AAHOAAAHOA this year at its annual conference isn’t being shy about its record-breaking achievements over the past year. 

“AAHOA members in this room—and across the nation—should be gleaming with pride at where this association is in the landscape of the entire industry,” said Bharat (Bruce) Patel, Chairman of the Association, during this week’s first general session. “Our footprint, and impact, today goes far beyond the fact that we own almost half the hotels in this country. Words like leadership and industry presence are clear identifiers of your AAHOA today.”

With more than 6,500 attendees and vendors on hand at AAHOA’s annual convention, the hotel owners association—celebrating its 28th year—is larger than it’s ever been—reaching more than 16,650 members in 2016. The group’s lifetime memberships increased more than 27 per cent during the same time period (there are now more than 3,000 lifetime members within the association).

The schedule at the four-day conference—being held here this week at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center—is packed with several general sessions encompassing discussions with industry leaders and analysts; educational sessions focusing on increasing revenue with social media, preparing for the future of franchising, preventing HR lawsuits and financing projects, and opportunities to network and conduct business with vendors and peers. 

Offering attendees a collection of hotel products and services, the trade show at this year’s event has more than 400 exhibitors (600 booths in total—an event record) spread out across a showroom floor of more than 62,000 sq. ft. Additionally, AAHOA’s PAC raised more than $1 million this past election cycle—more money raised in a single election cycle than all years prior combined (AAHOA formed the PAC in 1997). A total of 35 donors individually contributed the maximum $5,000 donation allowed by law to the federal PAC. Some of the contributors named are David Kong, CEO of Best Western; Wyndham CEO Geoff Ballotti; Hyatt CEO Mark Hoplamazian; and Choice Hotels CEO Stephen P. Joyce.

Made up of CEOs from 11 hospitality groups, a panel, moderated by Chip Rogers, president and CEO of AAHOA, discussed a range of topics: using technology to interact with customers; accommodating the millennial generation; balancing brand mandates and the interests of owners; and the growing intrusion of government on the industry.

While adopting new technology enables properties to interact with users, Mr Hoplamazian recognized the importance of advancing technology while also not replacing personal touch. Technology shouldn’t take away from the experience (for example, a technology platform limiting the personal touch when a front desk clerk checks in a guest). The focus should be more on how technology can elevate human interaction, not replace it. Not surprisingly, the topic of technology brought the industry’s strong focus on millennials into the conversation. RLHC CEO Greg Mount initiated the talking point during his explanation of how his hospitality company is accommodating this group and the rest of its guests with technology: by giving them options.   

Without a doubt, the industry will continue seeing more of this generation checking into hotels across the country, but it will also witness this group moving up the ladder. Kong pointed out how the majority of the decisions at Best Western are made by those older than 50 years old. He further noted the importance of embracing and welcoming both generations. “Some people say we have the wisdom, and the millennial generation has the drive,” he said, agreeing with the statement. Looking at a panel, which lacked any representation from the millennial generation, Elie Maalouf, CEO of IHG, noted: “First of all, hopefully, they’ll transition and be on this panel in the future.”

Mr Joyce took a stab at a question on how brands can work more closely with owners on brand mandates. “We don’t make decisions around investment that don’t include ROI,” he said. Speaking on customer demand, he noted that there’s a difference between a small group of customers wanting something and an overwhelming majority of customers demanding it. He even took it a step further by going back to the previous topic, pointing out that “millennials are not a model”. For instance, there are some who have mortgages and others who are still living at home. Eric Danziger, CEO of Trump Hotels, spoke on the importance of location. Some brand mandates may not make sense at a particular property due to its clientele. 

As far what owners should look for when venturing into a new brand, Ms Maalouf suggested owners should identify the space they want to be in; figure out how much they’re willing to spend and how hard they’re willing to work; and then the hospitality group will work with them to find a brand that will take them in. Before colorfully comparing marriage to a franchise relationship, Mr Joyce stressed the importance of doing the research before committing: “A franchise relationship is a long-term relationship.”

With regard to Washington impacting the industry, Mr Kong noted how “crucially important” it is for everyone in the industry to become involved, pointing to several policy implementations over the years that have negatively impacted hospitality and lodging. Without support and funding, groups like AAHOA and AHLA cannot effectively lobby on the industry’s behalf, he said.