Justin Knight has been a part of the American Hotel & Lodging Association’s (AHLA) Executive Committee for three years and has served on the Board of Directors for twice as long. Knight, who is CEO of Apple Hospitality REIT, Inc., was recently named chair of the 2022 AHLA Board of Directors. His dedication to hospitality dates back to his graduate school days when he began working shifts at a Homewood Suites near Salt Lake City that was owned by Apple Suites, a company Knight’s father launched in 1999. “Over a period of months, I did everything from cleaning rooms to serving breakfast to folding laundry to working the front desk—and I got amazing exposure to the hotel industry that way,” Knight recalls. “When I graduated from the Marriott School of Business at Brigham Young University, I came back and joined Apple Suites as one of the initial employees. The rest is history.”
Over the course of his more than 20 years in the business, Knight has been an integral part of the leadership team at Apple Hospitality REIT and its predecessor companies, guiding them through the purchase of hundreds of properties and across several economic cycles. LODGING caught up with Knight as he took the helm as 2022 AHLA Board chair to discuss the state of the industry today, his top priorities for the year ahead, and his optimism for the industry’s recovery from the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When did you first get involved in AHLA?
When AHLA’s past President and CEO Katherine Lugar joined the association in 2013, she visited our office and met with our team. During that conversation, she asked us what we thought the organization could accomplish under her leadership and inspired optimism around the impact of our combined efforts. Five years later, under Chip Rogers’ leadership, the organization continued down that path and has become a powerful voice for the industry. The value of the organization has been incredibly evident over the past couple of years as we have worked to navigate the pandemic environment as an industry. AHLA’s work around Stay Safe, DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), and helping elected officials understand what our industry needed over the past two years—those efforts have been exceptional.
What are your top priorities as 2022 chair of AHLA’s Board?
AHLA has displayed phenomenal leadership during the pandemic, and we will continue to do that as we move through the remainder of the recovery. Key areas of focus for us will be continuing to educate policymakers about the policies needed to help hotel owners and employees recover and strengthen our industry; educating the broader business community about the benefits of business travel to ensure that it returns to pre-pandemic levels; communicating a unified message to the public about the safety of hotels in the COVID era, which continues to be a concern for many; and educating our stakeholders on how the industry has adapted to meet the changing needs of travelers. In addition, we’ve dedicated a significant amount of time looking forward and developing a five-year strategic plan with the intent to continue to strengthen our industry and our workforce.
What are the main pillars of that five-year strategic plan?
Within that plan, key pillars include attracting new people to the workforce by demonstrating the upward mobility that’s available to employees in our industry and helping elected officials to better understand what our industry does for local communities and how important we are to the economies of the cities and towns where we operate. There will be a continued focus on ensuring that short-term and alternative accommodations play on a level field when it comes to taxation and following state and local regulations. Finally, the plan focuses on continuing to show leadership around major issues like human trafficking prevention, DEI, and sustainable practices.
We’re coming up on the two-year anniversary since the pandemic began. What have you learned over that period that’s shaping your approach as a leader?
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that over the past couple of years, and two things stand out. First, I have a greater appreciation than I did coming into the pandemic for the value of effective communication. That’s the biggest lesson. Second: I have an increased appreciation for the fact that it’s impossible to predict the future with certainty, and as a result, it’s incredibly important to have a capable team that’s excited by challenges and able to adapt to changing circumstances.
Looking ahead, what’s your outlook on the industry’s recovery?
I’m optimistic. We have a long way to go to regain everything that was lost during the pandemic, but I believe the future is bright for us. Leisure travel has recovered quickly, and many markets are seeing demand now that exceeds pre-pandemic levels. STR recently updated its forecast for 2021 and 2022, and that reflects the strength of leisure travel, but also improvements in business demand. Our industry remains at a pivotal point; I’m thinking about jobs that were lost during the pandemic and the need going forward to attract workers and ensure that we’re able to provide jobs to the hundreds of thousands of people who depend on our industry.
What is it about this industry that draws you in?
There’s no question It’s the people. Over the past two decades, I’ve met thousands of people with stories that inspire me. I regularly interact with individuals who started their careers as housekeepers or engineers or working at the front desk at hotels who are now running their own companies or serving in senior management positions. Being a part of AHLA, I’ve had the incredible honor to interact with interesting people from across the industry who are involved in the association. I’m excited about what we have accomplished together as an industry over the past several years, and equally excited about what we will accomplish together in the future.