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By Sean P. Smith

Last night, Sunstone Hotel Investors (NYSE:SHO) announced that the company would turn over its W San Diego hotel property to its lenders, as opposed to making its June 1st debt service payment on the property’s mortgage. This move speaks volumes about the deterioration of the hotel operating environment in recent months, and in turn, the value of hotel properties.

Sunstone, a hotel REIT, acquired the W hotel in San Diego in 2006 for $96 million, or roughly $370,000 per room. At the time, the purchase price equated to a multiple of 12x projected 2006 EBITDA.

In conjunction with the purchase, the company closed on a $65 million first mortgage, bearing an interest rate of 6.14%.

The local hotel operating environment has weakened to the point that the company has decided to simply hand over the keys to the lender, as opposed to making another debt service payment, as management now believe that the property is worth “meaningfully below” the principal amount of the debt.

While there have been many hotel defaults in recent months, this is a high-profile transaction, involving a publicly held hotel REIT and a premium hotel brand. The W hotel brand is owned by Starwood Hotels & Resorts (NYSE:HOT), which also manages the W San Diego property. There are currently only 29 W hotels worldwide, although the company has an additional 22 W hotels in its pipeline.

As the hotel operating environment remains weak
, we expect that more hotel owners will come to the conclusion that they would be better off walking away from properties that are now worth less than their outstanding debt balances. This would in turn put additional pressure on hotel values, just as a residential foreclosure or short sale negatively impacts all the houses in the vicinity.

We continue to believe that hotel stocks are due for a correction. We maintain our Sell rating on shares of Starwood and Marriott (NASDAQ:MAR), and maintain our negative outlook on the sector.