I received a great e-mail a couple of days ago. It came from David Peikin, who handles communications for Choice Hotels International, and it was an invitation to the company’s annual conference in May.
I rarely get excited for a brand conference because 90 percent of the typical program is the rah-rah, drink-the-Kool-Aid stuff. The Choice one might be no different, but given the stigma attached to the meetings industry of late, it’s just a relief to hear that the company is moving forward with this one. While there have been several brand conferences this year, including a couple from Wyndham Worldwide, one in Honolulu for La Quinta Inns and one or two from Hilton Hotels Corp., other companies have scaled back, and in some cases, canceled annual meetings all together. Carlson Hotels Worldwide is opting for regional meetings this year, and La Quinta will do likewise next year. Wyndham, which for years has had multiple conferences for its brands (some annual, some biennial) is planning one big one next year. I’m still waiting to hear about IHG’s conference, which usually is held in the fall.
The irony, of course, is that most hotel companies depend on travelers to make ends meet, yet the ones canceling meetings are sending a mixed message. If they are scaling back travel, how can they expect consumers—business travelers and leisure travelers—to open their wallets and visit hotels?
The same conversation took place following 9/11—but back then the issue was more about security than finances. The argument then was that travel-and-tourism-related companies had to reaffirm consumers’ beliefs that it was safe to travel. It’s really not that different now in that the companies that make their hay from travel and tourism must assume a leadership role during a tumultuous time.
It’s true that franchised brands must consider the economy when asking franchisees to shell out big bucks to travel to a conference. But it really is an expected expense each year, and it often is part of the franchise contract. In addition, couldn’t any franchisee claim their hotel is having a bad year at any time and say they are not attending the annual conference? It could open unexpected consequences down the road. And while regional meetings are a decent substitute, they don’t have the same impact on franchisees as a major conference, and they definitely don’t convey a what’s-best-for-the-overall-industry approach.
Wayne Goldberg, La Quinta’s up-front and refreshingly open CEO, said he considered canceling this year’s conference at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, but the company had too much invested in it to pull the plug at the last minute. Perhaps the drizzly weather during the awards ceremony was a message from the travel gods saying he needs to reconsider not having a conference next year? From my spot at the bar, every attendee looked like they were having a good time despite the intermittent rain—and I gotta say that the closing fireworks over the beach were simply fantastic.
Franchise conferences are a necessary bonding exercise, not just for the franchisees but also for the brand executives. Any chance to rub elbows and see each other away from a work setting is a good thing. There is a lot of superfluous activity during a brand conference—I could never understand some of the pomp and circumstance that goes on. But then again, I’ve seen some pretty good performances over the years. I’ll never forget jammin’, and I’m being serious, to the Charlie Daniels Band at an 8 a.m. general session. Hearing “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” in all of its fiddle-playing glory cranked to the max was something to behold. Howie Mandel (pre-Deal or No Deal days) blowing up a latex glove that was stretched over his head is a classic. Hearing Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” before it became overplayed following 9/11, moved me to near tears. But the conferences could have gone on without them. Even the spectacular fireworks in Honolulu or the indoor fireworks at some of the conventions held at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel & Resort could be slashed in a cost-cutting measure. I won’t even go down the path of companies paying keynote speakers 10 grand or more to tell franchisees how they can be a success.
In the meantime, we have hotel-company CEOs complaining that the industry isn’t being treated fairly because the government is scrutinizing the travel of companies that have received bail-out money. Check out Laurence Geller of Strategic Hotels & Resorts on MSBNC a couple of weeks ago as an example.
And it’s not just up to the brands to carry the flag. There are other conferences worthy of attendance. This week’s Hunter Hotel Investment Conference drew about 700 attendees. There are a ton of upcoming conferences that should be checked out, not only because they're educational, but because they also support hotels, restaurants, cab drivers, etc. As budgets have been tightened, it’s harder than ever to stay in line with corporate directives. But those of us making a living in the hotel industry must assume some level of proactiveness for the good of the industry.
CEOs such as Geller should also be telling their own industry that travel is important—because some of them apparently need to be reminded of that.