9 October 2017
It is budget season again — that time when operators and owners sit down to agree on the financial blueprint for the next year. My partner Bob Braun has worked on many hundreds of hotel management agreements and issues arising under them. Today, he shares some insights about the how to maximize the budget opportunity for constructive dialog between owners and operators.
It’s Budget Season
What are you doing about it?
Robert E. Braun, Hotel Lawyer
Importance of budgets
It’s hard to overstate the importance of a budget in the relationship between a hotel manager and owner. The budget is the way that a manager describes, in black and white, how it plans to operate the owner’s property; it is the document that translates operating standards into action, and how the owner can expect to profit from the manager’s efforts. It is also an important opportunity to be sure that the operator is giving due consideration to the owner’s financial expectations and/or exit strategies.
Many of the larger independent management companies present a budget with little opportunity for dialog. In significant part, they diminish the direct impact of asset and property management teams. This means people sitting in an office 3,000 miles away make key budget decisions for properties that they have not seen or on markets they have not visited, based on STR reports and raw data. Generally, one would think that the property-level asset management team would be the best to guide the budget process because of their hands-on knowledge – not the corporate budgeting team.
Budget challenges owners face
Unless owners have a wealth of operating experience or hire experienced asset managers, they will likely be at a severe disadvantage when they review budgets. Consider typical challenges of the budget timing and process:
- Managers typically deliver budgets to owners in early- to mid-November, which leaves only 45 to 60 days before the beginning of the new fiscal year. While an owner may be able to analyze and comment on the budget and propose changes, the process itself is lengthy and makes it difficult to complete in a timely manner. Operators have scheduling conflicts during that busy period, and typically take two to three weeks, or more, to prepare a response for the owner’s review. Managers work on budgets almost year-round, and larger management companies have staffs that are dedicated solely to creating budgets. They have developed expertise in creating a budget that owners can only match by expending the necessary time and expertise, which takes a commitment that many owners don’t understand; after all, didn’t they already engage a manager for its expertise?
- No matter the level of owner approval rights – which range from what might be complete control to very limited influence – managers run the budget process and establish the assumptions underlying the budget, making it difficult to make changes. Leveling the playing field requires owners to engage asset managers to conduct a “shadow” budgeting process.
- The budget for any single year will impact budgets for years to come. While budgets are generally “zero-based,” a budget for any given year is more realistically derived from the budget for the prior year, and budgets ultimately contain a variety of “legacy” items. While the old budget should, reasonably, provide a setting for the new budget, a variety of factors should (but often don’t) get adequate consideration, including new labor agreements or laws, renovations and their implications, new supply, addition of new product internally (such as restaurants or bars), and outside influences, such as changes in the convention market and other drivers for the hotel market.
- Operators rarely provide great detail on the most significant cost to owners – labor expenses – and therefore do not give owners the opportunity to identify potential savings. Similarly, operators often give greater weight to occupancy than rate, which may actually reduce the profitability of a hotel.