It turns out that rumors of the luxury segment’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
Now, after that near-death experience, luxury developers have refocused, changing the size, style and mission of their properties.
Pierre Charalambides is a co-founder and partner at Dolphin Capital Partners, a private equity firm that invests in real estate in emerging markets. Its assets include 13 major leisure-integrated residential resorts and a number of smaller projects.
“We buy the best coastlines,” he said, “and work with the best architects, golf course designers and hotel operators.”
The company built its portfolio from 2006-2008 but stopped investing after the financial collapse. Now Charalambides said it’s time to start investing again.
“Development financing remains scarce for luxury hotel development, especially in emerging markets,” he said. But at the same time, “the global tourism market is growing again. International tourist arrivals are beating expectations.”
Dolphin is in six countries and is looking to expand, he said. The company is looking at Panama, the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Colombia. The new projects likely will consist of small hotels with fewer than 150 rooms. Anything larger would make the property too dependent on groups and change the mission of the hotel, he said.
Dolphin’s two current projects illustrate that thinking.
The first is the Aman at Porto Heli, Greece, an area he compared to the Hamptons in New York. Under the guidance of architect Ed Tuttle, the property will have 40 suites and open by the end of 2011.
The second project is the Nikki at Porto Heli, Greece. This beachfront conversion is slated to attract a younger clientele. Before the conversion, there were 160 rooms. When the property opens by the end of 2011, it will have 25 rooms and 60 apartments.
James Erlacher, senior vice president of development for the Americas at Jumeirah Group, confirmed that the big box hotel is no longer the favored style for new super luxury developments.
“There’s a trend toward smaller, more intimate resort environments with indigenous architecture,” he said.
In Dubai, Jumeirah has a 900-room beach property, but he said that’s not what Jumeriah would build in the Americas. He likened new projects to the style of resorts in the Maldives, where the company features small villa-style guest rooms. There are other ways to generate fees besides room count, he said.
“Based on my pipeline and conversations with developers, the trend is toward smaller,” he said. “The box is on the wane.”
He added that luxury properties that have to chase group business faced the most trouble during the downturn.
Erlacher said Jumeirah currently operates about a dozen hotels worldwide. It has about 26 projects in the development pipeline, with an even split between resorts and urban properties, and 30 management agreements are signed and in pre-development. Jumeirah’s focus is on major gateway and resort areas, he said, and each project has to have a residential component.
Jumeirah’s new brand, VENU Hotels, already has five properties in the pipeline and will open first in Shanghai and Dubai. In Buenos Aires, the company has a deal for a polo-themed resort and has another deal to develop an urban property in Panama City as well as a destination resort. In Mexico, he said the company would consider Los Cabos and Riveria Maya.
“We are fully dedicated to the luxury segment,” Erlacher said. “We aspire to be a globally recognized luxury operator.”
Erlacher noted a lack of available luxury projects for residential in the Americas, and the lack of financing will hold supply in check. The environment is good for current operators, he said, but Jumeirah is looking for areas for growth.
In Latin America, Erlacher noted the desirable markets of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo. The latter, he noted, has “no significant luxury supply” but a lot of wealth.
The challenge for luxury development in Brazil, as well as Colombia and other South American countries, is an underdeveloped airlift.
“Respect the time the guest has for the trip,” he said. “This is a challenge in Brazil. The resort market there is going to be a challenge. Be sensitive to what the travel and arrival sequence involves. … It’s easy to get there from Europe. It’s North America that’s the challenge.”
Charalambides said airlift is one of the most crucial factors when considering a new project. Other development factors important to Dolphin include the differentiation and uniqueness of the product; the service, environment, experience and social responsibility; and finally, real estate integration. Dolphin’s projects always combine hotel with residential. Dolphin prefers to buy into virgin areas, he said, but a hotel on its own is risky in a resort location unless the market is developed.
Charalambides and Erlacher discussed their projects with Christopher Froome, vice president of development planning and feasibility for Ritz-Carlton, at the South American Hotel & Tourism Investment Conference.