REPORT FROM THE U.S.—The newly created Independent Lodging Industry Association aims to level the playing field for independent properties when it comes to competing with the big brands.
Launched in 2011, the ILIA’s goal is to be the voice for independent hotel owners, suppliers and vendors to deal with problems they might not have the resources to remedy themselves.
John Manderfeld, president of the California Lodging Industry Association, Marin Management and a member of ILIA’s board of directors, said the creation of the national organization is imperative in tackling state and federal issues surrounding tourism development, increased regulations, taxes and online travel agencies, to name a few.
Manderfeld was quick to clarify “the word independent doesn’t mean unbranded,” he said. “Though there are a lot of excellent unbranded hotels, many of our members are franchisees that own one or two hotels. We mean independent from franchise control.”
“There is this need but never the opportunity to come together and create something unique and powerful because we’re at this unique time in history where the voice of independents does matter,” Bobbie Singh-Allen, executive director of ILIA, said.
A voice for independents
For the past 65 years, the California Lodging Industry Association was the lone voice of the independent segment, but only for one geographical region. CLIA members and the board of directors often had properties in other states and soon realized there was an opportunity to create a national organization.
“CLIA did this in reverse. Usually you see a national association, then you get a state chapter,” Singh-Allen said.
ILIA is “the most affordable lodging association in the country,” she said. Properties can join for as low as US$75 and receive benefits including free legal help, education workshops and resources for social media.
“These independent hotels are mom-and-pop shops. They don’t have (human resource) departments, and they rely on our services to remain competitive with larger properties down the street,” Singh-Allen said.
“The thing that I get excited about is the energy it has to bring members in and give them a voice,” Meg O’Leary, director of sales and marketing at Big Sky Resort in Big Sky, Montana, and secretary of ILIA, said. “There is momentum created that people and independent entities are understanding the value that we have and the ability (we have) to create a strong village with one voice.”
ILIA’s short- and long-term goals encompass an ambitious list of items, Singh-Allen said, but the association is on the right track to accomplish them.
Independent Ad Will Appear Here
Phase one is to “get as many lodging properties and members” through an aggressive membership drive, she said. ILIA already has 20,000 independent hotels in its network. Phase two is to go after vendors and suppliers and to build healthy relationships between them and hotel owners.
“Two to three years out, we’ll be a viable, competitive association that is out there and is an alternative,” Singh-Allen said.
Tackling Important Issues
Because independent hoteliers’ problems differ from larger chains, ILIA’s main objective is to help hotel owners who lack the resources to deal with myriad local, state and federal issues.
To compete with the global network of chain hotels, Singh Allen said she wants to make sure there’s a level playing field, noting the challenges between large chains and independents aren’t always the same.
“There will be some common ground with large chain hotels,” she said. “We’re concerned about labor issues, health-care costs, government and regulatory reform. We participate on the state level and national level, not only in Washington, D.C., and state capitals but also in local jurisdictions. There are overlapping, shared concerns, but what impacts the small business owner is not what affects large chains.”
One of those issues is dealing with online travel agencies; independent hoteliers rely on OTAs as another marketing arm in getting their name in the global market. And O’Leary is one of the most vocal ILIA members lobbying on behalf of the OTAs.
Big Sky Resort is a family-run business for the past 60 years, and O’Leary said this family-owned angle pulls on the “heartstrings of a lot of travelers.”
“We’re an independent family organization, and when the Internet Travel Tax Fairness Act came about, the online travel companies came to us, and we said, ‘We need this,’” she said. “To reach out to them and them reaching out to me—there might be some good from it.”
“Independents have a great working relationship with (OTAs),” Singh-Allen said. Independents typically don’t have large marketing budgets, and OTAs help promote their channels to a global audience. “We rely a lot on third-party partners,” she said.
“There’s a lot of legislation and court activity trying to harm those online travel agencies through new rules and taxation, so we’re advocating to keep the reservation channels open,” Manderfeld said.
Gaining momentum is only part of ILIA’s strategy. In the short term, the association already is exceeding expectations, but looking ahead, Manderfeld sees ILIA as the premier organization for independent operators and vendors alike.
There are ILIA members in every state, and Manderfeld said he plans to form more ILIA branches in the future to harness activity. In fact, Manderfeld wants to take the organization global.
“Many people are using resources from Asia and Latin America. Even our owners have hotels in South Africa, in Mexico, in Argentina,” he said. “There’s certainly a great possibility that we’ll have a global representation in the future.”
Growing a global organization coupled with creating education and scholarship funds during the next 18 months are only part of the young organization’s larger agenda.
“A lot of ideas and interest will come from actual members themselves,” Manderfeld said.
Singh-Allen said part of ILIA’s wish list is to have its own conference and trade show in the future, as well as maintaining the workshops, webinars and labor law outreach ILIA is doing already.
O’Leary said she hopes the focus during 2012 is to get people thinking about travel as well as thinking globally and “getting marketing dollars from visa funding and getting a piece of the China business,” she said. “We have a great opportunity to take advantage of that.
“It’s an ambitious agenda, but it’s a very important one. The voice of independents is critical for job growth and revitalization; small businesses represent job growth, and independents fall under that category,” Singh-Allen said.
“I give the analogy that Apple didn’t think about the iPhone the day the company was founded. So the great ideas are yet to be articulated,” Manderfeld said. “If nothing else, we’re taking the wisdom—the experience and knowledge—of many people and bringing it together.”