Get to know AAHOA’s new leadership
Following a vote by the AAHOA Board of Directors, Laura Lee Blake, Esq., is the new President and CEO of AAHOA, the nation’s largest hotel owners association. Laura Lee has been an attorney for more than 25 years and most recently was a partner with Connor, Fletcher, and Hedenkamp LLP in Irvine, California. She brings decades of experience in the fields of law, government, business, and academia to AAHOA.
Melissa Stern, AAHOA’s director, corporate communications, sat down with Blake for a Q&A to learn more about her and her vision for the future of AAHOA.
MELISSA STERN: CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR OVERALL EXPERIENCES IN THE FIRST FEW WEEKS AS THE PRESIDENT AND CEO OF AAHOA?
LAURA LEE BLAKE: The only word to describe the first few weeks in this new role is “exhilarating.” To be back with AAHOA and serving our nearly 20,000 members, as well as working with the AAHOA team members and collaborating with our Officers, Board members, and Ambassadors, is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Plus, with AAHOA continuing to strengthen its influence in the hotel industry and political circles, this provides a new platform to voice our concerns and make a true difference for the benefit of our members. I’m looking forward to the challenges ahead and loving every minute of it.
MS: YOU WORKED WITH AAHOA FROM 2005 TO 2014. IS THIS TRANSITION EASIER FOR YOU SINCE YOU ALREADY KNOW AAHOA AND MANY OF THE MEMBERS FROM YOUR PRIOR YEARS WITH THE ASSOCIATION?
LLB: Yes, my relationships with many of the leaders and key members of AAHOA have continued strong, and it’s a joy to be back. I’ve commented several times that it’s as if nothing and everything has changed. It reminds me of the popular Yogi Berra quote that “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” Coming back, I’m seeing so many familiar faces. I’m reconnecting with many of my friends, colleagues, and the strong members I had worked with before. We had close relationships back then, and we are picking up where we left off. Now that I’m back, not only will I be working with them again, but in many situations, I will also have the opportunity to work with their children who have become strong leaders in their own right.
It’s truly the American Dream for our members to have come to the U.S. to build their businesses and communities, and to now have their children – who grew up in the hotel industry and many of whom have been educated in our top universities – take over the hotels with a new vision and focus. To participate in this multigenerational setup within the families and the community enhances every aspect of my new position because they’re ready to proceed to take AAHOA to new heights in the upcoming years.
On top of that, AAHOA has also grown tremendously. There is a level of professionalism and overall influence that is more pronounced than it was before. This is a tribute to the hard work of all past AAHOA leaders. It’s an exciting time to come back and step into this role of serving AAHOA and leading in a new capacity. It’s truly an honor, and there is nowhere I would rather be.
MS: WHAT DO YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT WHAT YOU ARE WORKING ON FOR YOUR FIRST 30, 60, 90 DAYS?
LLB: The list of goals and objectives for my first 30, 60, and 90 days is highly ambitious and, as you might expect, continues to grow by the day. There is so much opportunity at AAHOA, and our leaders are boldly taking on the challenges to serve the members in new and innovative ways. One of my key initiatives is a focus on fair franchising and AAHOA’s overall franchise-relations efforts. Members are reporting increased challenges and concerns with their respective franchise systems, and they want more balanced, fair, and equitable terms and practices. We are closely analyzing this from the perspective of the revised 12 Points of Fair Franchising. We’re also opening dialogues with the various franchisors and brands, while supporting legislation that moves the proverbial needle and makes a long-term difference for the benefit of our members. I was very passionate about these efforts in prior years when I was working with AAHOA, and I haven’t lost that passion or focus. Rather, it has only been made stronger after hearing the stories from our members about many unfair and unjust practices.
To be clear, I should emphasize that franchising provides numerous advantages and benefits for franchisees across the various industries. It has opened doors of opportunity for our AAHOA members and countless other small business owners who have owned and operated highly successful franchised businesses. We have seen great efforts by many of the franchisors to work closely with their franchisees to help them grow, expand, and thrive. For those franchisors who aren’t leading with fairness and are failing to promote practices 8-TIMEthat benefit their franchisees, we urge you strongly to make the necessary changes for the benefit of the entire franchise system. This would be a win-win for all.
On a personal front, my father was a General Motors franchisee when I was growing up. He had a car dealership in a small rural community in Northwest Iowa, and he sold Pontiacs and Buicks to members of the local community. During those years, I saw the challenges he faced as a result of several GM mandates that were unfair and burdensome, especially for smaller dealers that didn’t have the same resources and reserves as the bigger dealerships in larger urban communities. Since my father would bring our entire family to the large automobile conventions, I would join him at the NADA (National Automobile Dealers Association) meetings during these events. As I watched the NADA leaders and representatives advocating for the members and speaking out on their behalf, I frequently wanted to join them to represent the interests of the smaller dealers. I wanted to seek changes that were favorable and balanced. There is a deep personal connection and drive to assist AAHOA Members, especially those with smaller hotels who might be struggling to support their families and their communities. It’s a blessing to be given this opportunity to serve our AAHOA members in this way and seek changes that will benefit their businesses, employees, families, communities, and guests.
MS: WHAT REASSURANCES WOULD YOU OFFER TO MEMBERS, INDUSTRY PARTNERS, OR ANYONE WITH UNCERTAINTIES ABOUT AAHOA’S FUTURE?
LLB: AAHOA is strong, and I would reassure them that the ardor and dedication of our Officers, Board Members, and members are unparalleled in the industry. Many of the new initiatives this year involving fair franchising, advocacy, education, and the innovative use of technology to improve operations are brilliant in their design and sustainable for the future. It’s becoming increasingly clear that AAHOA will progress further and beyond any point previously explored. There are teams of leaders determining how best to move forward and capitalize on the many opportunities that lie ahead for the organization. There should be absolutely no doubt that if it can be done, AAHOA will do it.
In addition to the efforts of the Officers and Board Members, we also have a very strong Past Chair Committee with past AAHOA Chairs who serve as the honorable “senior statesmen” of the association. The Past Chairs have the wisdom and commitment to ensure we are on the right path and doing things that are in the best interest of the members.
We won’t stop until we have achieved our goals. I trust our members will stand united and join the efforts to effect change for the long term.
MS: WHAT ELSE ARE YOU FOCUSING ON REGARDING CHANGES WITHIN AAHOA, INTERNALLY, AND HOW DO YOU PLAN TO NAVIGATE THESE UNCERTAIN TIMES AS WE TRAVEL DOWN THE ROAD TO RECOVERY FROM THE PANDEMIC?
LLB: As many organizations continue to address the employment changes and concerns arising from COVID, the same is true with AAHOA. We are contemplating, for example, whether it’s best to bring the entire team back to the office on a full-time basis, or use a hybrid approach as we move back to normal.
In addition, we are looking at restaffing key leadership positions, rebuilding the team, and creating plans to better serve our members as AAHOA grows and evolves. Our AAHOA team members have been diligently serving the association and the members, and my goal is to help them continue to identify and achieve their own career goals and objectives, and provide the experiences, training, and resources they need to do so. We have some fantastic leaders on our team, and I will be striving to be a champion for promoting their work and the great things they do for the association.
Chairman Neal Patel has identified important priorities for this year. To achieve these goals, we must build the right teams, create strategic plans, and execute the long-term goals. AAHOA is ready to go to the next level. The AAHOA team is here to turn ideas into initiatives, initiatives into plans, and plans into reality.
MS: WHAT IS YOUR VISION FOR HELPING AAHOA’S NEARLY 20,000 MEMBERS?
LLB: My vision is to make changes in the franchise industry that will achieve balance for both the franchisors and their franchisees over the long term. This will improve the bottom line for many of our franchisee members while attracting the next generation of hoteliers to enter the industry because there will be an ROI and profit that hasn’t been diminished by amenity creep or any prolific fee increases. My vision also encompasses a greater role for AAHOA as a strong advocate and influencer with elected officials and decision-makers at the federal, state, and local levels, especially given the unsurpassed strength of our grassroots efforts when our members show up to speak their concerns. Finally, I envision that AAHOA will continue to host an event lineup that is unrivaled in the industry with our spectacular Conventions, Regionals, Townhalls, and all related meetings.
I recently read a quote from J.P. Morgan that aptly sums up the decisions being made, as well as the strong efforts for AAHOA to take the lead as a powerful voice for hoteliers in effectuating important changes across the industry. The quote reads as follows: “The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide you’re not going to stay where you are.” I’m looking forward to discovering new and unmatched opportunities that previously haven’t been seen. It’s a new day. It’s a new start. This is AAHOA.
20 questions with Laura Lee Blake