Katherine Lugar knows Washington. After spending more than 20 years working in private sector public affairs, the former VP of public affairs at the Retail Industry Leaders Association joined the American Hotel & Lodging Association as president and CEO nearly three and a half years ago. She brought with her a mission. Having built her career on understanding legislative process on Capitol Hill, Lugar shifted her focus to the hospitality industry just as it was preparing to switch momentum. Industry leaders were looking to redirect the AH&LA into taking a more active role in advocacy.
“When this opportunity came up, it was the perfect storm,” Lugar said. “[The AH&LA] saw my accomplishments and were ready to do things a little differently.”
Pushing the Issue
Lugar’s tenure in Washington began as a staff member for then-Congressman Tim Roemer of Indiana. She went on to hold legislative affairs positions at Travelers Insurance and the National Retail Federation, and sits on the boards of the U.S. Travel Association, the Bryce Harlow Foundation and St. Baldrick’s Foundation. Once on board at the AH&LA, Lugar said she fell in love with the industry overnight, relishing the opportunity to work in an industry centered on people.
“Their salt-of-the-earth personalities make it so gratifying,” she said. “Many of our leaders started at entry level, and no matter if it’s the people at the front desk, our GMs or on our boards, they have a great story to tell and they make our story easy to tell.”
Changing the industry’s story has been a big focus of Lugar’s at the AH&LA, with the goal of eventually influencing policy. Due to the brand-owner-operator business model, Lugar said the industry faced challenges because it was so fragmented. Her plan was to unite everyone throughout these three branches to give them a unified voice. Thanks in part to her efforts, AH&LA membership has grown from 8,000 to 24,000 during the past four years.
“People are the heart of hospitality; people taking care of people,” Lugar said. “We need the talent, and that is the focus of our foundation for the labor and workforce policies we are driving.”
No Easy Task
Though she is enthusiastic about hospitality and the people who make up the industry, Lugar was chosen to lead the AH&LA in part because she recognizes the challenges the industry is facing. Lugar admitted that short-term rentals are not a new concept, but the AH&LA’s focus is not on the average renter but operators looking to run full-time illegal hotels. Most recently, the AH&LA has taken action against new hospitality platforms and disruptors in the short-term rental market, working toward enforcement of regulations that hotel operators already are subject to, such as taxes, zoning laws and health and safety provisions.
Lugar said that one of the biggest challenges she faces is the volume of change taking place as technology advances and new disruptors appear, and her attempts to stay ahead of it. “We always have to make sure we are keeping two hands on the wheel,” she said. “There are so many opportunities ahead of us. We need to stay focused, and with any ambitious team that can sometimes be tough.”
Lugar also believes the average traveler is ill-informed about the consolidated nature of online travel agencies. With two players controlling the majority of the OTA market, she expressed worry that consumers don’t understand how this limits their choices while hotels continue to lose control of rates. Even more, she said that the currently level of consolidation between OTAs would require tremendous policy changes. But boiled down, Lugar feels consumers and hotels have been cheated.
“People often think of OTAs and short-term rentals as innovative platforms, when we know our industry is driving innovation,” she said. “We have to make that an active part of the discussion. And when looking at technology, we need to make sure we are driving policies that enable innovation without using it as an excuse to avoid regulations.”
Lugar also said the AH&LA plans to amplify its voice on the workforce side of the business, and that there are many more challenges that the industry must overcome. Seated in a position that seems dedicated entirely to solving problems, Lugar is anything but worried.
“Anyone who knows me knows I love to win!” she said. “Give me a challenge.”