ATLANTA—The Asian American Hotel Owners Association has come a long way since its humble beginning nearly 20 years ago, but not all of that progress has been for the better, panelists said Thursday during the association’s annual conference.
A panel of leading Asian-American owners who represented more than 35,000 rooms in the United States voiced concerns—and criticisms—regarding the state of the association during a general session.
The most prominent of these criticisms: the infusion of politics, the panelists agreed.
When AAHOA was founded nearly 20 years ago, its mission was to fight discrimination in the hotel industry and bring Asian hoteliers into the mainstream. The group largely achieved that goal, numbering nearly 11,000 members who represent 40% of the country’s hotel stock.
But along with size has come a jockeying for power, said Vinay Patel, senior VP of operations and sales for SREE Hotels.
“It becomes politicized. It becomes a game,” he said.
It also distracts from the stated mission of the association, Vinay Patel continued. “It needs to be the voice. It has to be the voice. And it has to bring back the people who will continue to be its voice in the future.”
Mit Shah, senior managing principal and CEO of Noble Investment Group, said much of that politicization is not unexpected. “You can’t change the beast,” he said, adding Indian culture itself is highly politicized.
AAHOA’s board of directors has authority and is responsible for governance of the association, establishing policy and monitoring implementation of that policy. Officers are elected and serve one- to three-year terms, depending on the position and number of votes received, according to the AAHOA bylaws.
A disenfranchised generation
AAHOA’s evolution has not come in a vacuum, Shah said. As the group has grown, so has the hotel industry.
When the association first met approximately 20 years ago, “limited-service” was a new concept. “It was a wide-open canvas,” Shah said. “You could develop any brand you wanted to.”
What’s more, hotel construction was affordable and debt financing came cheap. The commercial, mortgaged-backed securities market was emerging, and real-estate investment trusts were just beginning to infuse capital into the sector.
“Our families built business based on all of those opportunities stacking up and the economy continuing to move forward,” Shah said. “Today is a very different day.”
Viable development sites are hard to come by, as is financing and strong market fundamentals.
The next generation of Asian-American hoteliers have either left the industry or transitioned into more stable opportunities with the major brands, Shah said.
The political nature of AAHOA certainly has not helped matters, the panelists concurred.
“(The younger generation is) not here to learn how to be political and fight the battle,” said Bharat Patel, chairman and CEO of Sun Development & Management Corporation. “They will not be here as long as there are politics.”
D.J. Rama, president of JHM Hotels, urged AAHOA’s leaders to develop a system to train and mentor the next generation of hoteliers.
“It’s very important that we have a built-in system to create leaders of tomorrow, and that means leaders that will be mature, they will put AAHOA’s agenda at the forefront and have the tenacity to take the members’ issues to the forefront,” he said.
And it is not just the issues of the youngest generation that matter. AAHOA needs to better represent the needs and wants of all 11,000 members, the panelists agreed.
That’s no easy task, Shah said. With such a large group, it is nearly impossible to make everyone happy.
“You have to pick what the masses really care about,” he said.