Moving on Up with Stephany Chen, EVP, Global Hotel Desk, JLL
At just eleven years old, Stephany Chen's family moved from Washington, DC to Shanghai sparking her curiosity about the world and igniting her passion for the travel industry. A scholarship to the School of Hospitality Business at Michigan State University set her on the path to a career in the real estate end of the hotel industry, as the concentration was developing while she was a student. It was then she met executives from JLL, taking a one-credit course. Despite graduating from MSU during the 2009 recession, she landed a gig with Burba Hotel Network which puts on the annual ALIS (Americas Lodging Investment Summit) conference, allowing Stephany to meet the big hotel real estate players.
Honing her networking skills, Stephany parlayed the JLL contacts she cultivated during her Michigan State coursework into a role with JLL Hotels & Hospitality Group once business picked up in 2011 and she has been with the company ever since! In that time she seized every opportunity, starting with the company in Chicago, she moved to Shanghai to help establish a greater reach for JLL's hotel investment sales platform in Greater China, followed by a transfer to the New York office.
Stephany has been involved in nearly $2.9 billion of transactions since 2011, including the recent sale of 525 Lexington Ave., a 35-story, 655-key, full-service hotel in New York City’s Midtown East neighborhood, and last year's sale of the Mandarin Oriental in Washington, DC to Salamander Hotels & Resorts.
We chat with Stephany to hear herstory, learn how JLL nurtured her career and leadership skills, what she loves about working in real estate, and what is next for the hotel market!
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Gaithersburg, MD (outside of Washington, D.C.). When I was about 11, my dad’s job was shipped overseas, and we moved as a family to Shanghai (ultimately living there until I graduated high school 6.5 years later). Always a tough question to answer given the moving back-and-forth, so it’s always a bit of a story to try and explain!
What was your first job?
My first ‘full-time’ job was at BHN (Burba Hotel Network), where I worked with an amazing team to develop some of the most influential hotel investment conferences globally (ALIS, HICAP, etc.). Prior to that, I interned every summer during college (San Destin Resort, St. Regis Shanghai, and Colliers Shanghai).
What drew you to hospitality?
With my background and traveling abroad, I was always interested in customer service, the hotel industry, and being exposed to different people/cultures. Wanted to try and combine everything into one!
How did you end up at Michigan State on a full scholarship (congrats, BTW)?
I knew I wanted to focus on hospitality. Cornell was one of the considerations, but I was intrigued by the opportunities Michigan State University offered––one of the largest study abroad programs, an amazing campus, etc. The real estate program at the School of Hospitality Business was also in the midst of development when I was an undergrad, which was an amazing experience for me to leverage as one of the first classes to be able to go through the program. The full scholarship definitely didn’t hurt my ultimate decision!
How did you land the job at Burba and was that with the intent to get into the real estate end of the business?
I graduated in one of the tougher times (’09); there were absolutely no jobs being offered within the industry. I even had an offer rescinded from a global hotel brand given the times we were in! As such, I wanted to try and stay as close to the industry as possible. As part of the real estate program at MSU, I was offered the opportunity to be a student volunteer during my senior year for the ALIS conference. The networking ultimately paid off!
Did you see your time at Burba and organizing the ALIS conference as a way to network with key execs in hotel real estate?
Absolutely. It was probably one of the best first jobs; I was able to network with so many groups across the hotel real estate industry, while also getting ‘real world’ work experience. It was the perfect balance and given the industry was beginning to ramp up, I was able to be a part of the discussion when helping to plan the ALIS program.
How did you get your foot in the door at JLL?
I was among one of the first classes to go through the real estate minor. As part of the program, JLL started a one-credit course at MSU (thanks to alum––Adam McGaughy). I was the first class to go through the program, and given how much I enjoyed the class, I made sure to keep a relationship with the team. Once the industry started to pick up, Adam and the team reached out to see if there would be interest to move to Chicago and be part of the transactions team. Have been with JLL ever since!
How have you been able to consistently rise at JLL from Analyst to Executive Vice President?
I love what I do! I’ve tried to raise my hand at every opportunity and am constantly open to learning more and experiencing new things. I was in our Chicago office for five and a half years, moved to Shanghai to work with our China / APAC team for a little less than two years, and have been in New York City for over five years now. I’ve had amazing support from senior leadership and really tried to expose myself to our greater global platform.
I’ve tried to raise my hand at every opportunity and am constantly open to learning more.
What are your areas of expertise and how did you develop them?
Communicating with clients and understanding their needs, requirements, and targets. We are a client-facing industry and much of what we do is on behalf of our clients. Being able to be patient and understand how JLL can assist (especially those that are new to the industry) is integral, particularly given my involvement with our Global Hotel Desk.
Have you faced challenges or setbacks? If so, how did you handle them?
Absolutely––I feel like you have to in order for you to progress in any career. Working abroad in Shanghai was challenging; the language, the customs of doing business, etc. Being open to change and adapting to the environment has helped me a lot, both professionally and personally. Given the various markets and countries I’ve worked in, I’ve had to be vulnerable and understand it’ll take time for me to become an ‘expert’ in the specific market, but also be confident enough in myself to be able to advise clients given the breadth of experience I’ve had in the industry.
What suggestions would you have for women looking to get into the real estate side of the hotel business?
Highly recommend! We are seeing more and more women leaders being represented in our industry (aka our fearless leader, Gilda Perez-Alvarado!). It’s a very niche industry and I feel like we all tend to look out for each other given our ‘hospitable’ nature. The real estate side of the business can be challenging, but being able to understand how capital is flowing from transaction to transaction (and being involved with it) is very exciting.
Switching gears to industry trends, you contributed to our article on the NYU Conference in 2022, how do you see the recent bank failures and the takeover of Credit Suisse impacting hotel real estate transactions?
It’s an interesting time right now for hotel real estate. Lodging fundamentals are at an all-time high for several markets across the nation, with several hotels even performing at peak levels. Unfortunately, hotel transactions are being impacted given the disconnect currently experienced between fundamentals and the turbulence with the greater capital markets. The expensive cost of debt has hindered investors’ ability to push pricing and caused for a more challenging hotel transactions market.
Any other predictions you want to make for 2023?
I think everyone is waiting to see how the markets will turn. There will be a capitulation as groups will need to deploy capital and can’t sit on the sidelines forever. We anticipate some levels of distress with upcoming loan maturities but don’t expect it to be the bulk of hotel sales.
Quickfire with Stephany!
What is your morning routine?
Not very exciting. I'm not a real morning person so feel like I’m always scrambling to get ready!
What do you do for self-care?
Love to try and find time to go for a nice swim at the gym. Spa days too (haven’t been able to enjoy them as much but would love to).
How many days do you travel a year?
Really depends – our business is very client-based and assignment-based. Depending on what deals we’re working on, this will dictate most of my travel.
What is your go-to room service order?
Breakfast. Love a good morning spread with a cup of coffee to start my day.
Any books/TV/podcasts you are into right now?
Beef. Succession. White Lotus. The Last of Us. Always looking for new shows!