Hotel franchise agreements: The 5 biggest mistakes a hotel owner can make

Hotel franchise agreements: The 5 biggest mistakes a hotel owner can make

Many sophisticated hotel investors and owners seem to fall into a handful of traps that would be easy to avoid. This post by my partner Robert Braun focuses on hotel franchise agreements and outlines the five biggest mistakes an owner can make when seeking one.

Mistake #1: Focusing on just one brand and letting them know you “have” to have them.

Famous last words: “I just have to have [name of brand] for my hotel — they are perfect! 

Even if the brand is perfect, the best way to get a great brand and a fair deal is to make sure there is competition, compare the results and make sure each brand knows there is at least one other brand to “meet or beat.” The process isn’t an auction, but it is a controlled, selective competition that brings out the best deals from the brands and gives the owner the best choice.

Mistake #2: Trying to do it yourself — it’s a false economy. You don’t know what you don’t know. 

Famous last words: “I met some great franchisors at a hotel conference last week, and they love our project and said they’d bend over backwards to make me a good deal. I don’t really need any help. All I need are a couple of phone numbers to call.” 

Finding a good brand is intentional, not accidental, and drawing out the best business and legal terms in a franchise takes someone who has been there before. Hotel executives make their living by negotiating hundreds of deals with amateurs. Unless you identify the real issues and realistically approach your project and its needs, your deal will get shopworn and tired before it is positioned. And if you let the franchisor drive the process, you are likely to find yourself with a letter of intent or term sheet before you have identified your needs and shaped the conversation. 

Mistake #3: Starting the process by getting proposals from the brand to save time and money. 

Famous last words: “Let me get the letter of intent signed — it’s non-binding, anyway. I’ll bring in the experts when we negotiate the franchise agreement.” 

For all intents and purposes, the letter of intent is the final agreement — unless you identify the points of negotiation, virtually every franchisor will demand that you sign their franchise agreement as is. Franchise agreements are not like other commercially negotiated agreements; franchisors demand uniformity, and changes — even changes that make business sense — must be identified early. It is true that letters are generally non-binding, but the only alternative to agreeing to the franchisor’s terms is often to walk away from the agreement, typically forfeiting a substantial (often six-figure) application fee!

Mistake #4: Believing that the franchisor’s interests are aligned with yours because they make an investment in the property. 

Famous last words: “We and [name the brand] have the same interests — they are giving us key money to get the deal.” 

It is gratifying when a franchisor offers to help fund your project. However, their needs are never fully aligned with yours. Franchisors almost never have money at risk; instead, they provide “key money” — forgivable loans or credit enhancements that amortize over the life of the franchise. Franchisors can get their money back if you try to terminate the franchise, or default, or for a variety of other reasons, and their “investment” is often backed by a personal guarantee. Moreover, the relatively small amount of key money comes at a high price, typically a longer duration, more onerous terms and less flexibility. Finally, an owner must always understand that the interests of brands always diverge from the interests of owners. Owners are concerned about the health, well-being and profitability of their individual properties, while the brand is concerned about the value of the brand, regardless of the performance and value of the individual hotels in the chain. 

Mistake #5: Relying on a third-party manager to protect your interests. 

Famous last words: “I have a great operator for the hotel — they will negotiate with the brand and make sure I get a fair deal.” 

Third-party managers can help, but they are as interested in pleasing the brand as they are in pleasing the owner. In fact, franchisors typically require that the manager acknowledge that the franchise agreement overrides the management agreement! The principals and operators in management companies often are drawn from the ranks of the brands, they get a substantial part of their business from the brands and their loyalty can be diluted. The manager can help, and in particular can help comply with the franchise, but if there is a problem, the owner stands alone.

How to avoid these mistakes

Brands and owners need each other. While tension always exists in the relationship, if they share the same vision, they have a better chance of a successful relationship. On the other hand, when an owner enters into a franchise agreement without understanding its ramifications and without creating a level playing field, the likelihood of success is limited at best. 

How do you achieve this balance?

To reach an agreement that is successful for both the brand and the owner, there must be parity in the process. Owners need the same level of legal representation that the franchisor will have. The franchisor’s lawyers will have negotiated hundreds of these agreements. Your lawyer should have this level of practical experience as well. The franchisor’s lawyers will understand the implications and ramifications of each sentence and phrase in the agreement. So should your lawyer. The franchisor’s lawyers will make sure the franchisor takes as little risk as possible — that’s the lawyers’ job. Your lawyer should do the same job for you.