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Weekend Interview: Mandarin Oriental’s Christian Glauser Benz On Expansion Plans And The Rise Of Branded Residences

This series goes deep with some of the most compelling figures in commercial real estate: the deal-makers, the game-changers, the city-shapers and the larger-than-life personalities who keep CRE interesting.

Christian Glauser Benz has traveled to more than 120 countries in his career managing the strategic growth of some of the best-known luxury hotel brands. 

He joined Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group in January as the firm’s head of development for the Americas after stints at Hyatt Hotels Corp. and Dream Hotel Group. He saw the pandemic as a transformative moment for the industry and is now leading Mandarin Oriental’s push into untapped markets that his wealthy client base discovered during the age of remote work. 

Glauser Benz is also a key player in Mandarin Oriental’s full-court press into the condo market. The luxury hotel brand has looked to add a residential component to nearly all of the new developments it is exploring in untapped markets.

That philosophy is on full display in Miami's Brickell, where Glauser Benz is based and where Mandarin Oriental is gearing up to demolish its 24-year-old hotel and replace it with a condo-hotel slated to have an 800-foot-tall residential tower rising twice the height of its hotel component. 

The new tower will fill in the last remaining vacant site on Brickell Key, an exclusive island just off the mainland of Miami’s financial district. The plan was born from the pandemic, which Glauser Benz said raised Miami’s profile while also creating opportunities in once-sleepy regions in America’s Mountain West. 

Glauser Benz spoke with Bisnow about the rise of branded condo projects, where Mandarin Oriental is eyeing expansion and how the luxury hotel industry is insulated from the rising popularity of short-term rental condo developments. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Christian Glauser Benz scouts a potential hotel site for Mandarin Oriental at the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.

Bisnow: Since we're both in Miami, I wanted to start by asking you about the Mandarin Oriental Brickell Key. The property opened as a brand-new hotel in 2000. Why are you and your partner Swire Properties knocking it down and replacing it in 2024, less than 30 years after it opened?

Glauser Benz: Covid was basically a trigger for us. It made us realize that the value of the land we were sitting on was now much greater and that the waterfront property in Brickell and Downtown was basically all gone. We had one of the last parcels left. We ran our financial models and we realized that it was profitable to demolish the current asset, redesign a more dense project, build it, deliver it and still make a good profit. 

The demand for luxury condos post-Covid was a large trigger for that. The old Mandarin Oriental was conceived in the 1990s when Brickell was really a sleepy town, and it was really the first five-star hotel in the Downtown Brickell area. It was conceived in a different context, and it wasn’t as amenitized as you would do something today. It was really more of a corporate hotel. 

Then, especially in the last few years, we realized this product had been outdated because the neighborhood has upgraded and the expectations from the user have entirely changed. Everybody who's building a new hotel or mixed-use project in Brickell or Miami Beach has upped the game in terms of amenities and available services. 

Bisnow: So you want to expand the appeal of the hotel component of the property to go beyond the business person and into the traditional travel tourists? 

Glauser Benz: The new aim of the property — yes, it’s true we will upgrade our experience for the leisure traveler, we’re upgrading the experience for the corporate traveler — but we're introducing a third user, which is the resident. So now you have permanent residents living there full time who will enjoy the services from the hotel. 

By adding the third component, it also makes the project financially much more sustainable because there's a third income revenue source.

Bisnow: There’s been huge growth in branded residences, especially in Miami, and they often come with a hotel or hospitality company partnership. Why is there this new level of demand to bring brands into the condo world?

Glauser Benz: The Miami condo market has always been a destination for investors and second homeowners, but post-Covid, it’s become a destination for full-time residents. In the sea of condos that Miami already has, it's very difficult to really stand out if you don't have better amenities and if you don't have a storyline. In our case, the storyline is the Mandarin Oriental, the worldwide quality service that we're famous for. 

Miami now is a market that has demand for very highly amenitized, luxury products, especially from Northeasterns, New Yorkers, wealthy Latin Americans and Europeans. 

Our brand really fits that profile. Mandarin Oriental is a traditional brand, it speaks to some very established values of quality and service while at the same time it reflects old-time luxury. This is something that it's also hard to find in Miami with other projects. 

You have branding with car companies, branding with restaurant companies, and everything is being branded because everybody's trying to stand out with a story. There are people who love cars — they will probably end up buying a car-branded condo. For us, the storyline is the quality, consistency and service of a legacy company that has Asian roots.

Glauser Benz on Italy's Lake Como this month. His hotel development roles have taken him to more than 120 countries.

Bisnow: So it's fair to say that the rise in branded residences is driven by the need to differentiate yourself in the market?

Glauser Benz: That's correct, and what the brand component does to your project is command a higher premium on the sales of those condos. That relationship between a luxury brand immediately gives you a premium on your sales, and it can be 30%, 40%, even 100% over the regular market product.

Bisnow: Short-term rental development has also taken off, especially in Miami. Is there a fear at Mandarin Oriental that this rise in short-term rentals is going to cannibalize your hotel audience?

Glauser Benz: No, and this segues into what Airbnb did to the hotel industry 15 years ago. People thought it was going to end the hotel industry. Airbnb sells you a shelter, we sell you an experience, service that goes way beyond just a bed and a shower. Especially when you are providing a five-star luxury product, it's very difficult to compete if you have an Airbnb.

Hospitality is thriving. The short-term rentals and Airbnb models have actually pushed the hospitality industry to get more creative, to offer more services, better amenities, better restaurants, and that makes the industry better. The winner at the end is the guest because he has more options for different budgets.

Bisnow: The release announcing your role as the head of development for the Americas said that your focus would be on the West Coast and Mountain West in the U.S. Why are those prime growth markets for Mandarin Oriental? 

Glauser Benz: What happened with Covid is that people learned to run their businesses remotely through technology. They realized, especially on the West Coast and in the Northeast, that it could be from anywhere where there’s clean air, where they could have space, where their kids can run around. 

The Florida market exploded because of the Northeasterners, but the Mountain West exploded because of the Westerners. Markets like Aspen, Jackson Hole, Napa, Sonoma, all of those are now target markets for Mandarin Oriental’s boutique hotels and residences. We're actively in conversations in those markets. 

Brands like us follow the money. We follow our demographic and psychographics. We know where these people are going and where they want to be — that's where we go and give it to them. Covid really was a trigger, and I believe it’s a generational transformation of our industry. This is something that only happens every 50 or 100 years.

Glauser Benz fishes in Montana. He said the pandemic drove wealthy people to look for quieter places to buy a home.

Bisnow: When you're talking about these markets that you're looking at, it's not just to bring a hotel in but also to bring these branded residences along with it?

Glauser Benz: Yes, because this demographic that had been experiencing those locations through Covid realized, “You know what, we should get a house there. It's so beautiful.”

They're looking for homes, and there's not a lot of supply because, traditionally, these towns were very small. They were not built for a wave of migration of high spenders. So then in come groups like us who can provide that product, everything they need to relocate their life into these rural areas and still have a five-star experience. 

Bisnow: What is one bold prediction about the hospitality industry?

Glauser Benz: That it will continue to evolve and thrive.

Bisnow: S&P Global expects U.S. RevPAR to moderate this year, and CBRE found it has been declining in the beginning of 2024.

Glauser Benz: What you see right now is a slight cooldown. It's the comeback from the huge spike that we saw during Covid in certain leisure markets. This snap that we had is coming down slowly, and then you'll have a ramp-up again at the traditional rates that we get every year.

Bisnow: What’s your weekend routine? 

Glauser Benz: If I'm not fishing, boating or running, I'm playing tennis or padel. When the weather’s nice here in Miami, we’re on the water. When it gets too rough, we are indoors doing squash or padel.  

I tend to prefer Miami in the summers. We have less tourists around, less congestion and the vibe is more relaxed. It’s always a joy watching the big summer storms roll over the skyline of the city. They clean everything.