Lyon Porter’s Top Hospitality Management Tips
The owner and designer of the Insta-famous Urban Cowboy properties spoke to Hospitality & Hotel Management students at ICE's New York campus.
Lyon Porter opened a four-room bed and breakfast in Brooklyn in 2014 and an eight-room boutique hotel in Nashville in 2016, both of which are frequently featured in travel and lifestyle publications and host celebrity guests in the environments that urban chic Instagram dreams are made of. The former hockey player shares his path from real estate to design passion project and what it takes to open successful boutique accommodations.
On opening Urban Cowboy:
I was in real estate, and I’d always wanted to develop my own building. You live in buildings in New York — a lot of them are very sterile and don’t have much soul to the sauce. It’s about numbers; it’s a box, you pay money to live in the box, and a lot of developers look for the cheapest materials. It’s always about how to make it cheaper to get a better return. I bought a building in Williamsburg right before prices went out of control, and I was able to take my time with it and renovate it myself, so it was my first time designing.
I wanted to do something that felt authentic. I gutted it to the studs, designed it, and I really put my heart and soul into the design. If you give people an environment where they feel comfortable and inspired to shoot — not to say that that’s why you’re doing it, because that can be really cheesy — there’s this interesting balance between creating something that’s memorable and beautiful and also photographical without being a photobooth. I learned how important visual interplay is between the customer and environment and the way it makes them feel.
On instant success:
It was this antidote to how fast-paced and impersonal a lot of hotels are. You come in and have a different experience. You have the experience like you’re staying in someone’s house but you’re tended to as in a boutique hotel in terms of services. Someone would make you a cocktail as you were checking in; there’s a hot tub and a sauna, but there’s a very personal experience that many larger hotels lack.
On acting as your own general contractor:
Commercial kitchens can run hundreds of thousands of dollars, potentially done wrong. I try to get away from contractors whenever possible by using prefabricated things for kitchen supplies. The food program is this huge lofty thing, but if the kitchen doesn’t work, it’s a real problem.
You can do more interesting, whimsical things creating these environments for people to have fun in. The motel [under development in the Catskills] has a switch on the wall when you walk into every room. It’s an illuminated red switch that says “party switch.” When you flip it, the disco ball goes on and there are four radio channels. The environments that you’re creating are super important.
The nice thing about having food and beverage at these places is that it interplays, and you’re able to charge more per room. You think, what food would go well with that whimsy? We’re concepting right now with the chef and toppings. We have these bottoms: a burger, a veggie pattie, tater tots, soft serve ice cream and hot dogs, and 26 toppings, from chocolate syrup to caviar. You can build your own creations. It’s about having fun.
I did the first one with no investors. I worked for 10 years in New York and saved money so I was able to do what I wanted. That proof of concept led to friends and family investment. Then a neighbor … was the lead investor on my Nashville property. It can be literally someone you meet on the street or a private family office, which is what I did in the Catskills. You have to be careful who those people are.
You really want people who are going to champion you and support you and who are wildly too successful and busy to really pay attention to all the details. Busy, successful investors are the best investors. They’re also meeting a lot of people and talking to a lot of people. It’s really important that they’re a mouthpiece.
On business partners:
My partner in crime is Jersey Banks. She and I opened the B&B together; we’re also life partners. It’s really important to have someone complement and balance you; it’s also kind of crazy to do with someone that you go home with because then you’re always working. If you do something mom and pop (literally), there’s a magic to it, and people really feel a sense of that love and energy that you guys are putting into the space. If you have a partner in crime who’s interested in what you’re doing, it can be awesome; it can also be really, really crazy.
Phil Hospod just left Sydell Group and is partnering with me in the Catskills, and what that allowed me to do was sit across from a family office with eight rooms here, five rooms here, and Phil’s sitting next to me like, “I just developed 14,000 hotel rooms.” Having that really seasoned person, who has seen it from 80 different ways, makes money feel extremely comfortable. You can go and be more creative and focus on that. It’s really nice to have someone on the team now who thinks in a completely different way and is numbers focused.
On running a bed and breakfast yourself:
It’s a lot like a small restaurant where you’re living, breathing and owning it every day. There are no days off. You’re sleeping in your business. You wake up, and there are people there, and you’re meeting them. Someone’s from the Netherlands and they’re looking for a conversation. If you’re not really passionate about people and you don’t get energy from people, it could be the worst job.
It’s a 24-hour business, and it can be truly lucrative; it just all depends on how you set it up. If you’re passionate about food, entertaining, music and wine, then you can have a really, really great time with your guests. And that’s the magic.
On profit margin:
It depends on the month. New York’s very seasonal for hotels. Most people don’t think it is, but the winter’s really slow. In the winters, your occupancy and rates go down regardless of what you do. The thing that’s different about New York is that if it’s photographical, there are film and fashion shoots constantly. If you design a space that you can also rent out for film and fashion shoots, there’s profitability on that. The profit margin on shoots is 1,000%, and you don’t pay hotel taxes.
On opening outside of New York:
In New York, you can get things done seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Almost everywhere else, they don’t rush. In Nashville, it’s like a different country, different people, different behavioral patterns. People really value relationships away from work there. People here value work almost over everything else. It teaches you to slow down a little bit.
Your program is different. We used to be open seven days a week there at the bar. Mondays were just terrible no matter what we did, so you close. You learn that behavior is really the lead driver for the way that you should operate, not what you think should happen.
Cities like Boise or Asheville — that don’t have too many restaurants right now and are growing like Nashville just grew — are really interesting places to think about opening businesses because your cost of entry is so low. I think Boise’s the next Nashville. I was just there, and it’s got all the drivers; it’s got all the energy in the middle of the mountains. Amazing weather, high desert and a lot of awesome restaurants.
Think about where you want to start a business: Is there a demand and need or is there a wave that just came?
We’re the hotel that grew up on Instagram, and it’s changed so dramatically. Engagement’s changed; it’s not instant anymore. I was doing it when there was a real word-of-mouth quality to it. Stories are that word of mouth right now. That whole game is changing. Micro-influencers and celebrities have taken over that game. It used to be photographers or models. It’s either you have 50 million [followers] and you’re a celebrity, or you’re a micro-influencer and you have a real voice and you talk to a very specific community. If you’re looking for engagement and you don’t know Kim Kardashian, focus on micro-influencers to lead the way.
On the future of hospitality:
How many inspiring hotels have you guys been to lately? Like really inspiring where you left thinking that was amazing? How many restaurants have you been where you really experienced something? Maybe more restaurants because when you eat a delicious meal, it does something to you. I think we’re going to see more experiential hospitality in regards to hotels that mixes in the food in a whimsical manner so you elevate the experience. Everyone’s looking for a real experience. The next generation, they sniff out if something’s not authentic.
Work towards your experiential passion project in ICE's Hospitality & Hotel Management program.