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ILHA East Coast Chapter Board Member Spotlight – Brett Hochberg, Corporate Counsel, Hyatt Hotels Corporation

21 November 2022
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As we approach the two-year anniversary of the start of the International Luxury Hotel Association’s East Coast Chapter, the efforts of this board have been heroic.  From one initial in-person meeting in March 2020 to immediately pivoting to a virtual environment in April 2020, to expanding the chapter to include the entire east coast, some of us have never met IRL (“in real life”), but collectively we continue to give back to this industry, provide mentorship and education, and network with talented individuals dedicated to luxury hospitality. As it takes a mountain to provide luxury experiences, our board members comprise corporate executives, those with deep roots in varied segments across the industry, and service providers who help support data-driven decisions and a seamless guest experience at every level.

We recently sat down with Brett Hochberg, a former Associate at Paul Hastings LLP specializing in Hospitality and Leisure, as he pivots to an in-house legal role with Hyatt Corporation, to learn more about his background and what drives his passion for hospitality today.

Brett began his hospitality career while in high school, stocking mini bars for boutique hotels in New York City during summer months when school was not in session. He continued to follow his passion for hospitality by enrolling in Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. Upon his graduation from Cornell, Brett pivoted to the real estate and corporate development side of the business, working for Tungsten Partners (a since-divested equity owner of Ace Hotels) and Firmdale Hotels PLC (of New York’s The Crosby Street Hotel and The Whitby Hotel, in addition to a portfolio of London hotels).

Brett Hochberg

Brett went on to pursue a law degree at Washington University’s School of Law in St. Louis, whereupon graduation, he joined the Real Estate practice of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, and, later, the Hospitality and Leisure practice of Paul Hastings LLP. After five years as a corporate attorney, most recently servicing private equity and hotel ownership clients in the hospitality space, Brett has recently joined Hyatt’s legal department as an in-house counsel, where his role traverses operational support, commercial services, and transactions.

How did you come to the hospitality industry, and how do you end up pursuing corporate law?

Like many things in my life, I owe my love of hospitality to my mother, whose company procures linen and amenity products for luxury hotels throughout the Northeast. When I was in elementary and middle school, I would accompany her on her work appointments, which meant sitting in the lobbies of some of New York’s legendary hotels like the Plaza, the Carlyle, and the Ritz Carlton Central Park – it’s not hard for an 8-year-old to be completely enthralled by the beauty and buzz of these hotels, as well as the exposure they offered me to the curiosities, cultures, and languages housed within their lobbies, hallways, and rooms. From then on, I knew I wanted to be a part of this industry that seemed to bring the entire world under its roof.

As for how a hotel student later became a law student… During my time with Tungsten Partners and Firmdale Hotels, I was working alongside real estate attorneys who were assisting with the expansion and continued operations of each company, and these experiences allowed me to appreciate just how much of our industry is governed by management, franchise, joint venture, and real estate purchase agreements, all of which require legal expertise. Time is literally money when you are working with lawyers, and I was recognizing how much time it would take to often get our lawyers caught up to speed. I asked my mentors and colleagues in the industry whether they saw value in me combining my background in hospitality with a legal skillset, all of whom supported the endeavor and encouraged me to go for it. Within one year of graduating Hotel School, I found myself pursuing a law degree with the sole intention of circling back to hospitality one day.

Who do you admire the most in the hospitality industry?

I’d be remiss not to first say my mother, who, as I mentioned, procures linen and amenity products for luxury hotels. My mother has always worked extremely hard (along with my father, who, as a pediatric dentist, is not in the hotel space). My parents embody tremendous work ethic and have demonstrated the joy of fulfilling careers. My parents – with vastly differing careers – both showed me how hospitality can be at play in almost any business or endeavor; that hospitality is merely an extension of life and relationships, and that so much good can come from being hospitable to your friends, peers, clients, in my dad’s particular case, patients. My parents taught me the importance of empathy for others. And knowing that the hospitality industry revolves around empathy, I can credit my first industry lesson most certainly to my parents.

Another role model of mine in the industry is Arne Sorenson of Marriott. While I was not lucky enough to have ever met Mr. Sorenson, I’ve watched and read countless interviews with him, learned from those who had worked with and under him, and have been able to marvel at the work he was doing in real time (Marriott bought Starwood Hotels while I was in law school – a decision and monumental effort that I would learn was driven by Mr. Sorenson). Not only was Mr. Sorenson a lawyer before his foray into hospitality (he gets bonus points for that!), but he demonstrated the managerial, emotional, and intellectual qualities that any great leader of any business or community should have, all of which revolved around his empathy and respect for people, who of course are at the heart of our industry. We can dress decisions up with numbers, analysis, and economics, but all of the foregoing is best understood in the context of empathy for others, a practice that I believe is a defining trait of Mr. Sorenson’s legacy.

What do you think are the biggest challenges in the hospitality industry in the years to come?

Of timely importance is the need for the industry to regain the trust of their employees and associates after the resulting layoffs and downsizing of hotel companies implemented because of the pandemic. Like many other industries, the hospitality sector is facing labor shortages, and it will be incumbent on the industry to show these employees the good faith, trust, and engagement they deserve. While some hotels and other hospitality venues may be better suited for lighter-staffed facilities, I am a bit of a purist in the sense that the most impactful guest experiences are nearly always the result of hospitality professionals executing their jobs; no computer or automated or streamlined process will replace the human touch in an industry that is defined by empathy. We need these professionals, and we need them to operate at their best. For them to do so, I think hotel companies and owners alike will be encouraged to re-evaluate the human capital initiatives within their organizations.

On a more macro level, I believe the biggest challenge for the hospitality industry is to keep up with and to adapt to consumer/guest preferences and practices. The hospitality industry has been an infamously slow industry to adapt to change. This is largely because it is human nature to seek out new experiences and to be well looked after when doing so. With such a basic premise at the core of consumer demand, it would seem that hotels need not do too much else; however, that is far from reality.

In an ever-changing world, especially as demonstrated over the past two decades (let alone three years), how people seek out new experiences and prefer to be looked after has changed drastically. It is incumbent on the industry to be innovators and not be complacent, otherwise the hotels and the brands we all know and rely on will become obsolete to new, emerging travel companies that are more attuned to the attitudes and preferences of the modern-day traveler and can consequently offer bespoke experiences to the locale and guest. While I don’t have the answer here, I believe hotel companies will secure their legacies not just by sheer size and momentum (i.e., through rewards programs that are the current defining feature of the big hotel companies) but also by proving to be sensitive to a changing travel landscape and offering unique – and not ubiquitous – travel experiences.

What is the most important message you want to share with those individuals either starting their careers or looking to advance in hospitality?

While studying at Cornell, our Dean would remind us that we were all studying “the business of hospitality” and not the “hospitality business.” While this may seem like mere semantics, what I understood this to mean was that our industry is built on a multitude of professions and expertise: While the “hospitality business” appears as one singular entity, the “business of hospitality” underscores that there is a complex, multi-faceted business behind the singular industry of hospitality, and the lessons learned in this “business” can be applicable across many industries, not just hospitality.

With this, I think our industry affords tremendous opportunities and a diverse array of career paths. Hospitality does not allude solely to roles in hotel operations (though of integral and preeminent importance in our industry) – it also means lawyers, electricians, plumbers, bankers, designers… Practicing within each of these professions in a way that applies their respective skillset to hospitality will make each of these professionals a better practitioner in their field while also exposing them to any one of this related and parallel expertise.

I would also mention that the driving force for me to enter the hotel industry at an early age – the wish to be exposed to the world and its diverse people and cultures – has absolutely come true. While this of course, can manifest by joining a company that allows for relocation and/or travel, it can also manifest more immediately once you recognize so many of our hotels stateside are powered by a community of very diverse folks (on property or at the corporate level). To be working alongside people with vastly diverse backgrounds towards one common purpose allows for the chance to learn a tremendous amount from your peers, and that has been very rewarding to experience and witness.

If there is one thing that most hospitality professionals should know from a legal standpoint, what would it be?

First and foremost, industry professionals should know that a good lawyer is your partner in your endeavors – whether you are a general manager seeking advice on how to deal with an unruly guest or group or a private equity firm looking to negotiate a management agreement with a hotel operator – lawyers are there to further your interests while also protecting you from exposure to risk and liability. Seek us out as a proactive measure – a good lawyer will not get in your way, they will allow you to achieve your goals in a manner that will pay off in ways you may not even be thinking about. And know that if we do somehow “get in the way,” a good lawyer will explain just why that is the case, allowing you to broaden your own perspective for the next time around.

Second, I recommend that all hospitality professionals learn the macro construct of the industry today (and understand that this construct is often evidenced by commercial contracts). It is essential for hospitality professionals to understand that their efforts have impacts beyond their immediate touchpoints; how owners, operators, brands, and colleagues’ interests differ – and overlap – when it comes to the business of operating a hotel. I’ve been lucky enough in my young career to have experienced the investment side (i.e., ownership perspective), operational side (i.e., colleague perspective), and brand and management perspective (which is both ownership and colleagues). I would encourage any industry professional to at least have an understanding of why they are in place. In doing so, I hope you can gain an appreciation for the “bigger picture” in play while never losing sight of the “immediate picture” in day to day activities.

To connect with Brett and other east coast chapter board members, visit theilha.com or sign up to attend ILHA’s annual conference at the Arizona Biltmore, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, December 14-15, 2022 here

To connect with Brett and other east coast chapter board members, visit theilha.com or sign up to attend ILHA’s annual conference at the Arizona Biltmore, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, December 14-15, 2022 here