Former lawmaker, academic, and business owner takes the helm at AAHOA
by HEATHER CARNES
AAHOA’s President & CEO, Cecil Staton, a successful entrepreneur himself, is no stranger to the struggles of business ownership. From being a resource for lawmakers to ultimately serving in the Georgia Assembly for a decade, Cecil has a long history of advocating for America’s business owners. Here, he shares how his experience will lead AAHOA into its next chapter, benefiting hotel owners nationwide.
As an accomplished entrepreneur, lawmaker, and executive, Cecil joins AAHOA in arguably one of the most exciting times in the association’s history. His experience leading large organizations focused on outreach, networking, and relationship building – all of which are hallmarks of our association and industry – will lead AAHOA into the next era.
“AAHOA is at its strongest point in our 30-year history,” AAHOA Chairwoman Jagruti Panwala said. “Membership is at an all-time high, our educational and advocacy initiatives are thriving, and our members are more engaged than ever before.”
Throughout AAHOA’s extensive search process, which lasted much of 2019, the search committee looked for someone who would excel in building upon the foundation of AAHOA’s success, welcome opportunities to develop meaningful relationships, and bring a unique vision to the association.
“We found such an exemplary leader in Cecil,” Panwala said.
A Defining Background
Cecil hails from a family of entrepreneurs. Growing up in Greenville, SC, his parents instilled in him the values of entrepreneurship, education, and working hard to achieve the things you want in life. He witnessed their commitment to these values first hand, growing up in his father’s shoe shop on Main Street and visiting his mother’s office at a company she helped start. Cecil’s childhood was heavily influenced by his parents’ hard work to provide him with opportunities they didn’t have growing up. To this day, Cecil cites his mother, the matriarch of the family, as his hero because of her unwavering passion, hard work, and determination to become a successful businesswoman.
“They worked very hard for our family,” Cecil said. “However, one of the things they expected of me was to get an education – something they didn’t have the opportunity to do on their own.”
Cecil’s parents’ strong belief in education is what would take him to Furman University, and eventually to the halls of Oxford, where he’d earn his doctorate.
“Coming home from Oxford, I was a college professor, administrator, and I started several small businesses,” Cecil said. “After that, I went on to work in government for a number of years, which was really out of my frustration of starting businesses and the many things we had to deal with.”
But more to come on that.
Starting from Scratch to Thriving Small Business
From observing his parents’ experiences to living his own, Cecil knows all too well the challenges business owners face in creating something out of nothing. His venture into small business began with an idea and concept but would eventually go on to be a multimillion-dollar enterprise. He and his wife, Catherine, took the first step in their plan by buying a radio station in Florida.
“I remember when Catherine and I bought our first station,” Cecil said. “It was derelict – it was in a bad location, there was sand on the floor where the transmitter was, and we had to rebuild it from scratch.”
But after turning that station around, they ended up selling it within a year, making a profit on the sale, and investing the cash into purchasing other radio stations. Bootstrapping their resources, starting from the ground up (literally), learning a new business, and doing every job would allow Cecil and Catherine to grow confident in their skills and business acumen.
“Before you know it, we had 16 radio stations at one time,” he said.
Their broadcasting company would eventually include those 16 stations, a newspaper, and a television station. Dipping their toes into publishing, Cecil and Catherine also began two publishing companies that earned national acclaim for producing two New York Times bestselling books.
“I see a parallel with AAHOA because of what we experienced, albeit in a different industry,” Cecil said. “Many AAHOA Members have built successful companies today, and we did the same when we started our own businesses. So, I have an affinity for that and the wonderful opportunity you can have in this country to build a business and your own success.”
Public Service, Advocacy, and Relationship-Building
However, their success would eventually turn into frustration. Starting their own businesses gave them first-hand insight into how government policies and bureaucracy affect business owners’ ability to conduct business and create jobs in their communities. And when one gets frustrated, one usually takes action. Cecil did just that, first by advocating for laws that benefited small business owners, then ultimately by becoming a lawmaker himself to help make those laws.
A career in public service, born out of his determination to find or create solutions for small business owners, would allow Cecil to serve for a decade in the Georgia General Assembly, including two terms as Senate Majority Whip.
“For 10 years as a state senator, I sat on one side of the desk where I was privileged to listen to the needs of constituents, and I was always very concerned about the issues related to business, particularly small business,” Cecil said.
First as an advocate and then as a state political leader, Cecil was able to experience, first-hand, the importance of advocacy and how to get things done at the capitol.
“Advocacy is really relationship-building,” he said. “Of course, there were a lot of emails and phone calls, but the best way I learned was through one-on-one interaction with people who came to express concerns about particular issues or legislation that might be considered.”
When it comes to leading AAHOA, Cecil knows that those who are elected to office don’t make their way to those seats with all the knowledge they need to make decisions about the issues placed before them.
“At AAHOA, we are the voice to educate those individuals about issues of importance to our members,” Cecil said. “And this is why AAHOA’s work is essential. We’re an incredible resource for elected officials, to ensure they are taking into account the needs and concerns of hotel owners when they are making public policy, instinctively looking to us for guidance, answers, and potential solutions to the challenges we face.”
AAHOA Members continue to be more and more engaged in advocacy efforts. Since its inception, the AAHOA PAC has grown to one of the top-five hotel industry PACs, with receipts totaling more than $1 million each election cycle. It plays a huge part in allowing members and the association to forge relationships with elected officials who oversee legislation and regulations impacting hoteliers.
“I found that there’s nothing more effective than having someone from a district come to speak to their House or Senate member at the state level, or their congressman or senator in Washington,” Cecil said. “It’s very important that lawmakers hear from our members who know best the challenges we face.”
Innovation, Change, and AAHOA’s Bright Future
As AAHOA enters its fourth decade of existence, the organization is poised for growth and an ever-increasing presence in the industry and across the nation. With record-shattering membership numbers, initiatives in place around growing and strengthening advocacy efforts, more educational opportunities than ever before, and an annual convention that attracts more than 8,000 attendees a year, AAHOA’s future is bright.
“The story of our members is a remarkable one. It’s a story of so many people who have achieved their dreams,” Cecil said. “I want them to know that we’re going to continue to work very hard to make sure that potential is still there, for others and for the future.”
Cecil has plans to accomplish this in a number of ways, with a heavy focus on education and advocacy.
“We already do a lot of work and offer a lot of resources to educate those who work in our industry, and, of course, we want to continue to add value for members with our educational offerings,” Cecil said. “We’ll also continue to create opportunities for our members through our advocacy. We’re dedicated to fostering open and productive dialogue with brands, industry leaders, and lawmakers to affect real change when it comes to the needs and concerns of hotel owners today.”
Cecil’s focus on growth and reaching new hoteliers is also a part of AAHOA’s ongoing plan for continued growth and outreach efforts.
“I want to say to those who are not yet members of AAHOA, take a look at what we’re doing, and I certainly hope you’ll join us,” Cecil said. “There’s no organization like AAHOA – singularly focused on ensuring hotel owners in this country have what they need to be successful. And we’re going to continue to do that each and every day at AAHOA.”
As someone who is no stranger to innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, one of Cecil’s top priorities is ensuring that the organization is well-suited for its future. Because of the growth, recognition, and ever-increasing profile in the industry, AAHOA has been on a steep upward trajectory.
“I am lucky to be here to help lead that journey and to be able to help to ensure we continue our commitment to meet the needs of our members as we prepare for the future. The speed of change will lead us to innovation in all aspects of our work,” Cecil said. “We’re going to make sure this organization is well-situated and prepared to continue our upward trajectory.”
Grounded in the Past, Planning for the Future
As a leader who has lived the American Dream himself, Cecil has been inspired by hearing AAHOA Members’ stories and knowing, as an organization, how AAHOA continues to be a platform and cohesive voice to represent the interests of hotel owners across the nation.
“What attracted me to AAHOA was really the AAHOA story,” Cecil said. This organization – founded 30 years ago by people who were starting businesses, dealing with regulations, bureaucracy, and sometimes discrimination – exists today to help members live their own version of the American Dream.”
Cecil says that the interaction with members, hearing their stories, learning about what they’ve overcome, and how they’ve been able to build businesses that they’re proud of is truly a worthwhile thing to be a part of. Committed to the original founding principles on which AAHOA would be created, Cecil’s sees a future where AAHOA is grounded in the past but with an eye on the present and future.
“At the end of the day, for me, it’s about protecting the American Dream,” Cecil said. “Our members are the best example I know of the American Dream and what can be achieved in this country, and I hope we can continue to build upon that in the years to come and ensure that is never lost.”
Getting to Know Cecil: This or That
See this issue’s “5 Things to Know About Cecil” on page 6 to learn more about AAHOA’s leader.
Early bird or night owl?
Both. I’m up early checking emails and reading newspapers, while at night I enjoy spending time with my wife.
Coffee or tea?
Coffee. I’m admittedly a Starbucks fanatic.
Mac or PC?
Mac. I actually wrote my doctoral thesis on one of the earliest Macs.
Sweet or salty?
Both. Especially if it’s caramel ice cream with sea salt.
Spring or fall?
Fall. The beautifully colored leaves and trees really move me.
Beach or mountains?
Beach. Although preferred in the fall, winter, or spring.
Fitbit or Apple Watch?
Fitbit. Have to get those steps in!
Dear AAHOA Member,
Everyone loves a good story, one that draws readers in as they question how and if the dynamic hero will triumph in the face of adversity. Stories explain and perpetuate ideas, build bridges, and foster understanding. It is the tale of AAHOA and its members’ journeys to realizing the American Dream that drew me to the association when I was first contacted about the role of president and CEO.
AAHOA’s three decades of success are driven by the spirit and determination of its members. What began as a handful of hoteliers working together to defeat institutional discrimination in the hospitality industry evolved into the nation’s largest association of hotel owners; yet AAHOA is more than a typical trade association. Its actions and ethos hold true to the American way of life. This is central to helping AAHOA Members realize the American Dream and one of the characteristics that most attracted me to this organization.
The author Will Herberg observed, “The ‘American Way of Life’ is humanitarian, forward-looking, optimistic…The American believes in progress, in self-improvement, and, quite fanatically, in education. But above all, the American is idealistic.”
As an entrepreneur, one must be idealistic, for one cannot succeed without a fervent belief that the fruits of their labor will yield a prosperous future. I know this first hand as a small business owner. From reviving a failing radio station and building that success into owning 16 radio stations to launching two publishing companies that brought two New York Times bestselling books to print, I believed my hard work and commitment to a job done right would lead to progress and a better life.
We all share a common vision and a belief that upward mobility is only possible through hard work and the strength of mind to rise above hardship. AAHOA works to empower hoteliers to create opportunities for their own success. The association’s commitment to self-improvement is clear in the resources it provides to hoteliers, from professional development and networking to advocacy. AAHOA strives to lift its members up and match their unshakable optimism and belief that determination and sacrifice will drive their businesses toward ever-greater success. That’s why AAHOA embodies the American way of life and its members are a living testament to the American Dream.
I am incredibly excited to be working with the more-than 19,300 AAHOA Members. I hope the pages of this month’s magazine give members like you a better understanding of my story and what brought me to AAHOA. As we push forward into 2020, I look forward to hearing more of your stories and learning how AAHOA can contribute to the next chapter in your career.