Business Casual The Lodging Conference has embraced a work hard/play hard agenda for 25 years

Even though The Lodging Conference has shifted venues, much of what makes it one of the top conferences of the year remains. But while a new venue marks a new era for the conference, there’s another milestone to commemorate this year: The conference is celebrating 25 years of existence.

“The Lodging Conference is an upscale event where hotel owners, brand leaders, investors and senior-level industry executives come to gather information, discuss strategy, do deals, and relax,” said Harry Javer, producer and founder of The Lodging Conference. “We believe the relaxed environment allows people to interact much more effectively.”

For the past 25 years, tens of thousands of hoteliers and industry executives from around the world have participated in the annual conference. The Lodging Conference’s founders designed the event to be more like a “think tank,” where experts converge to discuss industry matters, rather than a typical conference.

One of the conference’s founders has been in the events business for all of his life. “I was fortunate to find something I loved at a young age,” Javer said. “I started in the event business at Stony Brook University. We had the best student-produced concert program in the country. I worked with other students putting on amazing shows like Peter Gabriel, James Taylor, U2, Joan Jett, The Pretenders, Jerry Garcia, and other music legends. Then, I worked at The Learning Annex for a long time where we promoted events with Tony Robbins, Deepak Chopra, Donald Trump, Al Gore, Marvin Hamlisch, Kurt Vonnegut, Magic Johnson, and other movers and shakers. I’ve been lucky to work with and learn from some great promoters, marketers and, of course, great talent.”

While The Lodging Conference has been an industry staple for the past quarter-century, Javer wasn’t originally set on producing an event for the hospitality industry. “In 1994, I was looking for an industry that needed an industry event,” Javer said. “At the time, gaming was very hot, so I began to research it. In doing so, I realized that the hotel industry was much larger and had great potential.”

When he researched and compared the events in the industry, he found that many of them were too similar: They were too formal.

“While the hotel industry had a lot of great conferences and events, I felt that there was nothing that would be regarded as upscale and relaxing,” he said. “In hotel parlance, you might say there was nothing at the ‘luxury level.’”

To move forward with his conference idea, Javer began recruiting speakers, which is how he met Morris Lasky, the event’s other co-founder. “He had a great deal of hotel experience, and I had a great deal of event experience, so we later formalized our relationship and became partners,” he said. Lasky later died of cancer in March 2015 after working in the hospitality space for more than 40 years.

“The goal of the conference was to have an upscale event at a beautiful resort with great food and wine, beautiful surroundings and lots of recreation and relaxation,” Javer said, noting that the goal hasn’t changed over time. “While the conference has grown in size over the years, we’ve always tried to stay true to that original goal. Right now, the conference is large enough to provide for extensive networking, but small enough to allow for personal interaction.”

While there have been plenty of challenges over the past 25 year for the conference, one stands out. “Our seventh conference was supposed to commence on September 11th, 2001,” he said. “We had to cancel our event, so it was a devastating day for our event. But, we rescheduled for January of 2002, and after a tough few months, we ended up with more people in January than we had expected in September. It showed me how resilient and tight-knit the industry was. The industry rallied behind this.”

This year, the conference is being held at a new property: the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa in Phoenix. For 20-plus years, the conference was held at the Arizona Biltmore, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, Phoenix.

“We loved being at the Biltmore all these years, but we needed a slightly larger venue with more sleeping rooms, meeting space, restaurants and exhibit space,” he said. “With that said, we don’t plan to grow attendance very much more than last year.”

Like any other change, adjustments needed to be made when planning to move to a new venue, but that’s expected in the conference business. “Changing venues is always a challenge for any event, but it’s par for the course in my business,” he said. “We have to get to know the new property and they have to get to know us, but it’s been very smooth sailing so far. Like the Arizona Biltmore, The JW Marriott has a great team and amazing facilities.”

When it comes to an accomplished conference, there are some indicators of success, especially regarding attendee feedback. “When an attendee says, ‘This conference is my favorite,’ or that they met somebody at the conference and did a deal with them, or they landed a job as a result of the conference, that’s life-changing for people—that makes my day,” he said.

His accomplishments aren’t only from the conference but a result of his connection with the industry.

“The other accomplishment is related to the work I get to do with AHLA’s foundation which, among other things, raises money and awards scholarships for hospitality students,” he said. “It’s an amazing organization with a dedicated team of industry executives, and I’m proud to be a part of it because these scholarships make a huge difference to young people; it’s a way of giving back to an industry that has been so good to me.”

More than 85% of conference attendees are presidents and CEOs, or run their own company, brand or business unit. Attendees and speakers own and operate hotels representing more than 60,000 hotels, management firms and the industry’s top brands.

“We are lucky to be in an industry with so many great conferences and events,” Javer said. “I go to at least a dozen during the year and I encourage others to do the same.”

However, he was quick to point out the atmosphere he’s worked to create that sets The Lodging Conference apart. “What’s different about The Lodging Conference is that it is upscale and combines business with leisure,” Javer said. “Like every conference, we have industry leaders and great content. But being at a beautiful resort allows us the opportunity to have recreational activities like golf, hiking, yoga and just more time for relaxation. Our attendees are on property until the wee hours, and in this type of business, it’s essential that you spend time getting to know your potential business partners, your colleagues, and even your competitors, so we build into the schedule a lot of time to ensure that this happens. And the food is over the top. Attendees definitely gain weight when they come to The Lodging Conference.”

One of the key elements of The Lodging Conference is the networking aspect of it, but everybody who attends has a unique approach to networking, so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

“There’s really no single ‘best’ way to network at the conference except to say that it’s important for attendees to take advantage of all the conference has to offer,” Javer said. “I’ve met as many people in the hot tub, the pool and on the golf course as I have at the think-tank sessions and the late-night dinner and cocktail parties. I think you have to come prepared to put in a 16-hour day, but pre-planning through our Lodging Connect mobile app is also an essential tool that I think everyone should take advantage of.”

Attendees aren’t the only ones who find the conference rewarding. Its co-founder is proud of what The Lodging Conference has become, and what it has accomplished over the years.

“Throughout my career I’ve worked in many different industries,” he said. “I’ve been lucky to produce events with everyone from rock stars to business and world leaders. But there’s nothing like the people in the hotel industry; I’ve learned a great deal from these people and made lifelong friendships with many of our attendees.

“The second thing is that I have a great team that helps me put on this event every year—including my wife, Liz, and some of my closest friends,” he continued. “It sounds corny but as a baseball and softball player, I’ve always been a team player and I’m blessed to have such an amazing team.”

As for The Lodging Conference’s future, not too much is expected to change, unless it enhances the experience. “Unless our attendees tell us otherwise, I’m not looking to change up too many things except to keep raising the bar,” he said. “Every year, we try to improve the content, the food, the ambiance and the opportunities to network.”

Even though executing a conference is a lot of hard work, it’s well worth it in the end, for both its attendees and organizers. “Putting on a conference is a bit like running a hotel,” Javer said. “It’s hard work and it’s complicated, but it’s also a lot of fun. And if you have a great team to work with, and you make the guest experience special, word will spread. A former colleague of mine called it ‘edutainment.’ I wouldn’t change a thing.” HB