NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The annual Asian American Hotel Owners Association convention always draws a huge crowd, but, at its heart, the organization conducts itself like a small, tight-knit community.
This was never more evident than at this year’s event, attended by some 3,000 members, here at the Gaylord Opryland.
Operating under the tagline, “Success by Design,” the convention was kicked off by AAHOA’s executive committee, including Bruce Patel, vice chairman, who said that the tagline resonated with both first- and second-generation hoteliers. “For the first generation, it’s about looking back at a different time and the struggles,” he said. “For the second, it’s about constantly evolving and staying ahead of the curve.”
The conference is highlighted as much for the educational panels as the special keynotes, which this year included the recently retired NFL quarterback Peyton Manning and Kevin O’Leary from “Shark Tank.”
Yet it’s the CEO panels that have AAHOA members rapt with attention. A chance to hear from the leaders of the companies and brands that are an integral part to their business.
The Power of Politics
One of the overarching themes each year at the AAHOA conference involves the fierce pride that AAHOA members (predominantly Indian-American) have: the American dream of starting with little, working hard and creating a better life for themselves and children.
That path, however, meets constant obstacles, whether its the minimum-wage debate or attacks on the franchise model. It's why AAHOA is such an important mouthpiece for the many, a constant lobbying force in Washington to ensure that what these generations worked so hard for is not lost.
To that end, money matters, and hotel CEOs made it clear that donating to AAHOA's PAC is of utmost importance. "That money carries weight," said Best Western Hotels & Resorts' CEO David Kong. But it's not just about money, he added. "The squeaky wheel gets the grease. You have to be in contact with [government] officials. The more we are in contact, the more effective we are."
"Politics costs money," said Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott International. "You can't accomplish anything without relationships."
Choice's president and CEO, Stephen Joyce, implored members to invite Congressional reps to their businesses. "That has a bigger impact than going up on The Hill," he said.
Specific to the minimum wage issue, the CEOs understood the workers side, but that raising the minimum wage was not the answer to career success. Minimum wage is meant as an entry-level wage, a start to build up and on from.
"All of us want our colleagues to have a better standard of living," said Elie Maalouf, CEO, The Americas for IHG. "But it has to be sustainable. You cant legislate prosperity."
Discussion wasn't purely on politics.
While there was not too much Marriott's Sorenson could say regarding the roller-coaster ride that is the acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide (first Marriott, then Anbang, then Marriott again, now Anbang pulls out leaving Marriott the last man standing), he could talk about his trip to Cuba where he was in the company of President Obama. Cuba has been that untapped Xanadu for U.S. hotel companies, that is until now, with relations between the two nations, once severely strained, now amiable. (Both Marriott and Starwood have gained clearance to develop hotels and partnerships on the island nation.)
“The embargo was ineffective and impoverished Cuba,” Sorenson. “As President Obama has said, ‘If we’ve tried something for 50 years and it hasn’t worked, it’s time to change.”
The AAHOA membership is fiercely conservative, but even this line from Choice Hotels CEO Steve Joyce went unchallenged: “Our current president has been the best friend of travel.”
Technology and loyalty were also topics of import.
As guests evolve and technology continues to improve, automation and seamless movement become more relevant. Any time we can use automation to empower the guest, like not having to stand in a long line at check in, that's a far better experience," said Best Western's Kong.
"Technology, like keyless entry, is reducing costs," said Choice's Joyce. "Guests want to engage when they want to engage."
He acknowledged processes like automatic distribution systems "so you don't need revenue management at the property level."
Still, in hospitality, technology can only go so far. "Loyalty [to a brand or hotel] comes from the people working within the hotel," Joyce said. "That can’t change."
Marriott's Sorenson was in unison, also adding that associates can't deliver that feeling unless they feel good about their jobs. "It’s all about the people. We can't deliver an experience unless there is a connection with our people. And they won't do that if they don’t feel great about their work."
Millennials are immune, said Wyndham Hotels Group CEO Geoff Ballotti. "Loyalty when done right matters for millennials, too," he said. "They want the same promise."