How Brooke Denihan Barrett is charting a path for future hoteliers

The company’s decision to grow its hotel management business will allow it to capitalize on its 55-year history as a hotel manager.
The James New York SoHo. Photo credit: Denihan Hospitality Group

When Brooke Denihan Barrett was growing up, women were mainly expected to be stay-at-home moms. Following the values of the time, Brooke learned how to sew and type and married young—but after she also divorced young, she needed a job, and sewing and typing wouldn’t be enough. Fortunately, family connections and a smart business sense set her on a path to becoming the co-CEO of Denihan Hospitality Group.

A Business Legacy

Brooke Denihan Barrett
Brooke Denihan Barrett
Photo credit: Denihan Hospitality Group

The Denihan family has been in business since the 1920s, and opened its first hotel in 1963. “Being that we were a family business and coming from a family of six, there was an expectation that everybody would work in the business—or at least the boys would,” she said. Even in high school, young Brooke Denihan had worked in sales and rentals at the company’s properties, so jumping back into the family business was a good solution for her needs. “I really liked people and convincing them that we were the right product to stay in,” she said. “I view that as an opportunity because I probably wouldn't be where I am today had I not gone in early after my divorce.” Still, her family connections did not merit her any special treatment once she entered the workforce. “When you're in a privately held business, you're expected to work harder than everybody else,” she said. Her father, family patriarch Benjamin “Bud” Denihan, would tell his children, “Don't ever ask someone to do something that you wouldn't do.”  

Working in New York City’s hospitality sector over the decades, including the volatile 1970s and 1980s, taught her a lot about the challenges of doing business in a turbulent market. “When you ebb and flow with a rise in the economy and then something really knocks you off your feet, you learn that not everything is always rosy all the time,” she said. Through those ups and downs, the company built up a portfolio, and then launched the Affinia brand with five hotels in the early 2000s. Mid-decade, the company acquired the James brand of hotels, with its flagship property in Chicago.

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By 2006, four of Denihan’s six owners were ready to “harvest” their investment and sell the business. Barrett and her brother Benjamin "Patrick" Denihan saw an opportunity to take the business to the next level. By the end of the year, they were able to get financing and reach an agreement on the value of the business and its assets, acquiring the management company and its Manhattan properties. “I don't think we could've done that today,” Barrett says of the buy-out, noting the challenges facing the debt markets and fluctuating values of real estate. “We were very fortunate that we could do it in a quick amount of time so that it didn’t harm the running of the business or anything else.” Christmas that year was “probably a blur to everybody,” she added, “but we did get it done.” Not content to rest on laurels, the Denihans are expanding the company’s reach and will be opening a James hotel in Washington, D.C., in 2020, and are always considering other options. “I think the James brand and the Affinia brand do well in urban, 24/7 markets,” Barrett said. “A James in L.A. or San Francisco would be a very good complement to the James hotels here in New York for people traveling back and forth.”  

White Men in Dark Suits

While she has always had the support of her family, Barrett did face challenges as she defied the “white men in dark suits” stereotype of business professionals. Even deciding what clothes to wear to work could be stressful. “Should I dress like a guy in a suit? Should I not smile?” As she developed her own style of leadership over the years, she learned to take nothing for granted and keep pushing the business forward, finding new opportunities for growth. “One minute, your hotels are at a high and then the next year, you’re trying to keep up with all this new supply that has opened up,” she said. Staying afloat, therefore, means constantly adapting. “Don't ever be complacent. Don’t look at how you're performing and think that's going to always stay forever. You always have to be looking ahead. How do you improve efficiencies? What's out there on the market?”

As she helped build up the family business, the demands of the job also put pressure on her family life. With more women achieving leadership roles in various industries, Barrett is pleased to see how the work-life balance has become more of a priority for today’s business professionals. “Anybody in today's world can leave at 2 in the afternoon and go to a soccer game for their kid, and no one thinks anything bad of them because people have come to realize how important family is,” she said. Not so long ago, however, Barrett had to make sacrifices in her own work-life balance for the sake of the family business. “You did what you had to do in the moment, and as you look back on it, you realize, ‘wow, that was hard.’” Today, Barrett has good relationships with her children and grandchildren, and hopes they appreciate what it took to make the family name into a formidable presence in New York City’s hospitality sector. “Sometimes, I look at my grandchildren and think, ‘You have no clue how hard it was to get to where I got.’”  

Having watched New York City’s hotel scene grow and change for more than half a century, Barrett believes that the heart of real hospitality remains consistent in spite of shifting trends: “It is the guest experience,” she said. And while the purpose of any business is to turn a profit, Barrett believes that hoteliers should regularly ask themselves why they are in the hospitality industry to begin with. “You’re really doing this to give an experience to the customer; otherwise, you wouldn't be in business.”