Outgoing AAHOA Chairwoman Jagruti Panwala addressed members on a virtual stage along with current Chairman Biran Patel during the virtual event AAHOACON 2020.

AAHOA’S FIRST VIRTUAL annual convention and tradeshow, AAHOACON 2020, is officially under way. Tuesday was a warm up with speeches by leadership at the annual meeting and speeches from candidates for the board of directors.

The association’s new Chairman Biran Patel kicked off AAHOACON 2020 with a live-feed address to members. He assumed the chairmanship in June when AAHOA was still hoping to hold the conference live in Orlando, Florida. Those plans changed after the Florida Department of Health announced its new guidelines on June 20.

“As you can imagine, this isn’t exactly what we envisioned when we began planning our convention. We were prepared for four festive days of celebrating your accomplishments and our industry in sunny Orlando, Florida,” Patel said. “But like so many Americans, we’re facing a tough new reality because of COVID-19. And we’ve had to make some changes.”

The pandemic has had a profound impact on the hospitality industry, Patel said.

“It’s easy to get down given the challenging times we face. But we hoteliers are a resilient people and a resilient industry,” Patel said. “Hospitality is more than just an industry. It’s a philosophy that elevates generosity, warmth, and compassion to friends and strangers alike. We all know that these difficult times will pass, travel will resume and our industry will recover. But until that time, we must address our current state and prepare for what’s to come”.

Outgoing Chairwoman Jagruti Panwala took the stage next, telling AAHOA members she was proud  of how they had faced the current crisis.

“We also showed our adaptability, resourcefulness and resilience in the face of adversity because of the COVID-19 pandemic, our very livelihood is being put to the test,” Panwala said.

Association membership reached nearly 20,000, the highest in its history, she said. Nearly 17,000 members had taken advantage of AAHOA’s educational programs and attendance in its town halls, regional meetings, educational workshops and other events rose 92 percent over the previous year.

“As we saw at our convention in San Diego, our past plays an important role in our future. That’s why, for the first time in association history, we held the board retreat with our past chairs,” she said. “That institutional knowledge of our association, our history, and our industry is an invaluable resource that our board of directors can tap as we chart our path forward.”

AAHOA has done much to help its members deal with the pandemic, Panwala said, including holding more than 150 webinars.

“We fought for and won flexibility for hoteliers to use Paycheck Protection Program loans to cover more expenses,” she said. “Our advocacy team continues to press Congress and the administration to give hoteliers targeted economic stimulus and real relief on CMBS loans.”

Cecil Staton, AAHOA president and CEO, talked about the pandemic as a disrupter that could force the industry to evolve.

“No industry is immune from disruption, including hospitality. It’s not just new technology and platforms for short term rentals that are reshaping the guest and owner experience,” Staton said. “There is perhaps no greater disruption than that which the COVID-19 pandemic continues to inflict upon our industry. We saw our industry go from years of consecutive growth to a standstill seemingly overnight. This virus is changing the way we live and do business and forcing us to innovate just to survive.”

The session closed with a special message from Harris Rosen the president and CEO of Rosen Hotels & Resorts, one of Florida’s largest independent hotel. His message did not sugarcoat the situation.

“In the 46 years that we’ve had our little company, I must confess that this has been the worst time, by far,” Rosen said. “It’s been an awful experience. We’ve tried our best, but we can’t control what’s going on, and that’s the great tragedy. Normally, if we’re having challenges, we can step forward, confront those challenges and do something about it. What is occurring now is well beyond our control, and that’s what’s so frustrating.”

All hoteliers can do is just do the best they can, said Rosen.

“There really isn’t much advice I can offer because this has never happened to us before. And what do we do? What can we do? We can take a deep breath, do the best we can under the circumstances and hope and pray that when within a reasonable amount of time there’ll be a vaccine,” he said.