HM gets up close with brand execs at AAHOA Convention


LONG BEACH, Calif. — The Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), whose some 14,000 members by most estimates represent around 50 percent of the hotels owned in the U.S., is here this week at the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center for its 2015 convention, with the "Power of Progress" its guiding tagline.

This year's convention, not unlike those in the past, pushes discussion that is all based around how AAHOA members can make more money and what AAHOA can do to protect its members' investments. Current topics surrounding this are the minimum wage hike debate and franchise questions brought about by the National Labor Relations Board, both of which AAHOA say are pernicious to the livelihood of its members. 

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These topics and others were debated during an Industry Issues Panel, which included: Geoff Ballotti, president and CEO of Wyndham Hotel Group; Roger Bloss, founder and CEO of Vantage Hospitality Group; Liam Brown, CDO of Marriott International; Jim Chu, global head of franchise strategy for Hyatt Hotels; Pat Pacious, EVP and COO of Choice Hotels International; and Raj Trivedi, EVP and CDO of La Quinta Inns & Suites.

The labor issue, centered on complaints that could hold franchisors liable for labor violations by store owners, stemming from a case against McDonald's, is something that Hilton's Brown said would take a few years to play out. In order to challenge it, Ballotti said it's all about advocacy. "It's far and away the biggest issue," he said. Wyndham, a franchisor, would be at risk if courts decide to hold franchisors liable for the actions of its franchisees. He called it "crazy" to take McDonald's and "apply to us."

In regard to the minimum wage, Brown said the "train has left the station. How do we make sure we don’t do anything extreme?" he asked. 

"It's all about advocacy," Bloss said. "Most of us started as dishwashers. People [in our industry] started at minimum wage jobs and are now millionaires. It's not where you start, but where you end up."

Brands, loyalty and the Airbnb creep were also bandied. In regard to OTAs, La Quinta's Trivedi said it was incumbent on hotels to own the stay and create a great guest experience once the customer walks through the door. It doesn't matter how they got there, he said. "It's our collective responsibility to introduce guests to the loyalty programs. Gather data and create loyalty so that they come through are direct channels."

Vantage's Bloss poked fun at Airbnb, calling it "creepy" at one point. "It needs to be regulated," he said. "We have to make sure we tell guests that this is where you want to be. We have to keep innovating and stay ahead."

"I doubt Airbnb affects business travelers," Trivedi said. "What we control is what we offer the guest. The experience will bring guests back more than anything else. Lack of it won’t. I'd rather spend time on what I control to make sure the hotel is in best form."

Ballotti appealed for regulation. "We need to look at being more aggressive with the FTC," he said. "There are strong feelings about illegal activity and not playing by the rules hurts us."

As for the spate of new brands, most on the panel said they could be absorbed with little to no problems, because customers show they want them. "When you have loyalty members looking for things you don’t have, then you provide it," said Choice's Pacious. 

Marriott, which has some 19 brands, is "driven by customer needs," Brown said. "People want different experiences, like lifestyle. If they weren’t using them, there's no compelling reason to build them."

Marriott has lifestyle brands that include AC Hotels by Marriott, Edition, Autograph Collection and Moxy.

Said Hyatt's Chu, "You might have the same customer, but with different purposes of travel. Also, the consumer is moving through the system at different ages. The job is to make sure the brands complement each other and not compete against each other."

But for Trivedi, it's still about one brand only. "We have a single brand focus," he said. How long does it take for a brand to get wide distribution? Look at the ones launched, have they been able to reach wide distribution? Is the brand owner paying attention to your bottom line? Don’t always go for sexy. It’s inviting, but not something you always take home with you."