Gary Saunders
Chairman, Saunders Hotel Group
Age: 67
Industry experience: 45 years 

For four generations, Saunders Hotel Group has owned and operated properties that are on the short list of travelers visiting Boston. The company’s first property, the Metropolitan, opened in the early 1960s near the new Boston extension of the Massachusetts Turnpike. The firm grew with acquisitions of the Copley Square Hotel and expanded its Back Bay presence with the purchase of the Lenox Hotel and Statler Hilton, which was converted into the Boston Park Plaza. Most recently, the company partnered with The Noannet Group to develop the Cambria Boston-Somerville hotel, which opened in April, and the new Raffles Boston Back Bay Hotel & Residences, which is scheduled for completion in early 2023. 

Q: Where are you seeing the strongest recovery in the Saunders hotel portfolio this spring?
A: In terms of bookings, April’s [Boston] Marathon is historically the jumpstart for our business season coming off the first quarter, which is the slowest time of year. We did start to see in late fall and early winter a huge pent-up demand in leisure travel and social business: a lot of weddings, delayed and deferred reunions because of travel restrictions or just concerns weighing on a large part of the population. We’re starting to see that [recovery] happen in the last few months in the business travel sector: small meetings, individual business travelers, small conferences. There’s definitely a huge amount of demand to engage face-to-face between businesspeople. Larger groups and conferences and convention groups are still lagging. 

Q: What does the Back Bay hospitality market look like in the aftermath of a potential Hynes Convention Center demolition and redevelopment?
A: The conferences that use the Hynes really like the Hynes because it’s a much more intimate setting in a neighborhood where many attendees want to stay when they’re in Boston: the Back Bay. The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority is not booking the Hynes with any new business and it’s a net loss for the city. When they can’t book the Hynes, they generally don’t go to the Seaport, they go to another city. The MCCA has made the decline of the Hynes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

It is almost unprecedented that the Neighborhood Association of Back Bay and the Back Bay Association have collaborated and come up with a series of proposals they think would be additive to a redevelopment of the Hynes. One of the major components is the maintenance of 150,000 square feet of meeting space that would be available to support a very significant private-sector investment in hospitality, retail and restaurants that were built around the existence and demand generator of the Hynes in the last three or four decades. It’s a huge opportunity if it’s done thoughtfully and in the best interests of the restaurant and business community that surrounds it. 

Q: How are the labor market and inflation affecting hotel operations?
A: Labor has been challenging. I think that many people have moved on to different careers over the last two-and-a-half years. It’s not a challenge we can’t overcome, but it is still a major obstacle to being fully staffed for full occupancy. We’re seeing reasonably strong [room] rates citywide. It’s getting close to where we were pre-pandemic. Occupancy is still off, mostly due to large meetings and convention business not having the kind of attendance. But the city is well-positioned to continue to grow and regain market share. 

Q: In your partnership with Noannet Group on the Raffles Boston Back Bay Hotel & Residences, will you include outside restaurant operators?
A: We have six food and beverage experiences at Raffles, from a patisserie to a destination fine dining restaurant on the 17th floor lobby, and Raffles will be operating all of those facilities with the exception of a leased-out space on the first and second floor. It’s a good model for us and I think it’s going to work really well. 

Q: How has the Cambridge Boston Somerville hotel performed since its opening in April?
A: It’s always a baptism by fire to open a new hotel. We opened the Friday before the marathon, and it’s actually doing quite well with all of the graduations at Tufts and Havard and MIT. I think that neighborhood is just beautifully positioned to capture business from an expanding biotech and medical research community, from the universities that are proximate, and general leisure travel. We’re doing to have a connection from the Green Line to downtown and it’s going to make it easily accessible in both directions. 

Q: How did you and your late brother Jeff divide the responsibilities at the company prior to his passing in 2020?
A: He is sorely missed by the company. Generally, he was more operationally involved, and I was more finance and marketing, and we had just a unique and collaborative relationship. In almost 40 years together, we never had an argument, and we never had a disagreement that didn’t resolve with a smile. Maybe that’s why hospitality was just a good fit for us, and continues to be for me. 

Saunders’ Six Favorite Movies  

  1. Four Weddings and a Funeral 
  2. The Godfather 
  3. Any Indiana Jones movie 
  4. Forrest Gump 
  5. Lawrence of Arabia 
  6. Saving Private Ryan 

A Long-Term Horizon on Hotel Ownership

by Steve Adams time to read: 4 min