ON THE CUSP of his transition to chairman of AAHOA, Bharat Patel was ready to take the reigns of the association at a time when it was embroiled in a conflict with several large hotel companies over its support for franchise reform. Bharat sat down with his predecessor Nishant “Neal” Patel to talk with Asian Hospitality for our Leadership Series to discuss the situation and his plans for the future of the association.

Those plans include maintaining AAHOA’s focus on being a “member centric” organization by advocating for member’s needs from government officials and offering more educational services. The interview, given during the Hunter Hotel Conference in March, was weeks before the 2023 AAHOA Conference and Trade Show in Los Angeles, and both men discussed the record turnout for that conference among other things.

Meanwhile, Neal Patel looked back on his year as chairman and his accomplishments. Both men said AAHOA’s primary purpose is serving the needs of its members.

Much achieved

Neal Patel said much was accomplished under his administration.

“This year has been a great one because our goal has been how can we make this association member centric,” Neal said. “We want to make sure that we’re financially stable at the same time.”

Some of those completed goals include AAHOA’s HER Ownership women’s initiative. AAHOA also launched a new website in December, the next phase of which will include an expanded resource library. On a personal level, Neal said he also learned much from his time as chairman.

“The three things that I’ll take back is number one, communication, effective communication. Number two is transparency, and number three is strong partnerships,” Neal said. “Those are the three things that we practiced in AAHOA as the association will continue to be member centric. We want to be the resource that we intend to be for our membership and as long as we continue to follow those three guidelines, that is how we succeed in AAHOA and in my personal life as well.”

AAHOACON23 sets records despite dispute

Even at the time of Bharat and Neal’s interview for the Leadership Series in March, AAHOACON23 had set records for registration set by the 2019 conference. Neal suggested one reason for that turnout.

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AAHOA Chairman Bharat Patel on stage at AAHOACON23.

“Number one, when you talk about our association, there’s a sense of community. I think that’s what this association is about,” he said. “We’re always there to help each other out. We’re going through a challenging time. Members are showing support today with the spike showing up to this convention.”

Part of that challenge was the conflict between AAHOA and several companies, such as Marriott International and Choice Hotels International. In January, Marriott announced it would withdraw its support for AAHOA and the conference in response to the association’s 12 Points of Fair Franchising and its support for New Jersey Assembly Bill 1958, which would make changes to the state’s Franchise Practices Act that could benefit franchisees.

Choice followed suit in February. Along with those two companies, however, several others that ordinarily attend AAHOACONs did not have booths at the show, including IHG Hotels & Resorts and Hilton. Other companies, including G6 Hospitality, BWH Hotel Group and Red Roof, have publicly endorsed the 12 Points.

One month before the show, Bharat said both sides were still in negotiations.

“I want to make sure everybody understands what we value our brand partners,” Bharat said. “I’d like to highlight that even today we’ve had dialogue with trading partners, brand partners are going to choose what they want to do. But I want to make sure you understand we are a member centric association. We’re working hard on behalf of the membership, to make sure that we represent their interests.”

The fight for fair franchising is worth the risk, Neal said.

“I think fairness in franchising is an important topic for AAHOA, an important issue for our membership group,” Neal said. “When it comes to any franchise relations, I’m personally a franchisee. It should be a mutually beneficial relationship, because we need our brand partners as much as they need us. And we’re the only owners association that represents solely to hotel owners needs and we look out for the bottom line.“

Neal also said achieving the type of reform AAHOA wants is a process that requires work on both sides.

“We read the entire bill and there were some things that we disagreed with as an association,” Neil said. “Therefore, we proposed amendments, but there are the four key principles that we believe that will impact every single hotelier and because of this, some friends want to disengage or pause. We can’t control what our brand partners are doing. But do we want them at our convention, absolutely, because we feel that that’s a resource to our members.”

In a special edition of the Leadership Series last month, Pat Pacious, president and CEO for Choice, gave his company’s side of the debate.

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Pat Pacious, president and CEO of Choice Hotels, said the conflict between AAHOA and his company is not about fair franchising and that dialogue between the two parties must continue.

“This is not about fair franchising. Choice Hotels is probably the most franchisee friendly company, we always have been,” Pacious said. “We have had a long-standing relationship with AAHOA and the way we all move forward is through dialogue. And we are always open to dialogue, we’ve always made that the number one thing that we focus on. A lot of our owners are very much aware of what we’re doing and support what we’re doing, and the dialogue is where we’re going to hopefully get back to a place where AAHOA and Choice are shoulder to shoulder again on the major issues that are facing our industry.”

The importance of education

Bharat joined AAHOA in 2008 because other members of his family, including his brother, were members. It’s one of his father’s lessons that provides him guidance on how to approach his new leadership role.

“When I was growing up, my dad would say if you’re going to succeed in life and do anything, first thing you got to do is get educated,” Bharat said. “Work hard, stay out of politics, those are the three things I was really taught.”

How that will translate into his chairmanship, Bharat said, will be a revival of AAHOA services. That includes counseling on legal services, loans, insurance and more.

“You have things that are not just cost cutting measures, but how to protect your asset,” Bharat said. “It’s not just about making money and saving money.”

Advocacy with government agencies on all levels will be another focus of his administration, Bharat said.

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From left, AAHOA Chairman Bharat Patel, past Chairman Nishant “Neal” Patel, AAHOA Vice Chairman Miraj Patel and Treasurer Kamalesh “KP” Patel at the 2023 AAHOA Conference and Trade Show in Los Angeles.

“I think it’s really important to be with elected officials. We have to inform them, we have to educate them, then we have to advocate for our members,” Bharat said. “Today or tomorrow, whether it’s federal government, state government, local municipalities, they’re always going to make rules that impact our business. Some can impact in a positive way, but more than likely that could impact them negatively, so it’s really important to have our presence known there.”

A word of advice

Finally, Neal parted with some words of wisdom and encouragement for the new chairman.

“When the year started, obviously, one year I’m the chair, but I had to rely upon Bharat’s leadership and his help, and the amount of help that he gave me a tremendous because I did not expect a lot of things to go the way they’re going,” Neal said. “I think it’s because of the team that we have right now within the AAHOA officers that continue to support and continue to guide us and we will have discussions on what to do next. I’m fully confident in his leadership skills and I’m looking forward to being a full member and also serve on his board.”