Harnessing the power of the AAHOA network


Members forge connections to share best practices and business opportunities

As a 28-year-old hotelier operating three Motel 6 properties for his family, Ronak Patel certainly doesn’t lack energy or ambition. But after meeting so many young hoteliers at AAHOA’s inaugural HYPE Ownership Conference, he felt invigorated, and his goals were bigger than ever before. 

Patel and about 200 other AAHOA Members gathered in New Orleans in February for the two-day HYPE Ownership Conference, aimed at nurturing the next generation of hospitality leaders. During the past three years, he’d enjoyed meeting established hoteliers at AAHOA events, but the HYPE Ownership Conference proved an eye-opening experience.

“I had no idea there were this many very smart, young people in AAHOA,” he said. “It was nice to hear about their backgrounds and how they’ve grown and developed. I’m trying to follow the same steps and become more successful, and it helps to see other people striving for that and achieving that. Now, I have to raise my own professional level to meet them. I can’t stay stuck where I am.”

Several HYPE attendees invited Patel to invest in their projects, while others spoke to him about hotel construction and development, piquing his interest. Based in Portland, OR, Patel and his extended family have about 10 economy hotels in their portfolio, but HYPE has inspired him to aim higher. When he attends AAHOACON24 in Orlando, FL, this month, he said his top priority will be meeting with hotel brokers and lenders.

“It’s rare to have that many hotel brokers and lenders in one place at the same time,” Patel said. “That’s my next step – to figure out how to get a couple more hotels added to our portfolio.”

For Patel, HYPE and AAHOACON illustrate the power of the AAHOA network. After obtaining a master’s degree in business analytics from Hult International Business School, he figured he’d work in the tech industry. But then the pandemic struck, and good job opportunities became scarce for a time. He’d never considered joining the family business, but being stuck at home made him bored and depressed, so he eventually began servicing the vending machines at one property.

That experience sparked his interest in the industry, and he quickly took on more responsibilities. Patel attended AAHOACON21 in Dallas and said the educational opportunities helped to prepare him to run multiple hotels at once.

Patel said AAHOA events provide opportunities to network and share best practices. At recent events, for example, he’s asked members for advice in dealing with rising insurance costs and discussed which online organizational tool is best. Based on recommendations from fellow AAHOA Members, he recently started using a different credit-card processing service at his properties, seeking a streamlined process for chargebacks.

“For people starting out in their hospitality careers, I view AAHOA as a great resource because the education sessions are very useful,” Patel said. “I also think that what AAHOA is doing with young professionals to help them grow in their careers is especially valuable. I really do think AAHOA membership is beneficial, whether you’re the smallest of hotel operators or one of the largest.”

Patel, an AAHOA Ambassador, said collaboration between AAHOA Members helped Portland’s unhoused population make it through a powerful winter storm in January.

With freezing temperatures expected, Patel reached out to local AAHOA Members through their group chat and compiled a list of almost 20 properties that could be used as warming centers. He then contacted local health officials, telling them hoteliers were prepared to serve as a resource for this vulnerable population.

“AAHOA Members got to pull in new revenue and help the community to get people out of the cold, so it was a winwin,” Patel said. “Every hotel on the list was completely packed.”

Patel said AAHOA membership has driven him to become more politically active, recognizing that the decisions of local, state, and federal legislators impact the hospitality industry in major ways. For the past few years, he’s participated in AAHOA’s regular visits to Capitol Hill, speaking with congressmen about policy issues such as the need for more immigrant work visas to alleviate the protracted labor shortage.

“AAHOA really does quite a lot for the industry,” he said.

Like Patel, Digvijay (Danny) Gaekwad said he’s benefited greatly from the AAHOA network. Born in Baroda in western India, Gaekwad moved with his wife to the United States in 1987 and quickly built a chain of convenience stores and a medical billing and transcription company. Despite that success, he realized upon entering the hospitality industry in 1997 that he had a lot to learn.

Gaekwad became a regular at AAHOA events, finding the networking and educational components of AAHOACON especially beneficial and soaking up knowledge from industry leaders such as Mukesh (Mike) Patel, the Atlanta hotelier who served as AAHOA’s chairman in 1998.

Fast forward to today, and Gaekwad, based in Ocala, FL, is among the state’s most prominent real estate developers and entrepreneurs, having had his picture taken with Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump, along with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“When I came to this country, there was only one organization that could give me direction and teach me how to own and operate a hotel, and that was AAHOA,” Gaekwad said. “Whenever I had a question, whether it was about finding a good contractor, getting financing or choosing furniture, fixtures, and equipment, I could turn to AAHOA Members for help, and that was invaluable.”

Gaekwad, chair of AAHOA’s Government Affairs Committee, said the association’s advocacy for the industry ensures hoteliers benefit from AAHOA membership regardless of whether they ever attend a function. But he said members who miss out on AAHOACON and other major events are shortchanging themselves.

“I don’t think there is any hotel industry group in the world that organizes a better convention than us,” he said. “Everything is in one place. What more could you want?”

Brandy Conner, principal of My Hotel Reputation, said the AAHOA network has been instrumental in the success of her company, which provides services such as review response, social media management, virtual guidebooks, and QR integrations. Since attending her first AAHOA regional meeting in Cherry Hill, NJ, several years ago, Conner has made it a point to participate in AAHOA events and network with hoteliers.

“There’s such a strong sense of community among AAHOA Members, and that’s helped my business to thrive because if you have a good reputation and people like the services you’re offering, members will refer you to other members,” she said. “That’s been fundamental to the success of my business, so I’m very thankful to AAHOA.”

Conner said the AAHOA community embraced her from the start, with New Jersey-based hotelier Mahendra (MZ) Patel, AAHOA’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Director, taking her under his wing and helping her to foster connections. A guest appearance on Patel’s TV Asia show, “Hotel Insight,” led to Conner landing her own show on the network. “Hotel Incredible,” in which Conner visits unique boutique hotels across the country, recently began filming its third season.

“The show has been so much fun, and there’s no way I would have had that opportunity if it weren’t for AAHOA,” she said.

Conner said she learned how to create websites and market properties while renting out her own residential homes on Airbnb. She then offered those services to bed-and-breakfasts, vacation rentals, and small hotels before joining AAHOA and rapidly growing her client base.

Networking with AAHOA Members inspired Conner to join the ranks of hoteliers in 2020, when she purchased a 13-room motel in Wyoming. She recently closed on her seventh property and now owns motels in South Dakota, Michigan, Illinois, and Minnesota. An onsite manager at each property tends to guests’ needs while she handles other aspects of operations from her base in Colorado Springs, CO.

“From my experience with AAHOA, and seeing the strength of that community, I felt confident enough to buy my first motel, and I’ve had tremendous success with it utilizing my background in marketing,” Conner said. “I never would have considered buying little hotels if it wasn’t for my involvement with AAHOA. Buying a hotel is big thing, but you can start out small and work your way up, and that’s something I learned from AAHOA Members.”

Having benefited from AAHOA membership, Conner said she wants to help other members by participating in educational events and sharing her best practices for managing boutique hotels. Technologies such as self-service check-in are enabling her to operate hotels efficiently while still leaving her time to raise a family, she said.

“When I tell members about what I’m doing, their eyes just light up,” she said. “These properties actually can be really profitable, and you’re not handcuffed to your job. I don’t live where these properties are located, but they’re all operating successfully.”

Looking back, Conner said she’s glad she attended that first AAHOA Regional Conference, which helped to fuel her rapid career growth.

“The thing that separates AAHOA from other organizations is that sense of community – how close-knit everyone is,” she said. “When you’re trying to build your business, it’s critical that you surround yourself with the right people, and there’s no better place to do that than through AAHOA.”




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