Four of the 11 hotel company CEOs on stage Wednesday, April 12, at AAHOA’s opening session of its 2017 convention in San Antonio, Texas, are, from right, Greg Mount of Red Lion Hotels Corp., Tom Magnuson of Magnuson Hotels, Elie Maalouf of InterContinental Hotels Group, Americas, and David Kong of Best Western Hotels & Resorts.

SEVERAL THOUSAND HOTEL owners turned out last week in San Antonio, Texas, for the 2017 Asian American Hotel Owners Association Convention and Trade Show, marking the 28th year since the association’s founding.
The four-day event drew more than 6,500 people, most of them hotel owners. The turnout surpassed last year’s attendance of 4,850, when the conference was held in Nashville, Tennessee. The convention location may have helped boost the numbers as more than 3,300 of the association’s members are from Texas.
Next year’s convention is set for March 27-30 in National Harbor, Maryland, in the Washington, D.C., area.
One of the highlights of the 2017 event was the gathering of CEOs from 11 major hotel franchisers in the U.S., which AAHOA promoted as a historical moment for the 28-year-old association whose founding members could not qualify for a brand license a generation ago.
Chip Rogers, president and CEO of AAHOA, led the question-and-answer format that generated thoughtful, and occasionally colorful, responses from the all-male C-Suite team.
The chief executives talked about the strategy of introducing new standards to their companies’ brands, in particular, the process of deciding which standards would or would not improve a hotel’s business operations. Steve Joyce of Choice Hotels International said timing is critical as it takes years to bring hotels up to date with guest expectations, especially in the area of technology. While a new enhancement may seem superfluous at first, evolving traveler demands eventually pay off for the hotels. He pointed to the evolution of the hotel key. Mobile key technology is available but most guests do not yet demand it. “You have to do what you need to do to stay current, but also you have to do it when the timing is right,” he said.
Tom Magnuson of Magnuson Hotels said he focuses on the “well-being of the owners. Many consumer decisions are not based on the hotel’s brand but based on the hotel’s location and price.” Magnuson leaves it up to its owners to decide what features and amenities they need to be able to successfully compete on their street corners.
Several of the companies represented own and operate hotels, where they test market an added amenity, new design or upgraded equipment before rolling it out to franchisees. “We are a private company,” said Andrew Alexander of Red Roof Inn, “So, our owners are our shareholders. We roll out what works in our [company-owned] hotels.”
Keith Cline with La Quinta Holdings Inc. said 40 percent of its “fleet” are corporate owned. “We won’t roll out something we didn’t first test. When we do launch a new standard, we make sure to provide support to our franchisees.”
Jim Amorosia of G6 Hospitality, owner of Motel 6, said it, too, has a large corporate stake in its brands. In the past five years that Blackstone Group has owned the company, it has grown to 560 hotels. “Growth increases demand,” he said. “People are interested in something that’s new, but as we do that it rolls over to existing hotels. If we mandate a new standard, it’s because of growth.”
While existing brands explore what new amenities and functions will best satisfy modern guests, other companies are contemplating whether it’s time to launch a new brand. As reported last month in Asian Hospitality, Trump Hotels is developing a three-star brand it can franchise.
Eric Danziger, CEO of Trump Hotels, told the AAHOA audience the company has not franchised before. Its latest brand, Scion, seeks developers but Trump Hotels will manage the properties. The next move for the company is a franchise and that is largely because of the association’s members who want to invest in Trump Hotels. “We all here are saying the same thing and that would not have happened several years ago, but now it does because of your influence.”
Danziger said the new brand would not establish a brand standard as much as it would a brand “essence,” which would allow an owner to build a product that works in his or her market. “A street corner in San Antonio is different from a street corner in San Diego.”
InterContinental Hotels Group is in the early exploration phase of creating a new brand, said Elie Maalouf. As the next generation of hoteliers comes of age, IHG has been discussing what this cohort of franchisees is eager to invest in. Holiday Inn Express, a limited-service version of Holiday Inn, proved to be a hit for franchisees 25 years ago and IHG is considering what a limited-service lifestyle brand would offer today’s investors.
To attract Gen X and Millennial franchisees as well as guests, Red Lion Hotels Corp. focuses on technology, said Greg Mount. Although it’s more than 50 years old, RLHC began to expand is Pacific Northwest footprint just three years ago. During that time it has experienced significant growth – both by launching a new brand and acquiring existing companies. Its latest buy was Vantage Hospitality Group’s 1,000 plus hotels in September.
What a hotel delivers in design and amenities is based on its market, but “we will deliver to you [owners] technology that is cutting edge,” Mount said. In 2015, RLHC launched RevPAK, its proprietary guest management system that has revolutionized its business. RevPAK continues to evolve and scale to RLHC’s increasing size, yet it remains a flexible program that can easily adapt to address guest expectations. “We are not encumbered by a legacy platform,” Mount said.
All of the major hotel companies exhibited at the two-day trade show at the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center. At an estimated $4 billion, the buying power of AAHOA members drew more than 400 vendors to the trade show floor.
The 2016 election season in the U.S. is the year AAHOA saw its financial power turn into political power. Raising nearly $1.1 million through donations to its political action committee fund and seeing its membership grow by more than 7 percent in 2016, the Asian American Hotel Owners Association is flexing its political muscle to lobby for business-friendly laws and policies on all levels of government.
During the CEO Q&A, David Kong of Best Western Hotels and Resorts said the increasing power of the National Labor Relations Board over the past eight years, the ability for OTAs to avoid paying retail taxes and the rise of Airbnb and other online home-sharing ventures have all taken shape while the hotel industry stood by. Kong called Arizona’s new law that prohibits municipalities from banning short-term home-sharing rentals “obscene.”
“All of these things happened because we were not a powerful voice,” he said. “We are a very powerful industry, yet we have no voice in D.C.”
He urged the audience members to unite behind AAHOA and the American Hotel & Lodging Association by donating to their PAC funds and taking part in legislative summits on the federal and state levels of government.
Danziger of Trump Hotels dispelled the notion that he personally can affect change for the hotel industry just because his boss is president of the United States. “We work very hard to separate the business and the presidency. We don’t have his ear,” he said, but AAHOA does.
“I’ve been in this business for 47 years and I have never seen a constituency as powerful as yours, but change will take a lot longer and require a lot more than putting in a call to the White House – if we could do that.” Like Kong, Danziger urged hoteliers to pay attention to what is happening in local and state governments that will impact their businesses.
AAHOA’s combined voice of 16,700 members – hotel owners, developers and managers, industry suppliers and hotel brand franchisers – has caught the attention of Washington, D.C., where hundreds of hoteliers visit Capitol Hill throughout the year to educate lawmakers about the U.S. hospitality industry and the congressional initiatives that can either make or break their businesses.
Many of President Donald Trump’s new Cabinet members were once elected officials supported by AAHOA PAC funds. New AAHOA chair Bhavesh Patel has said the association hopes to reap benefits from those now in power in the White House through policies that enable them to grow their businesses and compete unencumbered, including tax reform and reductions in business regulations.