The biggest changes that began rippling through the ranks of Indian American hotel owners concerned the very nature of hotel ownership. The early members began with one property, usually a motel with less than 75 rooms, and with growing frequency acquired other properties, yet continuing to operate them hands-on. AAHOA did its best in the early years by adapting its education and professional development programs to accommodate the needs of multi-property ownership. Their children, however, came into the lodging workplace armed with advanced business and marketing degrees and viewed the landscape with corporate eyes. It was the pivotal step toward a mainstream ownership model: Multi-brand management companies with diverse portfolios spread across the country and a top-down, decentralized operating style.
Delegating responsibility and making leaders of middle management allowed the second generation to further expand and prosper. And, importantly, it changed how AAHOA approached its mandate for advocacy.
“In the initial years, the association focused more on working to fight discrimination against Indian American hotel owners when it comes to insurance,” says AAHOA 2008 Chairman Ashwin “Ash” Patel, president and CEO of Southwest Hospitality Management. “The focus was on professional development and bringing value to membership. We had not really spent any time on the political side.”
That picture changed dramatically in the decade of the 2000s when a confluence of developments made it seem like everything was happening at one time. The creation of a government affairs committee and a political action committee provided the framework for addressing issues and raising funds. AAHOA’s Advocacy Center overnight became the vehicle for communicating with members on political and legislative issues and for communicating with government leaders at all levels.
AAHOA hired former Georgia Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers as director of government affairs, opened an full-time staffed office in Washington, D.C., and hired the powerhouse Washington lobbying firm of Patton Boggs to further help with its interests on Capitol Hill.
“We are focused on small business issues,” says 2009 Chairman Tarun Patel, president of Pacific Hospitality Company. “That’s what the organization is all about. Ninety-nine percent of our focus is on small business.”
The association has no shortage of issues, including such hot-button topics as organized labor’s card check program, sufficient Small Business Administration loan levels, the Affordable Care Act, minimum wage, and taxation of online travel agencies, among others.
In Washington, it is said no organization, regardless of its size, can go it alone and be effective. For its part, AAHOA partners with like-minded groups when the issues fit. In recent years, the association has worked with such groups as AH&LA, U.S. Travel Association, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on a range of issues.
While AAHOA has a distinct and centralized approach to government affairs at the national level, its power derives from the cultural and organizational legacy of its members at the local level. AAHOA 1993 chairman Nitin Shah, CEO of Imperial Investments, attributes much of the success of its members to a communitarian approach to business as opposed to a traditional American approach. This approach additionally fostered an electrified grassroots network.
As the association blew past the 10,000-member mark, it became apparent 20 regional board members in addition to 12 at-large directors could not efficiently serve their members. That’s when the association launched its Ambassador program. Each regional board member appoints up to 10 Ambassadors to serve as eyes and ears at the grassroots level. When an issue heats up in Washington, messages and directives are sent out in emails and town hall meetings.
At the same time, having such an actively involved grassroots membership makes for more effective PAC fundraising. In 2013, AAHOA raised a record $182,000 for its war chest and plans to top $500,000 by 2017. The association’s PAC fund currently ranks among the top four of the lodging industry’s funds.
“Finally, in D.C. everyone knows who AAHOA is,” says 2013–2014 Chairman Mehul Patel. “Now that we have significant PAC funds, we are getting recognized for our increased political engagement.”
With the success of the Ambassador program, AAHOA’s Washington legislative fly-ins also got a huge boost, and the association recently went to two a year. In late 2013, more than 250 members fanned out across Capitol Hill meeting with their congressional representatives to discuss small business issues. As any Washington trade group executive will attest, fly-ins are one of the best ways for establishing a presence in a city not known for a long attention span.
With an average age of 37, AAHOA’s officers begin the association’s next 25 years as the youngest ever. Worries of fading interest and loyalty to the cause of Indian American hotel ownership appear to be unnecessary. Former Chairman Ash Patel believes the answer can be found in India.
“In our culture, to represent your community is like being a hero,” Patel says. “They put you on a higher pedestal, because serving one’s community in the Indian culture has a lot of respect.”