Alumni Interviews: Sean Hennessey '83
Phoebe Chan '17 was fortunate enough to be able to speak to Hotel School Alumni Sean Hennessey ‘83 CEO of Lodging Advisors LLC, and a lecturer at the NYU hospitality program, early last week about his experience at Cornell and advice he has for students.
Can you tell me more about your career path?
While I was at the hotel school, I worked at the Statler Hotel in operations and became more interested in the hotel side of things. One of the classes I took at Cornell had us read an article written by the founder of HVS (Stephen Rushmore ’67). I wrote the founder a letter and let him know how fascinated I was by his company and how much I’d love to work for him. The founder wrote me back saying they didn’t have any positions open yet as they were a new company at the time, but that if I found a job close to New York, he’d let me know when they had something available. I took a culinary position upon graduation, and one day, the phone rang, and the same founder told me he was ready for me to start!
After HVS, I worked at an accounting firm and real-estate appraisal company. Then, I worked as a hotel broker. After that, I worked in the hotel group of PricewaterhouseCoopers before forming my own firm. In the last few years, I’ve been teaching more and consulting less.
What was it like to form your own company?
My plan to start my own company was a lifestyle decision. After working for larger companies with a lot of corporate pressures and office meetings, I knew I wanted to keep my company small. There are inefficiencies that come along with setting up your own shop, but there is the ultimate freedom of being free from all the managerial and administrative issues. In the consulting world, most clients are really eager to have the insights and information that I have that is not downloadable.
What are you working on now?
This past summer, I worked on a project for an investor in Waikiki, Hawaii who was trying to optimize their hotel redevelopment opportunities. Recently, I also worked with a few large NYC developers on hotel projects, either standalone or part of mixed use projects.
What do you think the current development cycle is like in hospitality?
It certainly depends on whether you’re referring to the US or the New York market. In the US, the development cycle is ratcheting upward. After the 2008 financial crisis and recession, there was very little new capital flowing into the hotel industry. New York City recovered first, and it went into development upcycle. Now it’s on the downside since the market has already seen a run-up in new supply, which has caused new developers to hit the pause button. Nationally, many parts of the country have only just started recovering, so their development cycles are revving up.
It must have been pretty cool to be in New York when the Waldorf Astoria deal was happening!
Yeah! We’ve seen a number of old historic hotels like the Plaza and Waldorf that have been converted from hotel to residential in whole or in part. I don’t think we’ll see many more conversions like that since most hotels lack that kind of character, size, and light and views that most expensive condo buyers are looking for.
What were the highlights of your Cornell experience?
I’ve been to Cornell many times since graduating. I taught in the executive education program in the summer for a few years and served as a guest lecturer in a few classes. At PwC, we recruited students every year from Cornell! But since I’ve started my own company, I haven’t been back as much. Certainly, from when I graduated, the whole Statler Hotel School was completely redone. I still have trouble finding my way around the halls! The Hotel School was a great place to make relationships, both professionally and socially.
What is something you wish you’d known coming out of Cornell?
You should absolutely maintain the friendships and relationships with your peers over the years. A lot of the technical information you get from textbooks as a student will probably be obsolete within five years, but the relationships you form will last the rest of your career.
If you could go back and pursue a completely different career path, what would you be doing instead?
Other than operations, a lot of people who started in consulting like myself transition to either the hotel companies or investment firms dealing with hotel companies. I never went that route, so that would be a logical career progression had I not stayed where I was. The more likely answer, however, is that I would do something more entrepreneurial early on. The day I started my own company, although it was frightening, it was the best decision I’ve ever made in my career.
What advice do you have for students who are starting out in their careers?
When I think about levels of success or problems I’ve had with employees, I remember the importance of communication skills, primarily writing but also speaking. In consulting in particular, clients are paying a lot of money for you to spend some time to give them advice. A typical job could be anywhere from ten to a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. You need to be sensitive to the fact that (1) clients are dealing with a situation they haven’t dealt with before and that (2) they need advice and counsel as much as they need data. There’s an element there where you need to be professional in how you present your analysis and conclusions. If there’s any distinguishing characteristic that has led to the success of my firm, it’s that I am able to give clients good advice and provide them with information that allows them to assess risks and benefits prior to pursuing a particular path. There are other basic aspects of qualifications to enter the field like Excel skills, but in my opinion, if you have reasoning and communications skills, it will put you on an expedited path towards doing well in any career.