Association leaders discuss issues at NYU

NEW YORK—The 43rd Annual NYU International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference at the New York Marriott Marquis here brought together the leaders of four industry associations to offer their takes on the return of travel and what they are doing to help the industry recover.

The Government Update session, moderated by Jeffrey Stewart, founder/president, Walnut Hill Advisors, included panelists Roger Dow, president/CEO, U.S. Travel Association; Ken Greene, president/CEO, AAHOA; Andy Ingraham, president/founder/CEO, National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators & Developers (NABHOOD); and Chip Rogers, president/CEO, American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA).

The session took place on the day that international travel returned to the U.S., and Dow spoke of its importance and the importance of getting Brand USA funding restored to attract international tourists. “International is so critical,” he said. “You look at this city alone, it’s probably 50% of all the revenue in New York City’s international. Brand USA plays a great role of leveling the playing field. We’ve got the bill in the Senate already passed the Senate Commerce Committee, called the Brand USA Registration Act. It basically will inject $250 million in Brand USA.  If that disappears after 10 or 11 years of having it, what a shame that would be. I feel very good about it. But as in everything in government, that will happen at the very last second, but I think we’ll get it passed.”

In addition to the continued funding for Brand USA, the associations have worked—and will continue to work—to get needed relief for the industry.

Rogers said his team calculated how much money the lodging industry has received in government relief measures in the last year, from PPP funds and freezing the per diem rates, and it was at a minimum of $15 billion. “Many of us worked on all of these items over the last year and were very successful…,” he said. “There have been some significant successes, but the road gets much tougher from here because everything has become politicized again.”

Ingraham said that he hopes that it will be easier for the government to pass measures to help the industry and that takes educating them about the importance of the industry to the U.S. economy. “One of the hardest things I think we’ve found is educating people of how important this industry is,” he said. “A lot of times you would think that our elected officials in D.C. would understand that.”

In terms of the labor crunch—the biggest issue facing the industry—Dow said that raising wages is not the only way to attract workers. “We’ve got to take a whole fresh look at how we approach labor,” he said. “Flexibility—can there be a gig workforce? Can someone work two days a week? Can someone work in a Marriott on a Tuesday and a Hilton on a Wednesday? We got to really rethink this. Starbucks is doing four-hour shifts and getting big productivity. We got to think of 10 housekeepers work together at a four-hour shift and take care of their families.”

Rogers agreed. “It is going to have to take a completely different look at how we’re approaching this,” he said. “Think of it as a bathtub with water coming in, which is the workforce and water going out which is the people that are leaving our industry. There are more people leaving than are coming in right now. But quick rate in our industries twice as bad as the next-closest industry.”

He also said that the worker has changed. “In the workforce participation rate in 2000 among the top 20 nations in the world, we were second,” he added. “We’re now third from the bottom. People are not working the way they used to. The fastest growing segment in terms of workforce participation rate in the U.S. for the next 10 years is 65 and above. And that goes to the rethinking about how we’re going to attract and who we’re going to attract because if people aren’t entering the workforce, and when they do in our industry, they quit faster than any other industry. Who are we going after next because we can’t have an industry that doesn’t have employees and this problem, it’s not going to change tomorrow.”

Greene said that the members of the industry must work to bring the next generation of workers in. “Tell them the story,” he said. “…It’s going to be people in this audience, talking about the success stories of their employees and telling that story over and over and over again in a very public fashion. Because those are great stories where people can start at the bottom in this industry, and work their way up. And I don’t think we do a great job of telling that story across the board in a collective way.”