The World According to Gilda: JLL’s Perez-Alvarado Brings a Global Perspective
Not too long ago, Gilda Perez-Alvarado’s doorman asked her if she was a pilot.
It actually wasn’t a bad guess. She was away for days at a time. She would be hauling luggage along with her every time she came in and out of her Upper East Side building. And, yes, you could honestly say that she is part of the travel and hospitality business.
But, no. Not a pilot.
For the past 10 months, Perez-Alvarado, 38, has been the CEO of JLL (JLL)’s Americas Hotels and Hospitality Group—a team (Perez-Alvarado describes them as a “family”) of 138.
“I think we’re all Type-A individuals, but we really enjoy what we do,” she said.
No doubt. The team has enjoyed it to the tune of $29.2 billion in closed transactions in the Americas in the past five years. (She’s been at JLL for a total of 16 years, working in Madrid, London and the U.S.) But one shouldn’t think that because Perez-Alvarado is busy hopping on jets all over the globe that she doesn’t have her finger firmly on the pulse of New York’s hotel market.
Commercial Observer met with Perez-Alvarado at JLL’s offices at 330 Madison Avenue; three blocks away, her team closed the $302 million sale of the Westin Grand Central to Davidson Kempner Capital Management earlier this year.
“There’s a lot of excitement around what’s happening in the Midtown rezoning district,” she said. “Everyone was kind of throwing in the towel because we have Hudson Yards and Downtown and what’s happening in Chelsea. But the space that is being delivered is great and the central nervous system of the city is really here; from the demographics to the quality of tenants to the infrastructure. We’re working with owners on a few hotels that need to be repositioned and on a project that includes two vacant lots and a boutique hotel.”
If ever a person was destined for a career in the hospitality industry, it may well be Perez-Alvarado.
Born in Costa Rica, she was still a child when her family moved first to Europe, then to North Africa, before moving back to Costa Rica and then landing in the U.S.
Her grandmother owned a hotel in Costa Rica and her mother managed another— something the young Perez-Alvarado took to quite well. “You essentially live in a huge house where everyone is always home, and you get to play in the laundry facility, at the restaurants and with the staff.”
When she arrived at Cornell, it didn’t initially occur to Perez-Alvarado to go to the university’s hospitality school. Rather, a self-confessed nerd, she enjoyed science and math and solving puzzles, and assumed a more STEM-based future. (She was a biochemistry major, at first.) But in January of her freshman year of college, she had a realization one cold morning in Ithaca: She could combine hotels and real estate, satisfying her math inclination and following in her family’s footsteps. The rest is history.
Her first job outside of college was with PWC in Miami—where she also met her husband, Felipe Del Hoyo-Solorzano—working on visibility projects in the Caribbean and Latin America, but after a while she wanted to do more transactions-oriented work, “something a bit more exciting, and more finance-focused,” she said. Her mentor and real estate finance professor at Cornell sent her resume to JLL, and a month later she was working there.
She moved to the firm’s New York office after a year in Miami. A market boom was occurring, and she got her first taste of offshore investment in the U.S. “I got to work with Middle Eastern investors and I loved it,” she said. “I said to myself, ‘This is exactly what I want to do: cross-border. This is it.’ ”
Facilitating the sales of U.S. assets to offshore investors is something Perez-Alvarado does best. Those deals include the $175 million sale of the 260-key St. Regis San Francisco to Qatar Investment Authority and the £55m sale of Scotland’s Turnberry Resort to Istithmar Leisure in 2008.
“That’s really a castle, it’s so gorgeous,” Perez-Alvarado said. “It’s beautiful when you’re not only selling bricks and mortar and the business but it’s also an irreplaceable space.” (Plus, she enjoyed the Scottish hospitality: “I learned to drink whisky there.”)
And in 2013, she and her team were hired to sell the InterContinental New York Barclay hotel on behalf of Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG)—an iconic hotel that was in a repositioning phase. The asset sold to an affiliate of Qatari investor Constellation Hotels for $240 million.
“It was a team effort of course, but Gilda was instrumental in getting this deal done, which featured a more unique structure,” Bob Chitty, a senior vice president at IHG, said of the trade. “This was not a simple transaction, as IHG had set deal parameters that were going to require a specific buyer type, but Gilda was able to navigate both seller and buyer demands to bring a very capable and trusted buyer—and now partner—to the table.”
Perez-Alvarado effectively engaged all parties in the deal to build consensus, Chitty said. “Her strong global relationships and thinking three steps ahead were true differentiators in this deal. It played a major role in creating the existing partnership between IHG and Constellation Hotels.”
Fast-forward to 2018 and she’d be working once again with Middle Eastern investors, but this time on the sale of one of New York City’s most iconic buildings. Perez-Alvarado’s group had been asset managing The Plaza Hotel for quite some time prior to its sale. The Plaza’s prior owner was looking for some form of liquidity. Happily, it was around the same time a group of foreign investors—including Shahal Khan’s Chimera Group and the Hakim Organization—were looking to buy. But despite the Plaza’s treasured trophy status, “I wouldn’t call it a vanity purchase,” Perez-Alvarado said. “There’s many great attributes to the transaction in terms of upside, but it’s definitely a repositioning opportunity. It’s iconic, it’s the Plaza, and with additional capital and the right vision, this has the potential to go from being a great piece of real estate to an even greater piece of real estate.
“The previous owners perhaps weren’t intending to hold it for such a long term, and for the current owner, this asset is [their] baby. There’s a lot of thought going into developing the vision for this asset, and that real estate corner south of the park needs love and a new vision.”
Perez-Alvarado has spent a long time building to her current level. Jeffrey Davis, a co-head of JLL’s Americas Hotel Capital Markets group, said he saw Perez-Alvarado’s global mindset form early in her JLL career when she moved to London via an exchange program and then onto Madrid in a debt advisory role. “Her early role was more focused on information-gathering, but she had transitioned into a transaction-maker when she returned from Europe,” Davis said.
Perez-Alvarado arrived in Madrid at a precarious moment; the day that Lehman Brothers failed: Sept. 15, 2008.
“My boss and the leadership at JLL were quite entrepreneurial,” Perez-Alvarado said. “So, instead of saying, ‘What are we going to do about our business?’ they said, ‘Fine. I doubt we’ll do a lot of debt business, but banks have done quite a bit of lending in Spain, so why don’t we create a receivership type of advisory [service] and we can help the banks asset manage when they’re getting keys handed back on hotels?’ ”
As the crisis deepened further and business slowed, Perez-Alvarado decided to get her MBA “to keep my mind busy and learn.” Shortly after finishing it, Davis called her and convinced her to come back to New York to help with the New York office’s heavy workload.
“By that time, I was dealing with someone with a global perspective, less myopic on what happens in just our local markets and more conscious of how the world is interconnected from a capital perspective,” he said. “She has a fascination for learning, for traveling and for how the world interconnects from a hotel and hospitality real estate perspective. That experience really set her on a much different trajectory relative to expanding her career with a more global mindset.”
And that mindset has put her in very good stead with her clients today.
“Gilda’s global expertise allows her to take what’s happening around the world and think about ideas that can be executed here in America,” Mit Shah, the founder and CEO of Noble Investment Group—a lodging and hospitality real estate sector investor—said. That means thinking about “what should we be thinking about, when do we pause, and when do we hit the accelerator?”
The two met as the world was steadying itself after the global financial crisis and hospitality and investors were trying to plan their next steps.
“Ten years ago, data analytics were not really used in lodging to the extent they were used in other asset classes,” Shah said. “It was the toughest time that most anyone had experienced, and we were all trying to figure out how to take lagging indicators and figure out future performance. Gilda was the voice in the room that discussed how capital formations and strategies across other sectors were driving demand in other areas around the world.”
Shah continued: “Gilda was finding compelling reasons why capital formation and demand were going to work in a way to provide recoveries in certain markets across America. Everyone in that room listened. Everybody just stopped talking. And you could see them thinking, ‘this leader is really smart, this makes a lot of sense and we need to hear more.’ ”
Both Perez-Alvarado and Shah are members of the Industry Real Estate Financing Advisory Council (IREFAC)—a prominent group of industry leaders including CEOs of hotel brands, REITs and private equity firms.
At Gilda’s very first IREFAC meeting, she was asked for her opinion on one aspect of the market. “She had this incredible perspective on things that people hadn’t thought about and for the next 10 minutes people were just asking her questions,” Shah said with a laugh. “It’s a roundtable, so usually you go around the room, but she had to entertain Q&A from four or five other people! She doesn’t have to be the loudest voice in the room to be heard; when she gives you a perspective you say, ‘Wow, I just heard something that’s going to be valuable for me and my company.’ ”
It’s a sentiment echoed by colleague Kevin Davis, a managing director at JLL. “I’m most impressed with her ability to sit in a room with people from around the globe representing the business and with her ability to engage with the team and present a solution,” he said. “She commands a room and builds consensus with a team when presented with a problem, and it’s very natural. She’s a natural born leader and works collectively towards solutions.”
“The thing that inspires me about Gilda—and she may not even realize this—is that she has the ability to change the paradigm of the future women leaders in our industry,” Shah said. “When they get to see what she’s been able to accomplish at her age, how she truly adds value and is respected across such a wide canvas, there is going to be a generation of incredible women leaders that are going to find their way into our industry. They will look at her and say, ‘You paved the way. You’re the one that made me realize this career is possible in this industry.’ ”
Her raw talent and ability is easily seen in the deals that she’s executed. Last year, Perez-Alvarado facilitated the sale of an 18-hotel portfolio to a non-traded public REIT on behalf of Noble Investment Group. She had approached the Noble team with a sense that the time was right for a portfolio sale rather than trading individual assets.
“She said, ‘Over the next six to 12 months, as opposed to selling hotels one, two at a time, allow us to go to a couple of people—traditional buyers and also some people who have not yet made big investments in the industry but are looking to invest in the lodging space,’ ” Shah remembers. “We trusted her, and she essentially worked the angles across the board and got a deal done on a 18-hotel portfolio. She really navigated the process internally for us and solved for an execution that was very valuable; that’s not normal. Normally you come up with a strategy on your own, think about who you want to advise you on the strategy and on an 18-hotel portfolio you’d give five [assets] to JLL, five to CBRE, et cetera.”
Perez-Alvarado knew that a non-traded REIT was being formed; she knew they would need assets and she knew they would need a market-clearing price for them to respond to rather than make the market themselves—and she knew that Noble had assets that matched what the REIT was looking for.
“The crazy thing is that we know this other group!” Shah exclaimed. “We have deep relationships with them. She just makes it super transparent and she really serves as an advisor to the firm. I don’t know how this would have happened without her involvement.”
Today, Perez-Alvarado is closely focused on capital inflows, and the changing preferences of investors in U.S. hospitality real estate. As opposed to five years ago when Chinese capital was hunting trophy assets—such as the Waldorf Astoria and Baccarat Hotel—the retraction of China saw the emergence of the local investor, who is looking at everything from a price-per-square-foot perspective, she said.
“We have investors who aren’t traditional hotel investors but are very intrigued about what’s happening from an Airbnb perspective or a tech, co-living, coworking perspective,” Perez-Alvarado said. “All this underutilized meeting space or space that doesn’t work well for a restaurant could be an amazing coworking space. So, they say, ‘maybe we need a hotel, but we need it to be smaller and more practical, so let’s focus on reducing the key count and make it more functional.’ The fact that we have new types of investors looking at hotels through different lenses forces us to look at the entire building from a price-per-square-foot perspective: What’s happening in the neighborhood? And what can this be? Now it’s a living building and we have to figure out what its best use is.”
We’re in a very mature phase of the cycle, and for those investors who are chasing yield, “there are some incredible value propositions and some really good investment alternatives in the U.S.,” Perez-Alvarado said. “We’ve seen foreign entrants into large select service portfolios, not necessarily a major gateway market but a solid secondary or tertiary market.”
Those investors are making not only a sector play but also a country play, she said. “They’re saying, ‘All chips on the U.S. table; we think this is a business that’s going to be booming, the returns are great, the financing environment is very good and my cash-on-cash returns are good.’ ”
The debt markets are indeed especially interesting because “now you have the biggest pool of lenders you’ve ever had,” she said. “Everything we sold last year, even if it was very low-yield to no-yield got financed; it was viewed from a basis perspective. I’d say the debt markets continue to fuel investment activity, so we’re very bullish on it.”
In terms of new opportunities, Perez-Alvarado points to U.S. resorts.
“There’s very little pipeline, almost no new supply,” she said. “Demographic trends point towards very strong sustained growth in demand for resort product, so there’s quite a bit of demand and appetite for that. Because there’s quite a bit of capital chasing hotels and maybe there aren’t as many opportunities as the market would wish, investors are now being very creative and looking at publicly traded opportunities and trying to unlock off-market opportunities that are very sizeable.”
And Perez-Alvorado is also keeping a close eye on overseas trends as she travels; hostel brand Generator has caught her eye in Europe. “It’s more of a hostel 2.0. Its core principle is for someone who wants to go explore a city without spending an arm and a leg but you’re also providing experiences,” she said. “It’s an interesting space, we don’t have much of it in the U.S., but brands like ACE and Freehand are redefining that. There’s a lot of innovation happening and it’s a little bit by force. If you want to stay relevant you have to continue innovating and thinking about the next big stuff. It’s exciting!”