IT’S BEEN A little more than a month now since educator and former Georgia legislator Cecil Staton was picked to be AAHOA’s next president and CEO. His selection came after a 10 months search for a replacement for former President and CEO Chip Rogers after he left for a new position with the American Hotel & Lodging Association.
AAHOA members face a number of issues going into the new year and Staton took time to talk to Asian Hospitality about some of them. Below are his responses to questions on finding the American dream, the rise of women in the industry and the legacy he seeks to maintain.
AH: How have your first few days on the job been?
Staton: AAHOA represents over 19,300 members, employs nearly 40 professionals and has offices in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., so there is a lot to absorb. My first few weeks here have been great. I’ve gotten to know the officers, the board of directors and the professional staff, and I’ve begun speaking with more members and some of our partners. This association attracts remarkably dynamic people, both as members, partners and employees, and I am enjoying meeting as many of them as I can.
AH: You’ve said you were attracted to the position at AAHOA because it represents a compelling version of the American dream. How do you think that dream is changing for the new generation of Indian American hoteliers who are now taking the reins? How should AAHOA change to help them?
Staton: I think that for the next generation of hoteliers, the foundational concept of the American Dream remains unchanged. Hoteliers still want a path to build their businesses through hard work and good business acumen without significant regulatory burdens or arbitrary taxes and fees inhibiting growth. AAHOA continues to help all hoteliers build their businesses through our extensive educational offerings, networking opportunities and political engagement.
AH: Women are playing an increasingly important role in AAHOA and in the hospitality industry in general. How do you plan to work with Chairwoman Jagruti Panwala to encourage further participation by women in the association?
Staton: Women hoteliers are a significant part of AAHOA’s membership and AAHOA continues to offer educational and networking opportunities geared towards empowering women to take a more pronounced role in the industry. Whether it is brand development days, our Women Hoteliers Conference or education sessions at our convention and regional conferences, we want to make sure that the unique perspectives of women hoteliers can be appreciated and elevated in our industry. I hope that Jagruti serving as chairwoman and our other female board members will inspire other women hoteliers to seek out leadership roles in AAHOA and inspire decisionmakers in our industry to seek out more female candidates for leadership positions.
AH: What are some of the most important trends in the hospitality industry for which you would like to help AAHOA members prepare?
Staton: While many hoteliers are more prepared for changes to our economy than they were during the financial crisis in 2008, the potential for a slowdown got us thinking of ways we could help hoteliers weather it. AAHOA offers numerous educational resources on financial management and revenue management and optimization and our professional development team is working with industry experts to create new and exclusive content in these areas. We are also assisting members in navigating the ever-changing brand landscape. The hospitality industry saw more than 100 new brands rolled out in the past few years. To help hoteliers make sense of this, AAHOA’s brand development days are an excellent opportunity for hoteliers to meet with brand executives and learn about what it takes to develop a branded property. We also offer numerous educational resources to help hoteliers enhance their understanding of franchise agreements and take advantage of brand resources.
AH: How is technology changing the hospitality industry, and do you have plans for new educational programs AAHOA can offer to help members incorporate that new technology into their businesses?
Staton: Technological advances are impacting the hospitality industry on many fronts. Whether they are guest-facing, such as check-in kiosks or mobile apps, back of the house, such as software for optimizing logistics, scheduling, etc., or disrupters such as OTAs or STR platforms, AAHOA is committed to ensuring that hoteliers have the resources to understand how these innovations impact their businesses and where opportunities to capitalize on them exist. We work to bring hoteliers and vendor partners together to network and learn about new technologies that are changing the shape of the industry. AAHOA’s educational team identifies new trends that may impact hoteliers, their employees and guests and creates webinars and education sessions to help them understand and adapt to new technologies. We will be rolling out our education sessions for the AAHOA 2020 Convention and Trade Show in Orlando, Florida, in the coming weeks, and we are constantly holding new webinars and trainings available exclusively to AAHOA members through MyAAHOA.com. Our current library has more than 400 educational webinars and sessions and I look forward to what our team will develop next.
AH: You’ve said your legislative experience can benefit AAHOA’s advocacy efforts. Coming in fresh, are there any changes you’d like to make to how that advocacy is undertaken? The association has two major legislative summits, is there more that can be done on a day to day basis?
Staton: I would love to see more AAHOA members offer back of the house tours to their state and federal elected officials. I think it is especially important to extend invitations to elected officials who may not yet share our deep appreciation for the role small business owners play in our economy or who hold an incomplete understanding of how a business works. There is much to be gained from the constructive conversations that these tours and meetings inspire.
We have a robust federal affairs team, and I look forward to our continued engagement with Congress and the White House. That said, the policies that state and local governments craft can have a more profound effect on hotels, especially when it comes to issues like property taxes, occupancy taxes, wages, zoning, and short-term rentals. That’s why we are expanding our state and local government affairs department and initiatives to help hoteliers inform the legislative process at that level.
AH: How important are partnerships with other organizations like AHLA and state and regional hospitality associations? Are there new relationships you would like AAHOA pursue?
Staton: AAHOA shares concerns with many likeminded associations in many issue areas and a good working relationship with them is invaluable to constructive outcomes. When we work together on an issue, such as human trafficking prevention, and present a united front, we can be most impactful in reaching all facets of the hospitality industry, influencing lawmakers, and informing policy solutions. We are always looking for partners who can help America’s small business owners as well as those with whom we can work to use our members’ unique perspectives to inform and advance the discussions that are key to establishing and maintaining pro-growth policies.
AH: You seem to have a lot in common with your predecessor, Chip Rogers. You both served in the Georgia legislature at the same time and you both have roots in the publishing industry. How well do you know each other? Did he encourage you to apply for the position in AAHOA, and if so what elements of his legacy do you think are most important to continue?
Staton: Chip and I worked together in the Georgia Senate and I respect the work that he did at AAHOA to move the association forward. He tapped into the unrealized potential of AAHOA’s membership to be an important voice in policy discussions. During his tenure, AAHOA built a government affairs department that allowed hoteliers to share their perspectives and small business experience with policymakers. Expanding AAHOA’s advocacy initiatives is a top priority for me. Every hotelier should make advocacy a part of their business plan, and AAHOA is here to help them do just that. I was pleased to have Chip’s support during the hiring process, and I look forward to working with him and our partners at AHLA.