HM on location: Pride, passion, purpose color AAHOA’s 30th anniversary convention

AAHOA’s leadership honored industry icon Mike Leven during the opening general session. Pictured [from left] are: Secretary Vinay Patel, Vice-Chairwoman Jagruti Panwala, Chairman Hitesh (HP) Patel, Treasurer Biran Patel, Interim President/CEO Rachel Humphrey and Leven. Photo credit: Hotel Management(Photo credit: Stefani C. O'Connor)

SAN DIEGO—A small city’s worth of attendees—an estimated 8,000—has turned out here to mark the 30th anniversary of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, boosting the local economy and bringing smiles to area hoteliers whose rooms they’re filling.

The sense of achievement was palpable yesterday in one of the ballrooms of the massive San Diego Convention Center where AAHOA members—owners, operators, managers and developers—and executives gathered to celebrate the organization’s journey from 1989 to the present, and to ensure its momentum continues far into the future.

While representing less than 50 percent of AAHOA’s current 18,500 members, the robust number of delegates was a tangible reminder of how far the association has come in three decades and since its first conference in 1990. Then, a few hundred attendees showed up in Atlanta and selected its first board of directors: HP Rama as chairman, Ravi Patel as vice chairman, Sunny Anand as second vice chairman and Nitin Shah as secretary.

Taking to the conference stage as the opening general session’s first speaker was another reminder of the organization's start: industry icon Mike Leven. As president of Days Inn back in the late 1980s he, together with the late Lee Dushoff, was a seminal force in helping fight against the discrimination Asian Americans faced at the time and pushed hard to get AAHOA off the ground.

Pride in Purpose

“I’m so proud of what we have done, and what you have done,” said Leven, recalling how he, Dushoff, Rama and Patel “ran around the country, north, south, west, east, everywhere, having meetings with all the early members of the community … and we got membership … and it was hard, very hard.”

Looking at AAHOA today, Leven characterized it for the attendees as “the single most important organization in the hotel industry, and you should all feel very proud.

"It’s a question of leadership," he continued. "We had it in the early days, we have it now and it must continue in the future … this organization is a result of what can be done when things are difficult, what can be done to rise above difficulties when people discriminate, dislike and make stereotypical statements. And in this country, the United States of America, we still remain the only country where what you have done can be done.”

Mike Leven recalled the start of AAHOA for conference attendees. Photo credit: Hotel Management

For his contributions to the organization, AAHOA’s board of directors presented Leven with a “Lifetime Achievement” award. In addition, Elaine Dushoff was presented with a similar award recognizing her late husband.

Noting how the efforts of Leven and Dushoff helped make AAHOA members “part of the mainstream of the lodging industry,” former chairman Rama said the organization was establishing a scholarship in their name at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

A Milestone Shift

Leven also pointed to the significance of AAHOA’s incoming chairwoman, current Vice-Chairwoman Jagruti Panwala, who will be the first female in that slot as of April 27.

Panwala told the crowd how she attended her first AAHOA convention some 18 years ago in Atlantic City, N.J. “From the moment I stepped in the door, I knew I was not alone. That none of us are alone in pursuing our dreams as hoteliers. Meeting with leaders in the hotel industry, and seeing all the education and resources that were offered opened my eyes to all that I could do as a hotelier.”

Building on an Exceptional Year

Current chairman Hitesh (HP) Patel noted 2018 was an “exceptional” year for AAHOA. “Building on a record year in 2017 was no easy task, but this is AAHOA and this is America, where anything is possible. AAHOA continued its exceptional growth in membership, advocacy and, importantly, education,” said Patel, telling the audience, “AAHOA’s growth and progress over this past year could not have been possible without your sacrifice to our association…it’s no secret that AAHOA continues to grow. Our voice is louder and more people are listening to what we have to say.”

Interim President/CEO Rachel Humphrey observed the 30th anniversary celebration presented “a time to reflect on all we have accomplished over the past decades and to look at all of the great things yet to come.”

[From left] AH&LA President/CEO Chip Rogers talks success with leading industry executives and AAHOA members Mitch Patel, Al Patel, Mehul Patel and Jay H. Shah. Photo credit: Hotel Management

AAHOA Treasurer Biran Patel told attendees, “Your success allows AAHOA to succeed, and for many you are the embodiment of the American Dream. America is a land of endless possibilities where we all are afforded the opportunity to be successful. Many first-generation hoteliers came to America with nothing but a vision and the willingness to work hard and make it a reality. The hospitality industry is one where dreams and determination are recognized and rewarded and can yield a steady rise to the top.”

To prove his point, Patel introduced a panel of four AAHOA members who have achieved “the kind of success that exceeds even the wildest American Dream,” he said.

Chip Rogers, president/CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association and former president/CEO of AAHOA, moderated the panel, which was comprised of Mitch Patel, CEO/Vision Hospitality Group; Al Patel, president/Baywood Hotels; Mehul Patel, chairman/CEO, NewcrestImage; and Jay H. Shah, CEO of lodging real estate investment trust Hersha Hospitality Trust.

To bring insight to the quartet’s successes, Rogers queried each executive on what he does every day that helps in that direction.

Pointing to the people business hospitality is, Mitch Patel said he wakes every day thinking about his organization and its culture. “We have 1,600 associates and growing. We aren’t the ones cleaning the rooms anymore, doing the laundry, taking out the trash like I did when I was growing up,” he said.

Al Patel added the Baywood culture embraces family: his own whom he works with as well as his hotel family of associates. “It’s one thing I make sure: that everybody in our office is extremely positive every day and we all support each other,” he said.

“My focus also is building human capital,” said Mehul Patel. “As you grow your business, your job is to continue to nurture your human capital at every level, whether it’s the corporate office, whether it’s the board of directors, your VPs or at the property level. Your job is to continue to bring more leaders into your company; that brings you more success … give them the tools and resources they need to be their best … and challenge them often.”

Shah noted when it comes to people and being successful, one of the things he believes in “whole-heartedly is we can learn as much from our senior-most executives as we can from the chief bottle washer in the kitchen or our engineers or our room attendants. Whenever I’m visiting properties, I really do take the time to speak with some of the folks on the line that might not always have a chance to be heard. I think that goes a long way. It also helps to drive a cultural spirit and a true team spirit.”

Overall, the panelists concurred being passionate about the hospitality life was a key component in driving success but must be put in context of having a balanced life whether with family or other personal commitments.