THE PALM TREE-LINED streets of San Diego, California, formed a welcoming backdrop for the 2019 AAHOA Convention & Trade Show at the city’s convention center downtown. But this year was more than a regular annual meeting, it was a celebration of AAHOA’s 30 years of advocacy, education and support for the Indian American hotelier.
A record setting 8,200 people attended the gala occasion. It saw the installation of the association’s first chairwoman, Jagruti Panwala, as well as the election of its new Secretary, Nishant (Neal) Patel. It welcomed keynote speakers that included Khan Academy founder Sal Khan, former Hewlett-Packard CEO and 2016 presidential candidate Carly Fiorina and Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
The convention also saw a welcoming reception that filled San Diego’s Petco Park with music and fireworks. It saw a block party that made the city’s famous Gaslamp Quarter burn all the brighter.
But it began with a reminder from AAHOA co-founder Mike Leven that none of this came without sacrifice.
In the beginning
Leven is currently the chairman and chief executive officer of Georgia Aquarium, but his roots are in the hospitality industry. Previously he was chairman and CEO of U.S. Franchise Systems, which franchises the Microtel Inn & Suites and Hawthorn Suites hotel brands, as well as president and chief operating officer of Holiday Inn Worldwide.
But at the first general session of the convention, he was there to give a lesson in history.
“Today, I want to talk to you about history, because there are many young people who may not know what we went through in the beginning and why,” Leven said at the top of his address.
He told the story of a time in 1946, when he was 9 years old and on vacation with his family after his father returned from fighting in WW II. They stopped in Richmond, Virginia, at a restaurant with segregated water fountains. One year later his father took him to see Jackie Robinson, the first African American in Major League Baseball, play while the crowd shouted racial epithets at him.
These experiences formed Leven’s desire to seek equality for all, an impulse that led him to eventually fight for the rights of Indian American hotel owners in the 1980s. This eventually led to his cofounding of AAHOA in 1989.
He recounted his experience early in his career when he encountered that discrimination when a senior executive in the economy lodging sector who was supposed to mentor him referred to “curry palaces.” That was a derogatory term for Indian-owned economy hotels.
“I didn’t like it, I didn’t like him,” Leven said.
He then went on to recount his time with his eventual AAHOA co-founders hotelier HP Rama and Lee Dushoff, the Philadelphia-based hotel industry consultant and founder of Hotel Partners who died last year at the age of 80.
“He owned a franchise, maybe two,” Leven said about Rama. “He was sitting in my office, and HP was explaining to me the problems the community was having, getting mortgages, getting insurance, buying goods. But especially not being able to achieve franchising with other systems other than economy lodging.”
The community faced unjustified stereotyping, Leven said, so he conducted a study of how Indian Americans operated their hotels.
“It turned out that all of those myths about Indian ownership that were negative were totally false,” Leven said. “So I told HP I was going to try to do something about it.”
That something turned out to be the ground work for AAHOA. Dushoff, who had called Leven previously offering his consulting service only to be put off, called Leven back. This time Leven brought him onboard.
The three men worked together to assemble the association that is now celebrating 30 years of serving the Indian American hotelier community. The initial cost to join in 1989 was $25.
“Then we had our first convention,” Leven said. “Only 150 people showed up.”
Things have changed, he said.
“What you see now is a membership of 18,000,” he said. “I’m proud of what you have done, but the young people here should know how much work went into it, how many of the original founders left their businesses behind to work so hard to get the membership that we have today.”
Leven also said he was proud to see the next chairman would be a woman. Today AAHOA is the single most important organization in the hotel industry, he said.
“This is not the end, today, in San Diego after 30 years. Now the responsibility is even more important because AAHOA has its place. The original purpose statement was to take its place amongst the hotel industry, its rightful place. It’s already there. So what do you do now?”
A question of leadership
“It’s a question of leadership. A real question of leadership,” Leven said.
Leadership was the main topic of one of the event’s keynote speakers, former Hewlett-Packard CEO and 2016 presidential candidate Carly Fiorina.
Fiorina started by describing her rise in business by facing and solving problems that many other people chose to ignore in order to maintain the status quo.
“The catalyst for problems getting solved versus problems festering, the catalyst for people unlocking their potential, or not, the catalyst is always leadership,” she said.
She went on to outline the characteristics of a leader, such as courage and the ability to bring people together. But Fiorina said most of her lessons for that day were probably unnecessary because the AAHOA members in her audience were already aware of it because they, like her, had lived through it.
“Perhaps the most important quality of leadership of all, and you’ll understand this because I think what I’m about to say defines all of you,” she said. “A leader sees possibilities. There are some people who some to a set of circumstances and see constraints, limitations, barriers, hurdles. These are people who say ‘I can’t do it. They won’t let me do it. It’s all been tried before, it’s never going to work’ And then there are people like you who come to the exact same set of circumstances and say ‘Well, I could try this, and no one’s done that, and why can’t this happen?’ Those people see possibilities. Leaders see possibilities.”
AAHOA’s new leaders
Indeed, AAHOA also saw a change in its leadership during the conference, with Panwala rotating into the chairman position and the election of a new secretary, Blue Chip Hotels founder and managing partner Nishant “Neal” Patel.
Previously, Patel served as AAHOA’s Young Professional Director Western Division. His Austin, Texas-based Blue Chip Hotels, specializing in hotel management and consultation, currently owns and operates nearly 1,200 rooms throughout the U.S. He also serves on the Hospitality Financial and Technology Professionals association’s HITEC council and the Red Roof Inn franchise advisory council.
“Congratulations to our new AAHOA Secretary and to all our newly elected board members,” said AAHOA Interim President and CEO Rachel Humphrey. “I look forward to working with our officers, our board, and the entire AAHOA team as we continue to provide America’s hoteliers with the service and value that AAHOA membership affords them.”
AAHOA board members rotate positions, meaning Neal Patel will eventually move to the treasurer position, then vice chair and finally chair. With Panwala’s ascent to the chairwoman position and the exit of former Chairman Hitesh “HP” Patel, the association’s vice chairman is now Biran Patel and Vinay Patel is now treasurer.
AAHOA members also elected eight other new members to three-year terms on the board. They are:
Director at Large – Prashant Patel
Young Professional Director Western Division – Miraj S. Patel, MBA, CHO, CHIA
Alabama Regional Director – Sanjay M. Patel
Central Midwest Regional Director – Hitesh Patel
Gulf Regional Director – Nick Zaver
North Carolina Regional Director – Akshat A. Patel
Northwest Regional Director – Hiten Patel, CHO
Washington, D.C., Area Regional Director – Sandip Patel
Shining the light
Panwala, who assumed her new duties as AAHOA chairwoman in a ceremony Saturday night, also was chair of the convention, said it was a time to reflect on AAHOA’s accomplishments while planning for the future. But she also was aware of how overwhelming it can be.
“There are so many people, so many speakers,” she said. “I can’t help but remember my first AAHOA convention in Atlantic City 18 years ago.”
She had just purchased her second hotel and someone suggested she check out the convention.
“From the moment I stepped in the door, I knew that I was not alone, that none of us are alone while pursuing our dreams as hoteliers,” Panwala said. “Many good leaders in the hotel industry who saw all the education and resources AAHOA offered opened my eyes to all that I could do as a hotelier.”
Panwala then asked the audience to get their cell phones out and shine their flashlights if they were attending their first AAHOA convention. She then asked anyone who had attended AAHOA conventions in the 1990s to also stand up and shine their lights toward the stage. They were followed by lifetime members and industry partners.
The crowd became a sea of lights pointing toward Panwala.
“Take a look around. This is AAHOA,” she said.