Much like its host city, the 44th Annual NYU International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference, held at the New York Marriott Marquis, was alive with activity reminiscent of that before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The NYU School of Professional Studies Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality convened top hospitality industry executives and thought leaders from across the U.S. and around the world for a deep dive into the current state of the industry and what is to be expected in the months to come.
In his opening remarks, Jonathan Tisch, chairman/CEO, Loews Hotels & Co, called on travel and hospitality leaders to position travel as both an economic driver and an essential component of a healthy, functioning society in a post-pandemic world.
“Travel is essential to the way we work and live because it has tremendous potential to connect us to each other, to ideas and to opportunity,” he said. “It brings people together, broadens perspectives and spurs innovation and progress.”
He stressed that, at a time when people and organizations are scrutinizing their budgets, the hospitality industry must demonstrate that travel has value beyond the economy.
He first described travel’s ability to connect people. He enumerated the challenges facing society in the wake of the pandemic, including division and loneliness, casting travel as an antidote to isolation. He stated, “At a time of division, polarization and anxiety, we have to remind decision-makers that travel is not a distraction from society’s most-pressing problems—it’s a solution to them.”
Tisch went on to explain how travel can connect people to ideas. As business travel has yet to fully recover and workers quickly tire of their home offices, he urged leaders to embrace an emerging reality.
“The lines between work, travel and leisure have permanently blurred,” he said. “Workers who don’t have an office or a water cooler anymore can find one in Miami or Philadelphia or Asheville…That presents a unique chance for us as an industry to reimagine our offerings, to make them attractive to every kind of business traveler.”
Tisch then implored leaders to focus on creating more opportunities for advancement within hospitality. As the industry faces historic labor shortages, he reminded conference attendees of the benefits it can provide to workers, including inclusive workplaces, competitive compensation packages and professional development opportunities.
“There’s a reason we’re the first stop for many immigrants and others pursuing the American Dream,” he said. “To climb the ranks, you don’t need to enter with hyper-specialized skills or credentials. You need a good attitude, a willingness to work hard and a desire to make people feel welcome.”
Finally, Tisch issued a rallying cry to leaders throughout the travel ecosystem to do their part to make travel essential. He concluded, “We can start right here, right now.”
“The CEOs Check-In: A View from the Top,” featured hospitality executives who discussed the evolving investment landscape, and how the hospitality industry is growing once again. Sara Eisen, anchor, “Closing Bell,” CNBC, moderated this discussion with Keith Barr, CEO, IHG Hotels & Resorts; Sébastien M. Bazin, chairman/CEO, Accor; Anthony Capuano, CEO, Marriott International; Mark S. Hoplamazian, president/CEO, Hyatt Hotels Corporation; and Christopher J. Nassetta, president/CEO, Hilton.
The CEOs were optimistic regarding the resiliency of the industry and the pent-up demand for travel caused by the pandemic. However, they also acknowledged the continuing problem of the labor shortage and the fact that they must make hospitality jobs more attractive by offering flexible schedules and pay.
But, despite the wage increases, the industry is still facing a labor shortage. Bazin said a reason for this is that the hours are not the greatest, especially compared to other industries. “It is a painful job, and [one]that you cannot do remotely,” he said. “The main reason why we lose people is because they have siblings or family friends around them who are working from home and,
accordingly, have a better life. So, hospital nurses, construction employees, hospitality, why are we facing the same problem? [It is] for the exact same reason—if they can opt for the same pay in a job but they can actually have better free time and work remotely and less sacrifices, [why wouldn’t they]?”
Barr believes that a way to help the situation is immigration. “You need to encourage immigration to bring people to work in this workforce,” he said.
Hyatt’s Hoplamazian said the industry must modernize some of its hotel-level practices. “[It is about] how you schedule shifts and how you open up the opportunity for a parent who needs to care for an elderly parent or get their kid to school in the morning,” he said. “They’re not going to make a seven or eight o’clock stand up for housekeeping. It’s just not going to happen. We’ve been stuck in this completely, totally old-world thought about how you schedule your people. Every one of us is working on a more dynamic way of helping people to self-schedule. I think that’s really critical.”
Capuano agreed with Hoplamazian, adding that the retail industry has made these changes, “but, that is not a level of flexibility and creativity that our industry has broadly embraced.”
Despite this, Nassetta believes that things are getting better. He said that many of the issues that kept people from working—including those of health, childcare and government subsidies—have passed. “You had a big reallocation of the workforce,” he said. “You had the COVID winners and the COVID losers. Sadly, we were on the loser list, certainly in the beginning, and are shifting over to the winner list. A lot of the workforce that did want to work that wasn’t at home for these or other reasons shifted into retail and technology and in other areas. So, it takes time for all that to sort of sort itself out.”
Discussing the issues
During the Policy Update session, moderated by Jeffrey Stewart, conference vice chair and founder/president, Walnut Hill Advisors; association leaders Brian Crawford, EVP, government affairs, American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA); Andy Ingraham, president/founder/CEO, National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers (NABHOOD); Laura Lee Blake, president/CEO, AAHOA; and Lynette Montoya, CEO, Latino Hotel Association, offered their takes on the current issues affecting the industry.
Crawford said that the other issues will take up the majority of the time of Congress, moving away from legislation that may help the industry and that policies of the Biden administration will affect hospitality. “Congress grinding to a halt will not get much done; filling the void will be enforcement activity and regulatory activity,” he said. “And that’s why it’s important that all of our organizations are united in speaking with one voice on behalf of the industry when we talk to the Hill to talk to the federal government.”
Ingraham noted that it is important to speak to government leaders, especially state, city and local government officials. “Part of our huge issue is educating them on two things,” he said. “Number one, our industry. They have a view that every hotelier is a multimillionaire and we’re the bad guys, and we’re not. We’re creating jobs that fuel our economy, which is important. The other thing that we find really interesting is that they’re also concerned about the diversity of our industry. And we’ve got to show them that…this is not only a great industry, but it’s a great industry that provides opportunities for everybody and for us working with all these organizations. We’re getting the message across. It’s difficult and sometimes we need all of you to call your elected officials and use your relationships; it makes our job easier.”
Seemingly, no discussion of issues facing the industry can avoid the topic of the labor shortage, and Blake said that AAHOA has encouraged the administration to increase the number of H2B work visas, after already adding 35,000 earlier this year. “We are also working with a diverse coalition of groups to come up with a new H2C visa, which would apply to hospitality workers in an attempt to address, as they call it, the ‘Great Resignation’ of workers in this country, which has led to this labor shortage,” she said.
Montoya said that like many other groups in the industry, Latinos have a great desire to work in the hotels, but at the same time, they’re also looking at other opportunities. “Latinos who are in the U.S. feel like they have had to work extra hard to get where they need to go,” she said. “So, we want to make them welcome and give them the opportunity for advancement.”