ALIS vibe: positive, but wise to prep for change

LOS ANGELES—There were no coy themes to this year’s annual Americas Lodging Investment Summit, where some 3,000 hospitality movers and shakers crowded inside (and outside) the JW Marriott here, ready to deal and make sure the strong performance pulse of the industry is going to keep beating at least for the foreseeable future.

Jim Burba, chairman of ALIS and president of Burba Hotel Network, which hosts the event along with the American Hotel & Lodging Association, indicated to the crowd gathered for the three-day event tagged “Investing: Today, Tomorrow and Beyond,” that 2019 would follow a year where “nationwide, it was a decent year for getting deals done; new hotels were developed, but we didn’t overbuild and screw it up ourselves. And hotel performance was respectable.”

He suggested what was later voiced during some of the event’s sessions and by attendees in corridors: that the demise of the industry’s robust growth over the past decade is inevitable so planning for the future should be a given at this point.

AH&LA chairman Geoff Ballotti, president of Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, gave updates on the association’s activities, noting part of the future includes dealing with finding the right people to help the industry keep moving at a quality level. “We employ 9 million people and we have 900,000 vacancies in our hotels today,” he observed, adding that efforts to attract youth to the industry, via scholarships and other avenues, is an intense, ongoing effort.

Protecting Your Own

Ballotti also touched on the 5-Star Promise initiated last year by the AH&LA and a roster of hotel companies, which is designed to help keep employees safe and secure as they work, and to guard, in particular, against sexual harassment. “We have never had such unanimous support for something that’s so important for our associates, putting into their hands that employee safety device, giving them the tools and the training,” he said.

New AH&LA president and CEO Chip Rogers echoed Ballotti, telling the audience: “We didn’t need the government to tell us that we needed to come up with a program to protect our employees.”

Issues around the Americans with Disabilities Act and combatting human trafficking also were in focus, with current Asian American Hotel Owners Association Chairman Hitesh (HP) Patel indicating it was the combined efforts of the industry’s companies and associations that yield significant results. “Whether it’s to discourage human trafficking or advocating on important workforce policies, we are at our strongest when we work together,” he said. 

Tina Tchen, partner, Buckley Sandler and co-founder, Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, shared some insight’s with Roseanne Maietta, AH&LA EVP, communications and public relations, on the industry’s commitment to be proactive about safety and security.

“This last year-and-a-half has been a time of dramatic change around the workplace, around what’s happening between men and women in the workplace, around safety in the workplace, around how consumers are viewing brands that do or do not address issues of diversity, inclusion, sexual harassment,” said Tchen, who saw the efforts by hoteliers as “comprehensive, very deep and bold in the commitments that are made, not just to safety of your workers around the safety devices but also to changing culture.”

Interestingly, 22 percent of this year’s ALIS attendees are women and Tchen suggested corporations have realized issues around safety and sexual harassment are not just human-resources issues. “The sea change we’ve seen in the last year has been companies realizing ‘our talent is part of our bottom line and we need to invest in our talent, not just in wages and training, but also in the safety measures, in the kind of compliance mechanisms that we need to make sure we’re doing the right thing around culture,’” she said, adding: “The ideal culture [companies] are all striving for is a workplace where everyone feels safe, respected and able to reach their full potential.”

Defined by Difficulty

In one of the touted new features at ALIS, Hilton president and CEO Christopher Nassetta “interviewed” David M. Solomon, recently named chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs Group, who steered away from what is known in financial circles as the years-long “1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad) scandal.” He did comment: “if you run any big business—Goldman Sachs is a big organization, we’ve got 40,000 people all over the world, we’re a Fortune 100 company—stuff happens. One of the things that’s interesting about these businesses is you’re not defined by how you do when things are going well, you’re defined over time by how you do in dealing with the things that invariably come up. These are complicated organizations and you feel like you own it. And you’re responsible for figuring it out. You don’t get paid for the good things; you get paid for dealing with the difficult things.”

Solomon also gave his takeaway on the mood at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “This year the tone tipped a little bit more negative, a little bit more caution, a little bit more concern. But I would just say that my experience, having been to Davos 10 years in a row, is whatever the consensus is, it’s generally wrong,” he said. Solomon added there are macro problems that have to be solved—trade and the overall relationship with China, Brexit, politics in France, etc.—but they’re not going to get solved quickly. “My own view is it’s having an impact on global growth but not one at this point that’s out of control," he said. So, chance of recession this year? I put it at 15 percent.”

One of the first day’s highlights was the presentation of the ALIS Lifetime Achievement Award to Choice Hotels International’s chairman Stuart Bainum Jr., whose father was the incubator of the hotel group that eventually became the Maryland-based global hotel chain.

Bainum has been chairman of Choice since 1987 and a member of its leadership team since 1976, and has overseen the chain’s growth from a franchisor of 290 hotels under one brand in the United States to a global enterprise with more than 6,900 franchised hotels in more than 40 countries and territories. The company is celebrating its 80th year in 2019. In addition to Choice, Bainum has led a number of organizations, including HCR Manor Care, Vitalink Pharmacy Services and Sunburst Hospitality. He also served eight years as a delegate and senator in in the Maryland General Assembly and is a well-known philanthropist.