Leslie D. Hale’s list of career accomplishments demonstrates clearly her impact on the lodging industry over the past couple decades, but that impact figures to grow as she takes over as chair of the board for AHLA.
Hale made history by being named the first African-American woman to lead a public real estate investment trust in 2018 when she was put in the role of president/CEO of RLJ Lodging Trust. With a deep financial background—having worked for Goldman Sachs and GE Capital—the Harvard graduate joined RLJ in 2005 and ascended through the ranks.
“Lodging is the best of all worlds, combining an operating business model with a real estate asset, which is thrilling. RLJ has not only allowed me the opportunity to develop deep experience in the hospitality industry, but also the opportunity to grow as a leader and forge a path to the C-suite,” she said.
Hale—who joined the AHLA’s board in 2020 and served as vice chair last year—won the third annual Castell Award instituted by the AHLA Foundation in July. The award honors a female trailblazer in the hospitality investment arena who paves the way for more women to rise to the top.
As she prepared to officially assume the role of chair of the AHLA board, Hale talked to LODGING about some of her hospitality accomplishments, as well as a number of critical issues for the industry and the association going forward.
How did you first get into hospitality?
I found my first love of finance at Howard University, and my second love of real estate while I was working at GE. I developed a passion for hospitality while at RLJ, where I was able to combine both loves while leveraging all aspects of my background. Finance is forward looking and requires strategic thinking, while real estate is tangible as we all touch it in some aspect of our lives.
How did you first get involved with AHLA?
RLJ Lodging Trust has been a part of and invested in AHLA for many years—including throughout my entire tenure. Our industry has many different [stakeholders] within
our ecosystem, and it is critical that we have a central organization representing us with a single voice. While many of us compete day-to-day, it’s now more evident than ever that working together on common issues is essential. Establishing a forum that allows us to unite on common matters is the value AHLA brings. Additionally, AHLA and the AHLA Foundation’s commitment to industry initiatives like ForWard: Advancing Women in Hospitality and The Castell Project not only aligns with the many opportunities the industry can offer, but also my personal leadership ethos.
What do you see as the biggest challenges for the industry?
Workforce, workforce, workforce. Hospitality is a people centric industry where our associates are key to delivering on the guest experience, which in turn keeps our customers coming back and drives our business. Similar to other consumer-facing industries, hotels have had a difficult time hiring associates in a very tight employment market over the past couple of years, which in many ways has implications for the recovery of our industry. We as an industry must do more to advocate for policies that expand the labor pool, which will ultimately drive economic expansion. In addition, we need to continue to highlight the attractiveness of our industry—one that is exceptionally diverse and not only offers the opportunity for many to step on the first rung of the economic ladder, but also has the potential to launch rewarding careers, of which there are many success stories. We also need to continue to support and expand hospitality educational opportunities to develop the next generation of leaders within our industry.
What are your top priorities as chair?
I want to acknowledge the great work done by my predecessors in developing AHLA’s five-year strategic plan, which will be heading into its third year under my leadership. My focus will be to continue to execute on this plan, which includes strengthening our voice to demonstrate the significant economic and social impact we have as an industry on the overall economy and advocating for policies that expand access to employment opportunities.
What did you learn during the pandemic that shaped your approach as a leader?
Leading by example and connecting with our associates became more important than ever. During an unprecedented event like the pandemic, we gained a tremendous appreciation for human interaction, our mobility, and the value of our health. Talking with my team, interacting with them in the office, and empathizing with their individual experiences really made a difference. As leaders, our companies are only as strong as our teams, and the investment in our people during the pandemic was my top priority.
What is your outlook on the industry’s recovery?
I remain bullish about the long-term growth prospects of our industry, which has been underscored by the resilience we have shown during the pandemic and the strong recovery we are seeing that has surpassed expectations. That said, much of the industry’s recovery has been uneven across segment mix and markets. For example, the leisure market has undoubtedly recovered more quickly during this turbulent time, which has helped resort properties and leisure locations. In contrast, business travel, meetings and conventions, government travel, and international travel are in the early innings of a recovery and have only recently begun to drive demand at urban hotels. These trends give me confidence that significant run room exists for overall industry revenues to grow as these segments and urban locations recover.
What were the major trends in hotel investment during 2022?
Relative to this improving fundamental backdrop, the overall transaction market for all asset types started the year strong but has wobbled in the second half of 2022 in the face of rising interest rates and debt markets that have been constrained by macro uncertainty. I expect that transaction markets will return as soon as the economic outlook [normalizes].
What inspires you about working in this industry?
The hospitality industry is full of opportunity for everyone, no matter where you start, and the diverse nature of our workforce and the ability to enable professional growth inspires me. Unlike many industries, in hospitality you can work your way up from entry level to the C-suite; this is something that motivates me to encourage others to join our great industry.
As a Castell Award winner, what are your thoughts on progress in advancing women into hospitality leadership roles?
Receiving the Castell Award was a huge honor, and I am very appreciative of AHLA for highlighting women through this award. Their efforts can change the way that women see our industry, but also and more importantly, how they see themselves in our industry. Programs like The Castell Project will help ensure our industry’s diverse future. There are many talented women in the hospitality industry, who like me, just need access to opportunity that can lead to executive-level roles, sponsorship, and encouragement. The recipe for female success is simple and identical to that of our male counterparts.