HUNTER Highlights: Key Insights from the 2023 Conference
By David Berman | March 22, 2023
Over 2000 hotel executives, vendors, media members and more have descended on the Atlanta Marriott Marquis to network, negotiate, connect and learn at the 2023 HUNTER Hotel Investment Conference.
The 34th iteration of the conference, HUNTER spans three days this year — Tuesday through Thursday — and includes breakout sessions, keynote speakers, sponsor exhibit booths and networking activities.
Here are a few highlights and key insights from the first two days of HUNTER:
Sheila Johnson, Founder & CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, gave the keynote speech during lunch on Wednesday. Johnson has had a wide-ranging career in and out of hospitality. Outside of her current hospitality role, she has also played as a concert violinist, co-founded Black Entertainment Television and holds an ownership stake in three professional sports teams — the Washington Capitals, Mystics and Wizards. Johnson was interviewed by Rachel Humphrey, who works in the Women in Hospitality Leadership Alliance.
Johnson began her conversation with Humphrey by reflecting on her time as a violinist and how it gave her skills of vulnerability and listening to others.
“Through the arts, you learn the basics of learning yourself,” she said.
Johnson said she stayed in “some of the finest hotels all over Europe” during her music career, instilling in her an interest in the luxury space. When she decided to join the industry, she said she didn’t know anything about the business side of hospitality.
“What I had to do is, I had to find the best people out there who could teach me about the business,” she said.
She said many of those people are still working with her today.
She also spoke about the difficulty of breaking into the hospitality industry as a Black woman, as women and minorities often can’t get funding for hotel development. She implored each executive in the room to promote diversity in their organizations and the industry as a whole.
“It’s not about checking a box,” she said. “Without those different voices, you’re never going to grow.”
“A View from the Top,” a main session panel on Wednesday morning, consisted of five CEOs speaking on general industry trends and challenges. Moderator Stephanie Ricca from Hotel News Now asked the panelists for their long-term outlooks.
Julie Arrowsmith, President & Interim CEO at G6 Hospitality, and Elie W. Maalouf, CEO, Americas, at IHG Hotels & Resorts, both said they were cautiously optimistic despite labor challenges, banking concerns, a possible recession and other issues.
“The pandemic and inflation haven’t broken the will of the people to travel,” Maalouf said.
Geoff Ballotti, President & CEO of Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, said each week of this month has been better revenue-wise for Wyndham compared to the same time in 2019 — pre-pandemic.
Ricca asked the panelists what they’ve been hearing from their development teams about what it takes to get deals done in a rocky banking environment.
“I think banks are going to be more closely scrutinized by their board of directors in regards to risk management,” he said. “We have to have faith in our regional banks.”
Another topic that was talked about was short-term rentals like Airbnb. These industry disruptors “haven’t been the existential problem that was thought 5 or 6 years ago,” Maalouf said, as many local communities have pushed for greater regulation on the rentals.
“(Airbnbs) actually grew the market for travel,” he said.
In between meetings and meals, attendees could also choose from different breakout sessions on various topics. On “Secret of Successful Brands,” panelists discussed the term “experience” being overused in hospitality. However, Noah Silverman, Global Development Officer, US & Canada, for Marriott International, said this is a good sign of shifting consumer wants from products to services.
“I think it’s actually one of the things that gives us hope for the future,” Silverman said. “The consumer is focused on experience over stuff. For our industry, that is good long-term news.”
In this search for determining key experiences guests expect in a hotel, consumer and market research can be a crucial guide, said Jim Tierney, SVP of Development & Owner Relations for Hyatt Hotels Corporation.
“For us, it’s about staying true to who we are on the brand side,” he said.
A few other notable moments include a presentation from Adam Sacks from Tourism Economics on Tuesday morning. He feels the tourism industry will “defy economic gravity” as the impending recession looms due to households remaining strong and spending on services continuing to rise.
Fred Cerrone, Founder & Chairman of Hotel Equities, received the HUNTER Conference Award for Excellence and Inspiration on Wednesday morning. His wife, Christine, introduced him before he was honored for his over 55 years of service in the industry.