As vice president of asset management at Chicago-based First Hospitality, Sam Schwartz works to drive investment value for the firm’s investor group as well as owners across the portfolio. He previously served as general manager of the Hampton Inn Chicago McCormick Place and oversaw multimillion dollar hotel renovations as development director.
Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up, where did you go to school?
I grew up in the north suburbs of Chicago, and after looking at schools across the country ended up choosing Northwestern University 10 miles from home. I was lucky to have parents who gave me plenty of space during those years! I’ve always loved to make things, so I studied engineering, and graduated with a BS in manufacturing and design engineering followed by a MS in engineering design and innovation.
When you were young, what did you aspire to be?
I settled on becoming a doctor at age six and held that goal through three years of a biomedical engineering degree right up until it was time to register for the MCAT. While an internship at a surgical practice along with some soul searching convinced me to change tracks away from medicine, I still gravitate towards the service and helping-others aspects of my career.
How did you get your start in the industry?
My father and grandfather were both active in hospitality real estate, but I had never seriously considered following them until an engineering summer internship fell through on short notice between my undergraduate and masters programs. With a week before the start of summer and no job lined up, I asked my dad if I could spend a couple months working around the family business, First Hospitality. To my surprise, I got hooked and have been in the industry since.
Did you have a mentor who helped you get on your feet, or is there someone you turn to now for support?
I’ve been lucky to have my father as a support figure throughout my career at First Hospitality, but it can be tough to have a parent as a mentor. While there have been many others who have helped me along the way and continue to do so, I owe a good portion of my growth as a professional and career success such as it is to David Rudis, a banking veteran and lead director on the First Hospitality board. Among his many strengths, David spent years as a lending partner to family businesses and has been a wonderful source of specific guidance on navigating a career in family business. Plus, he’s a good friend. I think finding a mentor who understands your unique career circumstances is key.
What does a day in the life of Sam Schwartz look like?
2020 has effectively scrambled the notion of “a typical day” in the hotel business, but there wasn’t much of a typical day for me to begin with. Working as a vice president of asset management in a midsize hospitality ownership and management company, I spend my days doing everything I can on behalf of our investors to drive peak performance at our hotels. Historically, that has meant everything from reviewing property marketing strategies, to overseeing renovations, to managing lender and investor relations. It’s a highly collaborative role—I rely on our experts in each aspect of the business to help formulate and execute our plans in their area, while I work to ensure we’re coordinated and that both the big picture and small details are addressed. With the industrywide distress brought on by COVID, my focus has shifted to making sure our hotels are safe for our associates and guests, and working through each asset’s financial challenges with our partners.
In addition to my formal role as vice president of asset management, I also spend time working to grow First Hospitality as a member of the family. We have a 35-year history, and it’s my goal for us to have a 35+ year future. Pre-COVID we were working on several strategic initiatives that will be transformative for our company, and while we’ve had to put those on the backburner as we grapple with this year’s challenges, our view of taking a long run approach to success remains central.
What do you like most about your job?
There’s a lot to like: the variety of tasks, the fast pace, the fun people that the hospitality industry attracts to name a few. Personally, I find I’m most excited about the endless opportunities my job presents to make progress through good design. My educational background taught me to think of design as the broad discipline of thoughtfully crafting products and processes around us to deliver better results and better serve their users. In the world of hospitality asset management, where I’m trying to optimize a complex web of the ongoing operating businesses at the property level as well as the underlying real estate investments, creating systems and processes that help First Hospitality better control outcomes is an exciting challenge.
Looking to the future, what do you hope to achieve/work on that you haven’t already?
I have a lot of plans for my time down the road, but these days I try to keep my focus on my work of taking First Hospitality to the next level. We’ve had decades of success with many happy partners, but we think our best years are yet to come. While we can point to a long track record of reliably delivering market-beating results, the reality of the hospitality industry is that there are a number of our peers who can credibly make the same claim. I’m prioritizing work on improving our platform so we can more tangibly stand out as a superior manager and investment partner.
Some areas I’m personally interested in pursuing further are the fields of robotics in hospitality, cross-industry partnerships with hospitality brands (e.g. retail + hospitality, personal services + hospitality), and “immersive hospitality”—I’m closely watching the work Disney is doing on their “Galactic Starcruiser” hotel at Walt Disney World, which I think might be the biggest innovation in our industry since Airbnb.
How do you spend your time away from the office?
I always appreciate quality time with my wife and our two dogs, though if I have a weekend to myself, I enjoy tinkering on small projects in my garage workshop. I’m currently serving as a design advisor to Stride Autism Centers, a local startup looking to bring high-quality autism therapy services to underserved areas across the Midwest. Pre-COVID I was mentoring a local high school robotics team, and I’m passionate about improving access to STEM education.
What is your favorite place that you have traveled to? Where do you hope to go next?
I once had a chance to do the trek to Everest base camp in Nepal, I found it to be a transcendent experience. After COVID I think I’d be excited to travel just about anywhere, but Greece is high on my list.
Who would you like to see answer these questions?
I think Zach Fertig has done some exciting work bringing tech-centered marketing to the field of institutional residential investment at Kairos Buying. I also think Rob Kolinsky at Scion Group has a lot to say on the latest best practices in student housing.