Photo courtesy of Gary Landsman
Creativity has always been central to John Bortz’s job running a hotel real estate investment firm. With his latest act, he also mastered the art of timing.
Most top executives on the verge of retirement eye long days on the golf course or leisurely afternoons under sail. Not Jon Bortz. He decided it was the perfect time to launch a new investment company from inception to IPO in less than three months. The Chairman and CEO of Pebblebrook Hotel Trust, a real estate investment trust (REIT) that owns 30 hotels across the country including three managed by Noble House, founded the company in September 2009.
Less than 90 days later, he was ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange – never mind the fact that the country and hotel industry were still raw from the financial crisis that had put a stranglehold on the US economy less than a year before.
Here, we spoke with him about the business, his love of luxury, independent hotels, and designing unique experiences for guests.
On Not Retiring
We announced my retirement – and I put that in quotes – as CEO of from LaSalle Hotel Properties in the spring of 2008, and we had a two-year succession plan with the new CEO. By the spring of 2009, it was clear he was ready to take over. While I always thought my “semi-retirement” would be starting another business, probably in some aspect of real estate, I didn’t see it being in hotels again. But then I just kept seeing signs that this economic downturn was going to create once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to take advantage of what had happened.
On Starting a REIT in the Middle of an Economic Downturn
I talked to a lot of institutional investors and private real estate investors. They kept reinforcing what I saw as a first-to-market opportunity, if you will. All hotel values were pretty depressed. I saw the opportunity to create something that wasn’t burdened by the assets and balance sheets that suffered so deeply in the downturn. They couldn’t raise enough capital quickly enough to take advantage of the deals that were out there. Pebblebrook’s debt was zero, it owned no assets, had no contracts to buy any assets, and no overhead. Time was of the essence.
On IPO’ing in 3 Months
I worked in my house, pretty much by myself. It was three nonstop months putting together legal documents, SEC filings, and a senior team, and frankly, minimizing my own personal investment exposure. It was hundreds of thousands in personal investment. I worked out agreements with many to work on deferred payments once the IPO happened, but the SEC doesn’t work on that sort of agreement (laughs).
On His Love of Luxury, Independent Hotels
Many view independents as the riskiest since every project is different, but we see it as the lowest risk – there’s less competition, and frankly, it’s more fun. There’s no big brand telling you what you can and can’t be.
It’s about getting an emotional reaction. You need to create something memorable. With Noble House hotels in particular – the company manages a handful of our properties, including San Francisco’s Argonaut Hotel and Hotel Zoe and Naples, Florida’s LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort – we look to create something not only unique but uniquely tied to that destination and its experiences and culture. The idea that you couldn’t pick up that hotel and put it just anywhere. But no matter what the project is, you have to be completely comfortable with the fact that not everyone will love what you create.
On His Hands-On Approach
I don’t design the project. I don’t select the materials and the fabrics. That’s done by very creative interior architects and designers. But I’m certainly involved. I work with them on the initial vision – what is the consumer looking for? How do we create something that’s unique? Then we come up with a set of ideas to describe it. I just use words: Is it formal? Casual? Elegant, playful, kitschy, luxurious? It’s up to the designer to interpret those words into the proposed concept.
A recent example is Hotel Zoe in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. Prior to 2017, it had been a Best Western for 20 years, and it was in an area full of hotels, mostly all branded. So we focused on making a unique design experience, with the inspiration being a luxury Italian yacht. We were looking to create an environment that’s sleeker, more luxurious than anything else in the marketplace. How do you know if you’ve nailed a concept? Purely feel. When I walk into a model room, I just want to feel what my reaction is. If it’s memorable, that’s 90 percent of the battle.
On The Prospect of Retirement
I’m one of those fortunate ones who has always really loved what I do. So it’s not really work. And at the same time, I love to compete. So no, I don’t think I can ever be someone who is a retired person who just plays golf. I’m so competitive, that would become more work than this.