AAHOA has announced that its 2020 Convention & Trade Show will not proceed in person due to new health and safety guidelines for combatting COVID-19 issued by the Florida Department of Health. The event originally was scheduled to be held April 12-15 at the Orange County Convention Center and was rescheduled for Aug. 9-12 during the height of the pandemic.
“It was, obviously, a very difficult decision,” said AAHOA President and CEO Cecil Staton, adding that the leadership team had been working to develop as safe a conference as possible, developing measures with Orlando Health, the convention center and the hotels there.
But Florida seeing a dramatic increase in positive COVID-19 cases, the Florida Department of Health issued new guidance for safe gatherings. “Included in that guidance was a limitation that gatherings can be no more than 50 [people],” Staton said. “Obviously, that doesn't work under any circumstances for us.” The AAHOA Convention & Trade Show is one of the largest gatherings of hotel owners, hospitality industry leaders and vendors in the country, with an estimated 400 vendors and thousands of attendees slated to be there.
The team had hoped the convention would be the first major event in the industry since the outbreak began. “Certainly many hoped, as we did, that it would be a symbol of hope, a beacon of hope for our industry as we prepare for the greater reopening of the economy and resumption of traffic,” according to Staton.
Given the logistics of organizing the event, AAHOA’s leadership decided not to keep attendees and vendors waiting on what would happen in August, and decided to call a halt six weeks out. While the decision is disappointing, he said, “we believe at the end of the day it's the right thing to do.”
The length of the pandemic has forced many events online, and AAHOA has hosted about 110 webinars this year, which were seen by almost 22,000 people. “And so we've learned a lot about doing things virtually, and we're going to put that to use in a virtual event that will be very meaningful to the industry,” Staton said.
The decision to take the conference online was only finalized within the last 24 hours, Staton said, and the details are still being ironed out. Parts of the convention will move to a virtual space and the association will present industry keynotes and panels, speeches by AAHOA leadership, and secure, online elections for AAHOA’s board of directors and secretary. “We certainly hope to have a lot of panels that will address many of the issues we were going to address in Orlando, helping hoteliers to be better prepared for the resumption of travel and what their work is going to be in the post COVID-19 environment,” Staton said. AAHOA has not yet decided if the virtual conference will be behind a paywall or open to all, he added.
As for the vendors hoping to close deals on the trade show floor, Staton plans to talk with all registrants and find a way to have them interact with AAHOA members and other attendees. “So many other things have been canceled throughout the year and even into the fall, so it was a very important event for so many of our vendors, and we hope we'll be able to find a way to make this relevant and meaningful for them," he said. "But it certainly will be different.”
As required by the association’s governing documents, AAHOA will hold a virtual annual meeting to elect its board and a new secretary. “We will work through the details on the procedures for that, for speeches, for dates and for finalizing the elections process,” Staton said. “We've got a good handle on how that can occur.”
“For over three decades, the AAHOA Convention & Trade Show has provided hoteliers from around the nation access to the best deals, education, and networking opportunities in our industry. While I will miss seeing our members and our industry and vendor partners, I am confident that AAHOA made the safest and most responsible decision for our association and for our members,” said Biran Patel, AAHOA chairman and 2020 convention chair. “Our members and vendor partners showed overwhelming enthusiasm for this year’s convention with thousands prepared to join us in Orlando. It is unfortunate that we cannot be together, but I am confident that AAHOA will deliver much of the value and excitement of our convention to our members through the virtual channels that we’ve all become more familiar with over the past few months. It is my hope that we will be able to celebrate the return of our industry face to face at the 2021 AAHOA Convention & Trade Show in Dallas next spring,” he added.
With no end date for the pandemic in sight, Staton plans to continue connecting with members and other industry professionals online for the time being.
“We are already hosting virtual regional meetings for members around the country, and I suspect that will continue into the fall,” he said. “There are changes that all of us will probably make to some degree or another because of what we’ve experienced during the pandemic.” Still, he said, everyone at AAHOA is hoping to resume in-person meetings soon. After hosting webinars and other online events, Staton expects virtual and hybrid events will become “a tool in our arsenal” going forward. “But I do not believe in the long-haul it will replace in-person meetings,” he cautioned. Face-to-face connections, he said, are not just important to hospitality, but are at the heart of the industry.
“We’re still standing,” Staton emphasized. “We may be battered and bruised just a little but we're still standing. I hope the virtual event will be a symbol of that, and that we can still do through the virtual event this August what we very much intended to do had we been meeting in person—and that is really to be a symbol of the hope that we have that we are stronger together.”