By Karen Jacobs
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Hotel companies and real estate firms are optimistic that deal transactions will pick up this year despite concerns about Europe's economy and challenges in obtaining debt financing.
While a business-led economic recovery has helped lift U.S. hotel occupancy rates, development is still a soft spot as tight credit conditions have limited new-hotel builds. Still, there is a growing sense that the hotel sector has momentum and performance will continue to improve.
"People are expecting 2012 to be a pretty positive year, with solid performance by the industry in terms of the demand for hotel accommodations and the ability to get deals done," Arthur de Haast, chairman of Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels, said at this week's Americas Lodging Investment Summit.
The hotel investment services firm has forecast that hotel deals in the Americas this year will at least match the 2011 level in value of an estimated $15 billion.
U.S. hotel deal activity picked up in the first half of 2011 but calmed in the latter part of the year as debt woes in Europe began dominating the headlines.
While Europe is still a risk, attendees at the three-day hotel conference said a continued recovery marked by rising room rates would make the sector attractive for investment.
"There's a lot of money on the sidelines waiting to pounce and find opportunities," said Christian Charre, president and chief executive of the Charre Group, a Florida-based hotel brokerage and consulting firm.
Private equity funds that have capital will be in a good position to make acquisitions, some said. Real estate investment trusts were active buyers in the first half of 2011 but are expected to be quieter this year as their share prices suffered in the latter part of 2011.
"The mix of the investors probably will change," said Sri Sambamurthy, co-founder of real estate firm West Point Partners in New York. He said Middle Eastern, European and Asian investors especially find the U.S. market to be extremely attractive now.
"The U.S. is still considered very safe, the dollar has performed extraordinarily well," Sambamurthy added.
Hotel companies said they were looking to make acquisitions in a bid to expand their reach.
"No question that we'll be active in the marketplace in 2012," said Paul Whetsell, president and chief executive of Loews Hotels, which owns and/or operates 18 hotels. The unit of Loews Corp
Whetsell said Loews is looking for 4-star or higher-rated hotels in major cities where it does not have a presence such as Boston, Washington, San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as smaller markets like Charlotte, North Carolina, and Baltimore, Maryland.
Choice Hotels International
"We clearly would be a very aggressive purchaser of brands that come up," Choice Chief Executive Steve Joyce said in an interview [ID:nL2E8CO1IS].
(Editing by Gary Hill)