Call Erik Warner the conscience of the hotel business. While certainly not asking for that title, by any means, the co-founder of investment firm Eagle Point Hotel Partners (EPHP) in New York City is very steadfast in his belief that more hotel owners and operators must do much more to make the world a better place. “I am encouraging all of us to meaningfully connect our guests into our communities and to each other. That’s it. Make a pledge,” he implored.
Never wanting to be defined, Warner nonetheless does fit into the new and growing number of independent developer/operators who focus on being community driven and believe in the greater good the hotel business can provide. And, not surprisingly, he visibly shudders when he considers creating spaces in his hotels for Instagram-able moments because Warner says they are unsustainable – they have no meaning and evaporate into the ether in a matter of seconds. No photo opps for him, please. It is simply and nobly about connecting guests with staff and the local communities for the betterment of humanity.
Founded in 2011 and with a portfolio that ranges from 25-room wellness centers to 350-room full-service resorts, city centers and rural outposts, Warner says the group’s focus is on how EPHP hotels fit into their locales in natural, symbiotic ways. “We started putting out all of this material on our hotels and the communities in which they exist,” he explains. “We started telling stories about the communities and how they are tied into the hotel, and how the hotels are tied into communities, creating this really amazing ecosystem.”
These stories come together by having the hotel teams immerse themselves into the daily life of their communities, by living there and spending time getting to know local vendors and townsfolk. Warner says that he and his team continually work on perfecting this approach, which includes “Kulture Collective” programming in EPHP hotel lobbies, for example. “You begin to say to yourself, ‘how am I going to make the world a better place and what are my resources?” Warner asked.
He said the method for developing meaningful connections can be as simple as the way that EPHP trains its guests and staff to interact. “It’s simple phrases like, ‘oh, Mr. Smith, I hope you enjoyed your meal. By the way, the farmer who grew the lettuce for your salad today, Ira, is going to be in the lobby from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., talking about his method of growing watercress… I know there are other guests going.’ Then, suddenly, you go, you learn about how the watercress was made in a biodynamic manner, you meet three or four other people, and you develop a bond with them.”
Warner added that it doesn’t matter if this is what guests want to participate or not – it just must be an opportunity for them to do it.
Warner pointed to another example of a world-class artist leading 20 members of the local community to the beach nearby one of his hotels an hour before sunset, where they lit a fire and discussed, frankly, anything. But Warner, formerly a principal at Ramsfield Hospitality Finance where he managed new lending, acquisitions, and asset management, said the conversations always lead to questions about life and humanity, and how the artist sees things. “And because these folks are some of the best at what they do, they can explain their perspective very clearly… That moment of meaning and connection – it’s just like a big spark.”
Of course, subliminally, events like this build local affinity for the hotels like the Anvil Hotel in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, or at the Sound View Hotel in Greenport, New York, and ultimately help drive business. But Warner added that it is more about EPHP’s desire to use profit in a way that benefits humanity and celebrates togetherness through tourism.
With a portfolio of some 12 hotels with about 1,300 rooms, the EPHP properties weathered the COVID storm and many of its drive-to hotels are thriving today, according to Warner, who added that limited supply coming online will continue to aid performance recovery.
Long-term holders in high-barrier-to-entry markets, the portfolio ranges from urban Arlo-branded hotels in New York City to small resort properties in Hawaii. About half of the hotels are managed by Sightline Hospitality, San Francisco, California, which was formed from the 2019 merger of EPHP’s Filament Hospitality and Chartres Lodging’s Kokua Hospitality.
The group continues to look for off-market, buy-below-replacement-cost opportunities and most recently acquired an asset in Kuai, Hawaii, that will be repositioned. Bigger picture, Warner said he hopes EPHP can add two to three assets a year.
During this interview in early June, Warner said asset prices are reflective of a very optimistic outcome. “They are too high. They’re really aggressive,” he said, adding he expects to see a minor reset in the near term.
The ripple effect
Business consideration aside, throughout this interview Warner, an Eagle Scout, a volunteer at his local nursing home and youth governor of Delaware in 1993, came back to his concern about the ongoing disconnect in society and how hoteliers have opportunities to be net contributors to generate a better balance of how humanity exists. So far, he said, many of his contemporaries are doing poorly and spending way too much time figuring out more Instagram-able moments.
“I would just want to make sure that everybody makes decisions knowing the ripple effect of them,” he said. “It’s not just about the bottom line, but it’s about the impact to all aspects of how hotels exist in a place, the impact on staffing, the impact on the community, the impact on the guests, and really just being conscious of our decisions,” he said. “There is not just one layer of impact – our decisions have a ripple effect. That’s how we need to exist going forward, or we will all continue to be imbalanced in our communities.”