2021 Person of the Year: Tracy Prigmore on Creating Pathways to Raise More Women and People of Color into the Ranks of Hotel Ownership

Tracy Prigmore

Tracy Prigmore’s own arduous path into hotel ownership inspired her to spark conversations, create platforms, and build networks in the hospitality space to support women and people of color aspiring to hotel ownership. Prigmore is the founder of TLTsolutions, a real estate investment and development firm, and She Has a Deal (SHaD), an education and networking platform for early career women that culminates in a pitch competition with a prize of $50,000 in hotel deal equity. Most recently, Prigmore partnered with Peggy Berg, founder and president of Castell Project, a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating the careers of women professionals in the hospitality industry, to establish Fortuna’s Table, an online community designed to provide resources and support to aspiring and established entrepreneurs to make their hotel ownership dreams a reality. Launched in July, the subscription-based hub provides curated information and virtual “tables” that connect subscribers to industry experts, potential mentors, and peers to share knowledge as they navigate their own hotel deals.

For years, Prigmore has been using her voice to share with industry leaders her far-from-frictionless experience becoming a hotel owner and franchisee. She has had countless conversations about the gaps that women and people of color face on the pathway to investing in hotels, and shared her thoughts on how to dismantle those barriers and provide more support to aspiring owners. After witnessing excitement and enthusiasm for her ideas but no movement, she reached a breakthrough: “I kept waiting for somebody else to do something, but I had to do it myself.” Prigmore established She Has a Deal and continues to create and evolve platforms that support others on their journey to ownership.

Today, the biggest hurdle she sees is the lack of access to capital for world-be owners who have long been overlooked or discredited from financing due to systemic biases. Prigmore says the most effective way to promote more diversity and inclusion among hotel owners and developers is to provide proactive access to capital. “That is what I’m very focused on this year and into next year: Helping create a structure to remove or at least mitigate the friction of capital between those who need it and those who have it.” Prigmore shared with LODGING her experience with the process of becoming a hotel owner and her vision of an industry with more diverse minds making decisions and driving innovation—a dream that she believes the industry can make a reality sooner rather than later. “We have a broad vision that we’re trying to accomplish and it takes a number of industry leaders and forces to be successful.”

What sparked your interest in hospitality?

Hospitality was not in my career plan. I did work as a front-desk clerk through college, but then I started my career in healthcare. Eventually, I began investing in real estate and later decided to expand my portfolio from single-family rentals to commercial properties. At the time, I was working for a national healthcare system and traveling extensively; I practically lived in hotels. It didn’t immediately cross my mind that I could invest in hotels as an asset class until I happened to stay at a Hampton Inn in Aventura, Florida. I remember being on the phone with a friend of mine before I went to bed saying, “I’m staying in this place called Hampton Inn. It’s not too far from the beach. It’s a great value.” I woke up the next morning with the epiphany that I should buy a hotel.

What was your experience working towards becoming a hotel owner?

Ownership didn’t happen quickly for me. I didn’t have a great network or mentor—I was flying solo with a little help here and there. I found the whole process pretty challenging; information wasn’t freely available in the way that I needed it to be successful.

After a little over a year of studying hotel ownership, I found a Comfort Inn & Suites in my hometown of St. Louis, analyzed the deal, and put the hotel under contract. This was in 2008 when everything was falling apart. The one thing that stood between me and ownership was the loan. And the lender said that they would lend the money as long as I was approved for an SBA loan. Through that 504 loan process, the Certified Development Corporation (CDC) committee voted 3-2 “no” because there was a recession and I didn’t have enough experience, so they said, I couldn’t be successful. I knew I could be successful, but I was so new and didn’t know where to go from there or have contacts to find another loan. I didn’t want to lose my deposit, so I withdrew my contract before I had a chance to appeal or identify another lender.

When that “no” came, I put my dream of owning a hotel on hold. Years later, I finally got up my nerves to try again. My mother used to always say, “Put up or shut up.” It was still a very challenging process to actually win the contract; I was competing with people who were very experienced and had lots of money. I also saw that brokers are biased in a way; their incentive is to sell and they want to go with the sure bet. No process like this is easy, but it didn’t help not having an inside connection. After I made up my mind to jump back in, I brought a group of investors together and became a limited partner in a hotel project, but I knew that I wanted to be a sponsor and lead hotel investment projects. I looked for a couple of years and came full circle when I had the opportunity to buy a Hampton Inn. Since then, I have sponsored two other hotel investments and currently have others in the pipeline.

How did your experience navigating the process of hotel ownership inspire you to launch She Has a Deal?

When I finally broke through into hotel ownership, I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me—women or people of color—and I wanted to do something about that. Then it hit me: For years, I kept waiting for somebody else to do something, but I had to do it myself. While leaders, brands, and those who work in hospitality companies are interested in supporting more women and people of color in becoming hotel owners, they have not necessarily experience what I experienced. They’re not able to relate to and understand the gaps in that process and how to change them. When working in healthcare, I had started a case competition to help elevate the number of Black professionals in executive-level positions. For 20 years, I’ve seen the benefit of that case competition for the industry—facilitating learning, mentorship, and connections between early careers and executives. Some are now CEOs of major healthcare systems and my investors today. I had a blueprint for what could be successful and was looking for other people to get involved. She Has a Deal came to me, and I started putting pen to paper.

What is She Has a Deal designed to accomplish?

Number one: We first have to inspire early career young women and expose them to the possibility of hotel ownership. But most importantly, we need to teach them how to get there.

I had previously created a nine-stage hotel investment roadmap and built the She Has a Deal education program using that. I coupled that roadmap with inviting industry leaders—we call them “Luminaries”—to help with the education process. We provide self-education modules for the women to go through, and they also show up every couple of weeks for our masterclass on Zoom where they connect with industry leaders who share their knowledge and wisdom, and that gives women the confidence to take the next steps. Those experts then become a contact in that area, building out women’s networks, which is so critical as you’re getting started. You need a community of people who can help you along the way. Then you have the women who are part of this program with you; maybe they become a business partner to collaborate with or form a joint venture on a deal, or you just bounce ideas off each other.

I added the competition to provide excitement, motivation, and a real-time application of the education. It’s also a way to give away some equity to help the winners get started. At its core, She Has a Deal is not about winning the competition; it’s about investing in yourself by putting in the time to embed and apply the knowledge.

She Has a Deal is also raising capital for its SHaD Prosperity Fund I to invest in women-led hotel investment projects that originate through the pitch competition. The next competition will take place from April 28-29, 2022, at the Hilton Innovation Gallery in McLean, Virginia.

What is your vision for the hotel industry?

It is imperative that every industry is more diverse and inclusive; customers are, and diversity means more innovation and inclusivity of ideas from experiences and products.

Those who are in control of capital today may not realize how difficult it is and how much is required to access it. There’s a wealth gap for women and people of color given the history of discrimination, and there are still unconscious biases among people who control deals and have access to capital—those who sell a property, finance, or invest equity capital. If they haven’t seen someone like me building or developing a hotel before, they may think, “This is risky. That balance sheet doesn’t look like what I’m used to seeing.” They’re very cautious. I’d love to see that change.

I’m hoping—through SHaD and the conversations I’m having with brands and others from the different capital sources—that they’ll start to understand. All of them say, “I love what you’re doing. This is great for the industry. Let me know how I can help.” I am so grateful for the sponsorship and commitment to educate, but the very thing that could really change things is the proactive access to capital. That is what I’m very focused on this year and into next year: Helping create a structure to remove or at least mitigate the friction of capital between those who need it and those who have it. We can create a structure with these capital sources where there’s a commitment to making capital available and accessible to women-led projects—not just as passive investors. We want women at the forefront leading and creating these ownership companies. It’s being done in other industries; we’re seeing a record number of women getting venture capital and women founders starting successful businesses because the capital sources have opened up the gate and recognized the talent of those women.

If you want women and people of color in ownership and development, you may have to change how you qualify somebody as capable. Through the Today’s Woman track of the pitch competition, the women who we’re working with are brilliant, seasoned professionals with decades of experience in hospitality and related industries. Ownership has not been accessible to them. Now we’re introducing them to the investment side of the business, connecting them with resources, and accelerating their knowledge. If you combine their knowledge, experience, and passion for hospitality with access to education and capital—that is going to be explosive for the industry.

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