AHLA recently announced that Leslie Hale, president and CEO of RLJ Lodging Trust, will serve as 2022 vice chair of its Board of Directors. LODGING checked in with Hale to discuss top-of-mind issues facing the industry today, her biggest focus areas for 2022, and how her leadership style and the industry as a whole have evolved in the wake of the pandemic.
What industry issues are top of mind for you currently?
First and foremost: Recovery from the pandemic. While we are optimistic about the future, the recovery has been uneven, with many hotels in urban destinations still struggling. Continuing to advocate for policies as well as business and regulatory climates that will facilitate an equitable recovery will be a key focus for AHLA.
As we prepare for increased demand in 2022, given the labor-intensive nature of our industry, the continuing labor shortages are top of mind for us. If you do a search on Indeed for hotel jobs, you’ll find nearly 100,000 current vacancies, and these vacancies are making it tough for some hotels to meet demand. The AHLA Foundation has already been spotlighting the opportunities our industry has to offer, and you’ll see a continued focus from them in that regard moving forward.
In addition, similar to other industries, we will also be confronting higher product and other operating costs. We believe that easing of the tight supply chains will help to moderate the high inflationary environment we are currently seeing and are hopeful that this will take place.
What priorities are you most focused on as 2022 vice chair of AHLA’s Board?
I’m looking forward to supporting Justin and the entire organization next year as we move toward recovery and begin implementing AHLA’s new five-year strategic plan. One area of the plan I’m particularly focused on is advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (CEI) at all levels of the industry. Diversifying our talent pool has always been a passion of mine, and with the current labor shortages, it’s more important than ever that we attract and retain a diverse workforce at all levels. AHLA and AHLA Foundation have been making great strides in that regard, and I’m excited to continue building on those efforts.
I am encouraged by the resiliency our industry is continuing to display even as we remain in the midst of the pandemic. Industry occupancies have recovered significantly since their lows in the depths of the crisis and are now closer to achieving pre-pandemic levels. At the same time, learning from past demand shocks, our industry has been highly disciplined in maintaining rate integrity, which sets us up nicely to not only achieve pre-pandemic profitability, but to also surpass those levels. As an industry, we have become leaner and more efficient while prioritizing guest safety and absorbing higher costs from cleaning standards and protocols. With the lessons we have learned during this pandemic, I believe that, as an industry, we are positioned to drive profitability much higher during this cycle once the lodging demand environment normalizes.
As a leader, what lessons learned are informing your approach going forward?
I have always believed that our industry fills an important need by allowing people to connect both socially and for business and to also disconnect by taking vacations. After a near elimination of demand early in the pandemic, we were surprised to see a strong rebound in leisure as people had more flexibility to work from anywhere and felt the need to be away after being cooped up at home. As vaccinations improved in early 2021, we began to see more people travel for business and host small social events like weddings. Although the Delta variant during the summer moderated the pace of business travel and group recovery, these two segments continued to improve. The pace at which our industry has been recovering in the face of the continuing pandemic has affirmed my steadfast belief that we fill an important need. Although we may see short-term demand shocks from time to time, our industry’s trajectory of driving long-term secular growth remains intact.
The lesson I have learned is that we need to do more to create awareness among our leaders about the important role our industry plays in driving the overall economy and helping our communities, especially as it relates to providing opportunities to people of color, many of whom are also new immigrants to our country. Our industry can be a source of driving job creation and economic opportunities, but needs more support from our leaders. We need to make a case for our industry with a strong voice.
What gives you hope for the year ahead?
I have tremendous hope for 2022. The success of vaccinations and their efficacy has improved overall confidence by and large, even though the rise of new COVID variants will continue to create some bumps along the way to a full recovery of our industry. More is being done today to increase vaccinations globally and governments are working hand in hand with airlines to make travel safer with increased testing requirements. I believe that there is significant pent-up demand for cross-border travel, which, barring any significant adverse development, should continue to rise through 2022 and be a net benefit to our industry. There are also more in-person meetings and events scheduled in 2022 relative to 2021, and the continuing rise in business travel, even in the absence of offices fully reopening, is another positive sign.