In an age of specialization, Homi Vazifdar is one of the few remaining hotel generalists. He worked in construction, moved on to design, then investment banking, and for the past 17 years founder and until recently the CEO of the vertically integrated investment firm, The Canyon Group, based outside San Francisco in Larkspur, California. With what he calls a “golden rolodex,” Homi, now executive director, knows just about everyone worth knowing in the upscale and luxury spaces and is known as being opinionated, blunt, a bit quirky, definitely a contrarian but affable as can be.
Born in India with an unquenched desire to move to the U.S. and immerse himself in the culture, Vazifdar attended the University of California at Berkeley, opened a very successful Indian restaurant across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County and continued to pursue his love for hospitality by gathering experiences across the disciplines.
Today, ultra-luxury minded Canyon Group owns Amangiri near Lake Powell in Utah, the Four Seasons Ranch Encantado in New Mexico, the Cousteau Resort in Fiji and one Hyatt Place in Arizona. It is currently developing a Six Senses mixed-used development in Papagayo, Costa Rica, as well as 28 ultra-luxury residences at Amangiri. Canyon Group also has landbanks near Malibu, California, and Hacienda La Gavia in Mexico to be developed sometime in the future.
Vazifdar said Canyon has another segment in mind for near-term growth and ultimately, as he shifts gears to the executive director’s role, he would love to create a small portfolio of ultra-luxury tented camp concept for out-of-the-way U.S. destinations.
For now, the group enjoys seeing its portfolio perform at amazing levels, even since the middle of the pandemic, as ultra-luxury travelers fled to safe havens like Amangiri, which in 2020 added Camp Sarika tented camps achieving rates close to US$5,000 a night at 90%-plus occupancies. Canyon Group is also celebrating the April bittersweet exit from its Amangani resort in Jackson, Wyoming, which it sold for about to US$2 million a key.
“There was a flight to safety and products like ours did extraordinarily well,” Vazifdar said about Canyon’s recovery through the pandemic. “We shut down our resorts for only two and a half months, and when we opened, we were practically running 100% at rate premiums that were obscene… We knew that we would come back. But what surprised all of us was how fast and how furiously we came back.”
He points to resiliency of the hotel industry and how ultra-luxury always comes roaring back. “Our industry always comes back stronger than what the market predicts,” he said. “When you have all the analysts or the big banks, saying, ‘The sky is falling, and the world is coming to an end.’ They are so wrong every single time. Our industry is coming back. New York is coming back. Miami is on fire.”
Other than implementing a 24-hour lag time between check-out and the next check-ins, there were no knee-jerk reactions to the pandemic at Canyon’s properties. “I’ve always maintained, don’t try to do something that’s different – try to do what you have always done, but just do it a little better. Try to make one day better than the day before,” Vazifdar said.
Canyon is telling its operators to focus on very high-end group business such as small group think tanks and board of director meetings. “Focus on small, high-end group business, buyouts, weddings, small weddings, bar mitzvahs, and things like that,” Vazifdar added.
At the same time, Vazifdar said too many hotels used COVID as an excuse not to perform at their best, and that is an approach that will have long-term ramifications. “I’ve seen luxury hotels using COVID as an excuse for diminishing services. They compromise guest experiences, depriving guests of very basic hospitality like cutting out room service. They empty out minibars, don’t put coffee makers in the rooms, and I can go on and on… That’s bs. They’re trying to squeeze the last dollar out and not looking at the long-term impact.”
While Vazifdar is pivoting in his role at Canyon Group, he has always been one to reinvent himself and never really slowed down during the pandemic. As mentioned, he has his eyes on more experiential products in what he believes is an overlooked niche – luxury tented camps. There is not, in his opinion, something upmarket available in the U.S. “There is this void at about US$2,500 ADR, where you can do standalone tents – and I am absolutely convinced that’s a phenomenon that will happen,” he said.
He is a big believer in his convictions because if there was one lesson he took away from the pandemic it was guests’ desire for what he calls “space vastness.”
Canyon’s existing properties created a lot of extra space for dining and outdoor recreation without it looking clinical, placing tables around swimming pools, in courtyards, etc.
This new requirement for space should lead to the creation of even more suites. Even the Courtyard by Marriott template will be more suites driven, Vazifdar maintained, because families are traveling together and spending more time together. “That will translate into travel trends and patterns,” he adds.
The uncertainty that remains, Vazifdar said, is new builds, especially in remote destinations. “There are challenges in the supply chain, there is inflation, which possibly could be hedged, and there are going to be problems with interest rates and availability of capital for new builds. That’s going to be tough,” he said.
He said capital sources are hunting for risk-averse, sweet deals. “If you’re building a hotel in New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, London, Milan, Shanghai, Beijing or Hong Kong, capital is available and readily available,” Vazifdar added. “But if you’re trying to build a luxury or an ultra-luxury resort in a remote destination, then suddenly the banks have a risk profile that’s very different. That challenge has been there pre-pandemic and post-pandemic, but now it’s appears to be more prevalent for luxury developments… I’m not saying you can’t develop, but it is going to be a challenge.”
In closing, Vazifdar referenced one of his business greatest lessons and offered a message to the hotel industry at-large.
First, he talked about his first boss in the hotel business, Jim Feiler, who grew his construction business to one of the industry’s best. “He taught me, ‘vision without execution is hallucination.’ And that has held me in good stead all my life.”
Like so many other leaders today, Vazifdar suggested having faith in the hotel business. “Ours is the biggest, brightest, best industry in the world,” he says. “Be proud, feel safe. Don’t let politics or market chatter bother you. Like [New England Patriots football coach Bill] Belichick says, ‘Just do your job and everything will be just fine.’”
And as Vazifdar transitions to the twilight of his career, he says people often ask him what his legacy is. “And they expect some kind of cerebral response like ‘building the best resorts in the world,” he said. “No. That’s not my legacy. My legacy is about people, about family. It’s about being married for over 40 years to the most beautiful woman in the world; it’s about raising two boys who followed in my footsteps. Cyrus has established himself as a consummate professional at Hodges Ward Elliott and Brian found his niche at Hersha Hospitality. It’s also about this incredible group of people at Canyon that I surrounded myself with who are a helluva lot smarter than I am and continue to make me look good.”