AAHOA leaders look for hope amid downturn

As he welcomed attendees to the 2020 AAHOA Conference, the association’s new chairman Biran Patel acknowledged how unusual this year’s event is. “This isn't exactly what we envisioned when we began planning our convention,” he said in a recorded message to delegates. “We were prepared for four festive days of celebrating your accomplishments, and our industry, in sunny Orlando, Fla.” 

Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the conference back from April to August and, as with so many other events, forced the organizers to take it online. And this adjustment, Patel said, is just one of many changes the industry and the country are coping with. “160,000 of our fellow Americans have lost their lives to this virus. Big parts of our economy and our society are on pause. Businesses are struggling, and millions of people in the hospitality industry alone are out of work. Hotel owners are struggling to keep the lights on and stay current on their mortgages.”

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In such times, he continued, disillusionment is easy, but hoteliers are a resilient people in a resilient industry. “It's been said that when times are tough, we see people's true character. And if this pandemic has taught me anything, it's the truth in those words. I've seen the best that our industry has to offer as you stepped up to help your communities even as your business has suffered.” 

Jagruti Panwala, AAHOA’s most recent chair and the association’s first-ever chairwoman, similarly expressed pride in the many ways hoteliers had remained strong in the face of adversity. “Your compassion over the past few months illustrates the best in our industry,” she said. “It shows the world what hospitality is all about.”

Reasons for Pride

Over the past year, Panwala said, AAHOA’s membership grew to nearly 20,000 people, the highest in the association’s history. “In fact, we saw so much new growth that we created a new region out west: the greater Los Angeles area,” she said. The members have been active, with nearly 17,000 attendees at educational events, more than double from two years ago. At the same time, attendance in town halls, regional meetings, educational workshops and other events increased 92 percent year over year. 

In February, AAHOA launched a new certificate in hotel ownership course in an entirely digital platform. “In the five months immediately following the launch, we saw more people earn their CHO than in the last two years combined,” Panwala said. “And those numbers continue to rise.” AAHOA is still working with brand partners to improve the course propositions for owners, and the education platform’s evolution will be an “ongoing and evolving process.”

And since February, as the pandemic began to affect the industry, AAHOA has stepped up its presence in Washington, D.C., advocating for hoteliers with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. “We must keep building this relationship and continue to increase our footprint in the political sphere, especially given the crisis [challenging] our livelihood,” she said. “To date, we have held over 150 webinars to help hoteliers specifically address COVID-19. We fought for, and won, flexibility for hoteliers to use [paycheck protection program] loans to cover more expenses. Our advocacy team continues to press Congress and the administration to give hoteliers targeted economic stimulus and real relief on CMBS loans. We are working with our state and local partners on property tax relief and other initiatives to help hoteliers get through this liquidity crisis.”  

The New CEO Speaks Out

Cecil Staton gave his first conference address as president and CEO, noting that after spending decades in several industries, he is aware of the pros and cons of disruptions. This pandemic, he said, goes far beyond the disruption of new technology or short-term rentals. “We saw our industry go from years of consecutive growth to a standstill seemingly overnight,” he said. “This virus is changing the way we live and do business and is forcing us to innovate just to survive.”

Some people, Rosen added, have speculated that COVID-19 is accelerating the demise of practices and industries that were already on their way out—“How we approach labor, guest services, sanitation protocols, automation and other areas are all impacted,” he noted. “And we'll continue to see significant shifts in the coming months and years.” 

Harris Rosen’s Advice

The conference’s opening day ended with insights from Harris Rosen, president and COO of Rosen Hotels & Resorts, who acknowledged the industry’s struggles with blunt words: “This has been the worst time, by far. It's been an awful experience. We've tried our best, but we can't control what is going on. And that's the great tragedy.” 

Rosen offered some advice to hoteliers on how to determine if they should try and keep their properties open or close them. “Put together a pro forma based on open, put together a pro forma based on closed, and whichever works best for you, my recommendation would be to do it,” he said.

Once the pandemic lifts and travel resumes, Rosen advised pretending that this particular downturn never happened. “The likelihood is that it'll never happen again in our lifetime,” he explained. “So plan for the future, do everything you normally do to prepare for additional rooms, for a new property—whatever it is that you've been dreaming about and hoping for. Don't let this interfere with your future.” 

Rosen wondered aloud how one should lead through depression, anxiety and a lack of certainty over what the future holds. “It's difficult,” he acknowledged. “But we have no choice but to somehow create an environment where our associates know how much we love them and respect them. Now's the time to do that.” Hoteliers should talk regularly with their associates, he advised, and make sure their value to the business is never in doubt. “Let them know how much you respect and admire them and need them. They know that things are so difficult now. They can't expect you to do everything you would like to do, so do the best you can. Do the best you can.”