective are we at delivering the experience that we want to be providing?”

The role of mentorship in hospitality

Today, Andrew spends much of his time mentoring others through organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“I think mentorship is really important not just in hospitality but in life in general. It’s important to be giving and not just taking, taking, taking.”

This mentality started with a memorable personal experience early on. 

“I remember when I was getting an MBA someone helped me and connected me with a bunch of people when I was looking for an internship. That person was super giving of their time and amazingly helpful. At the end of our conversation, I said ‘You’ve been so generous with me. What can I help you with?’ He told me ‘Andrew, I get the feeling that you’re going to be really successful, and if I play a small part in that, it’s wonderful. I don’t need anything from you but I would love it if you can promise me that on your way to being successful you can reach your hand down and pull someone else up like I’m doing with you.’ I told him I’d do that and I’ve tried to continue with that since then.”

I’m very passionate about mentoring and think that mentoring, whether it’s with underprivileged kids or professionals in hospitality, is something you should do. It takes effort but it’s more rewarding than you think it will be.”

“Mentoring is really important because if we want to see a workforce at the senior levels of our companies that looks like society at large, you need to be a mentor. You need to show junior people what’s possible. Without seeing it and showing them what they could become, it’s hard for them to strive for that.”

Andrew’s conference, the Independent Lodging Congress, will take place October 11-13, 2022 in Los Angeles. Learn more here.

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