From concerns regarding the state of Chinese tourism to how best to fill the estimated 1 million open hospitality jobs in the United States, the opening general session of the 41st annual New York University International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference delivered a mashup of various concerns and solutions to the estimated 2,400 on hand here at the Marriott Marquis Times Square.
Lodging executives, developers, investors, economists, analysts and reps from ancillary disciplines were welcomed by Jonathan M. Tisch, chairman/CEO of Loews Hotels & Co., once again on hand as conference chair for the 28th year since the event was founded in 1977 by the late Stephen W. Brener. And for yet another year in the cycle, the outlook was positive.
Citing the industry’s continuing robustness for a 10th year, Tisch acknowledged, “There are challenges we must tackle together … but overall, the state of our industry is strong,” he said, noting U.S. Travel’s Current Travel Index “has signaled growth for an incredible 111 straight months. This rising tide has lifted every segment of our industry.”
He added that within this time period, revenue per available room has grown for 107 of the past 108 months.
As in years past, Tisch exhorted the industry players gathered to show strength as a cohesive force in order to drive change.
Reiterating the need to improve the country’s travel infrastructure, other areas of needed attention included ramping up efforts to compete for international travel. “A recent report stated Chinese tourism to the United States dropped for the first time in 15 years. We must continue to support and invest in Brand USA,” he said, adding, “We need to make travel security stronger and more efficient. Fewer hassles means more people willing to travel.”
While the recovery and stability of the U.S. economy over the past decade has been a major factor in keeping the industry buoyant, the industry’s own self-assessment in what is important for the long term for both its close-in consumers, i.e., owners, developers and franchisees as well as product end-users—guests—also has kept the business thriving and on an even keel. A large part of that has come from a once-hesitant industry embracing innovation and technology. Tisch cited mobile hotel apps, artificial intelligence and customizing guest experiences as part of the mix driving momentum.
The robust economy, however, is creating a conundrum for the industry. America’s unemployment recently fell to 3.6 percent—a 50-year low, said Tisch, estimating there are about 7 million job openings in the United States with a little over 1 million of those in the travel industry.
“How are we going to recruit and retain the talent we need to keep growing?” Tisch put to the audience, noting the outlook doesn’t have to be all that grim. “The good news is we have a great story to tell when it comes to the opportunities our jobs create. According to a new U.S. Travel Association report, when it comes to first jobs, we are the No. 1 industry. In fact, nearly 40 percent of American workers got their start in the travel and tourism industry. We’re also a gateway to the middle class. Individuals who start their careers in the travel industry go on to earn solid, middle-class salaries that can support a family and provide a path to financial security. Finally, our jobs equip people with training and essential skills like time management, effective communications, customer service, teamwork, decision-making.”
To keep the talent pipeline full, the CEO suggested several avenues the industry could get behind:
- A push for a rational, coherent national immigration policy.
- Making diversity and inclusion a core business strategy.
- Navigating the emerging world of automation.
The conference chair noted NYU already is working on several of these paths, wrangling questions like:
“How can we develop a diversity and inclusion strategy that does not just meet customer and worker expectations … but gives us a competitive advantage?
“How can we integrate automation into hospitality?
“How can we leverage technology to attract and retain exceptional workers?
“The three issues I’ve mentioned aren’t really challenges to be overcome; they’re opportunities to be seized,” Tisch told attendees. “They offer us the chance to strengthen our workforce … create a more diverse and inclusive culture and reap the benefits of technology without losing the human touch that distinguishes our industry. Working together we can shape our own future, lifting travel and hospitality to new levels of growth and prosperity.”
Which, ultimately, keeps the NYU International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference cranking.