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Q&A with Diego Lowenstein, Lionstone Development

Hotel Business
caught up with Lionstone Development CEO Diego Lowenstein to examine his fascination with South Florida; discover his passion for the Hispanic community and “the world’s greatest country”; and uncover his thoughts on Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Charles Nicholas Branson.

You’ve been actively scouting South Florida’s hotel markets to locate at least two Virgin Hotels. What’s the update? We continue to evaluate potential sites to bring Virgin Hotels to the South Florida market, but are not willing to settle just to make this happen. We would rather take our time and find the right locations. We are in discussions on a few sites right now.

Why did you decide to go into business with Virgin Group? One of the main things that stood out to me about Richard Branson is how he directs Virgin companies to embrace innovation and disruption of the traditional industry methodologies. This is how they have become “the consumer champion” in many sectors, from music to airlines and now hotels. One of Virgin’s key pillars is to always look out for consumers and adapt to their ever-changing needs. Throughout its portfolio, Virgin is constantly pushing the envelope, innovating, from physical design of product to technology and embracing tangible customer service. We have done the same with the hotel platform. With the highly competitive nature of today’s hospitality industry, it’s those kinds of differentiators that get people excited about a brand and capture the attention of customers across all generations, ultimately making them real “fans” and producing loyalty. Virgin Hotels provides the kind of distinctive, forward-looking, multigenerational appeal that will allow it to outperform other hotel competitors in its sector. 

Why your interest in South Florida? Lionstone Development planted its roots in Miami 50 years ago when my grandfather, Luis Lowenstein, purchased his first hotel. We’ve been here through the good times and tough times. Thankfully, Miami has always been a very resilient market with plenty of new opportunities. This market has led the way during this last recovery and will continue to show promise and growth. We’ve also seen the region evolve in the past few decades, becoming a cultural, leisure and business destination for not just travelers from the Northeast and Latin America, but now other parts of the world as well. We’re seeing more guests come from Europe and Asia, for example, to experience this vibrant location.

We’re always looking for the right investment at the right time with a distinct product. Aside from South Florida, my family continues to invest selectively in the Caribbean, particularly in the upscale, all-inclusive hospitality sector. We always look for unique opportunities in other markets, but have a keen focus on South Florida.

How have you used your experience in real estate holdings and development in Argentina to grow Lionstone? While I have experience in commercial real estate development and management from my years living in Argentina, the majority of my experience was gained in the U.S., specifically in Miami. My grandfather began investing in commercial real estate in 1966 on Miami Beach, and thanks to him and my father Alfredo, I was able to immerse myself in the industry as it’s always been a passion of mine. Also, my studies at Babson College in the 1980s provided me with the additional skill set that has helped me take Lionstone Development to where it is today. Babson’s central focus on entrepreneurship education has made it one of the most prestigious entrepreneurship colleges in the U.S. We are a generational family business, and the core of our success over the decades is directly tied to being businesspeople who execute with entrepreneurial passion.

Lionstone is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. What has the company learned? We’ve learned patience and perseverance are key. We’re fortunate that our family’s company has continued to operate in South Florida both during the virtuous and the difficult periods. This has proved itself to be a great strength of our company—there are really not too many others that can attest to this legacy. We’ve also learned to not only focus on hotel development, but to provide other offerings. We’re looking beyond real estate and development to third-party management, asset management and direct property management.

Our approach has always been about being innovative and trying to generate ventures that are forward-looking. This allows us to see opportunities where others don’t. We love development projects that offer more of a challenge and can stand the test of time as being exclusive in their period.

What is Lionstone’s strategy for dealing with Airbnb? Although Airbnb and similar short-term rentals are another lodging option for guests, our portfolio of hotels is focused on exceptional guest service and interaction, as well as amenities that are hard to replicate. Our guests at Ritz-Carlton and Virgin Hotels are looking for more than simply a bed and definitely don’t want a kitchen—that’s what room service is for.

Our nation observes Hispanic Heritage month in October. How have you used your success to help pave the way for other Hispanic and Latino Americans? I have been blessed in that I have not had to face the challenges that others in the Hispanic community face in this country. I am proud of my heritage as an Argentine and love my country deeply. I am also wowed and delighted to see the success of many Hispanic members here in the U.S., the world’s greatest country, where smarts, hard work and perseverance always pay off. I count many lifelong friends and acquaintances in this group who reside in Miami, New York and elsewhere in the country—their success is my success. I instill the values common to us Hispanics of deep-rooted family principals in my own family and have three Miami-born children who now proudly carry their Hispanic heritage front and center. My family is also committed to giving back and helping not only Hispanics but the larger minority community in South Florida. It’s our children who will pave the way forward to enduring success for all of us and keep our beloved cities so vibrant—it’s also our obligation and responsibility to nurture their goals. HB

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