Fascinated by hotels from an early age, lawyer Samantha Ahuja brings comprehensive insight to hospitality legal issues and advises her clients on everything from negotiating management contracts to financing.
Samantha Ahuja, partner at the hospitality and commercial real estate development and finance practices of Morris, Manning & Martin, LLP, has always been fascinated by the way hotels work and the many different people and parts required to make a property run smoothly. Traveling with her family to different countries and exploring their cultures during her childhood further contributed to her interest in the hospitality industry.
After graduating from law school, real estate law seemed like a natural fit for Ahuja. She was drawn to the fact that she is able to see what she is working on. “Real estate itself as a general area is interesting because you get to see what you are doing. When you walk down the street, you can see a property that you assisted in either acquiring, selling, or building,” she says.
“When I got the opportunity to work specifically in the hospitality and leisure area, I jumped on it. I think hotels and leisure are fascinating because of the ongoing nature of the business,” Ahuja says. Advising clients in acquisitions and dispositions comprises the bulk of Ahuja’s work, but that comes with many working parts. On any given day, she can be negotiating a management agreement, creating a construction contract for a hotel that’s being built from the ground up, or researching how to finance a particular project. “My job is really to understand the combination of legal and business issues and how they interplay, so I can advise a client on the matters that would affect their establishment,” says Ahuja.
That can be easier said than done depending on the property she is working with. The ground-up development of a single hotel is relatively simple when compared to mixed-use properties, where factors such as retail, restaurant, and residential space must be coordinated with the hospitality space. Ahuja is a lawyer who thrives on complexities; the more details and challenges a project has, the more engaged she becomes.
Ahuja must organize and understand how the elements of a property work and interact with one another in order to properly advise her clients, enabling them to make the best decisions for their business.
“It is identifying nuances, like putting together a puzzle, but it is also understanding that these businesses are ongoing in nature and advising clients on the potential pitfalls and benefits we anticipate in the short and long terms,” Ahuja says. Portfolio transactions are a particular favorite of hers, as she enjoys the challenge that comes with managing, buying, or selling multiple properties at the same time.
Ahuja’s career has also brought her opportunities to work on several groundbreaking transactions. “I was fortunate enough to be a part of the team that worked on the New York Waldorf Astoria acquisition—which was significant in the hospitality market—and also the Baccarat transaction,” she explains. The Waldorf Astoria was purchased by Beijing-based Anbang Insurance Group Co Ltd., for $1.95 billion in October of 2014. The Baccarat deal was the sale of the Baccarat Hotel & Residences New York to China’s Sunshine Insurance Group Inc., in February 2015. “It’s always fun to be a part of those kinds of deals and interesting to see how they come to fruition,” she adds.
Another one of her career highlights was bringing a European brand to the United States in 2016. She can’t mention the name of the brand, but Ahuja had to work through cross-cultural complexities and determine how to present and document it in a way that would benefit both the brand and the owner.
“I’ve found during my years of practice that clients are really looking to their lawyers for more than just legal advice,” Ahuja begins. “They’re really looking to them more for a survey of the market. They want to know what we’re seeing or not seeing and how potential incentives or other terms in a contract can affect them in the short term and long term. They want us to help them anticipate their needs from a business perspective.”
Food and beverage is another component of the hospitality industry that Ahuja has increasingly found herself working with over the years. “I find it extremely fascinating to see how the food and beverage world has evolved as the hospitality industry has changed,” she says. This increased emphasis on the food and beverage side of hospitality has enabled Ahuja to work with top celebrity chefs.
When she’s not working on closing a deal, Ahuja spends time working with the Council on Legal Education and Opportunity (CLEO), which strives to promote diversity in women in the legal environment. “I do a lot of work with CLEO, and I find that aspect of being a lawyer and being able to encourage my fellow lawyers and bring others into the legal field very rewarding,” she notes.
Photo courtesy of Baccarat Hotel & Residences New York.