David Kong Takes AH&LA Into Second 100 Years

David’s Kong’s path to the pinnacle of the hotel industry began during his boyhood years in Hong Kong where a weekly ritual for the family was Sunday lunch in a fine hotel. “From that early age, I became enamored with hotels and knew I wanted to be part of the business,” says Kong, president and CEO of Best Western International and the current chairman of the American Hotel & Lodging Association.

“The lodging industry has been very good to me,” says Kong, who joined Best Western eight years ago following stints with Hyatt, Omni, Regent, Hilton and KPMG Consulting. “I’ve had a successful career and made a very good living. Everyone in my position needs to give back to the industry, and my involvement with AH&LA is a good way to do so.”

While Kong has specific goals for his year in the AH&LA top job, he’s just as adamant about carrying on the work of previous chairmen and implementing the association’s ongoing three-year strategic plan.

Kong looks to the work of Joe Martin, owner of Oklahoma-based Stillwater Hospitality and last year’s AH&LA chairman, as a guide to effective leadership, and he plans to expand on Martin’s mantra as chairman—communicate, collaborate and connect—as his roadmap during the year.

“These are three vitally important ways to conduct ourselves as officers and leaders,” says Kong. “As a membership organization, we need to foster good communications so members feel they belong to a community. We also need feedback from them to ensure that what we do is on target.”

Given the diversity of the industry and the various associations representing hotel constituents, e.g., AAHOA, NABHOOD, ARDA, USTA and others, Kong believes collaboration is essential. “Each organization has its purpose and substantial following, but we need to reach out and demonstrate a willingness to collaborate,” he says. “By working together, we can amplify our voice in Washington.”

In Kong’s view, the concept of connection refers to the need to show how the hotel industry can be a wise career choice.

“While it’s important we maintain continuity on the board, there are also several issues I want to pursue as chairman,” he says, citing the environment and training as key concerns. Kong believes the industry needs to create a “thorough, credible and well-thought-out “ environmental program that can gain acceptance by consumers, hotel owners, government regulators and hotel rating agencies. “A viable green program makes sense for the hotel industry because it will save money for properties; it will protect our environment; and it’s the right thing to do.”

Training and education is another of Kong’s passions he hopes to promote during his term. The AH&LA Educational Institute is the perfect resource, says Kong, to create programs and tools everyone in the industry can use to develop, train and retain employees.

“It makes no sense for Best Western or Starwood or Marriott to develop their own training programs for front desk associates or housekeepers or on topics like PCI compliance,” says Kong. “EI provides the bases of these programs and each chain can customize or tweak them for their own needs. It’s much more cost-effective for everyone.”

Above all, the role of AH&LA is as the hotel industry’s chief lobbying arm, and Kong is passionate about several of the issues facing lodging and tourism this year and beyond.

“The founding values and mission of this organization have been to be the voice of the industry and to protect its interests, and in recent years, AH&LA has been very successful in its mission,” he says, citing the association’s role in the near-certain passage of the Travel Promotion Act and blockage of the Employee Free Choice Act in its current form. “But there are quite a few issues we’ll face this year and beyond.”

Kong was disappointed in the structure of healthcare reform as it made its way through Congress: “It’s troublesome because it means more taxes, more federal mandates and more government-run programs. Instead, we should focus on tort reform and health insurance reform.”

Another concern is proposed legislation in Congress that, among other things, would require new offices and commercial buildings, including hotels, to become 30-percent more energy efficient by 2012. The bill narrowly passed the House last spring but it stalled for now in the Senate.

“While I strongly support green initiatives, I worry that hotels are included in this provision of the legislation,” says Kong. “The government needs to realize we’re a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week business with different dynamics than office buildings, which are open just 10 to 12 hours a day.”

Kong also supports comprehensive immigration reform, especially as it relates to the H-2B visa program that supplies short-term immigrant workers for many industries, including tourism. He says while the U.S. has “high unemployment now, at some point we’re again going to have a dire need for seasonal workers.”

A BETTER 2010?
Kong takes what he believes is a contrarian view regarding the prospects for the hotel industry this year. Whereas many pundits believe 2010 will be another down year for the business, Kong sees it as an inflection point during which the business cycle begins to move up and RevPAR trends will turn positive.

“We’ve seen signs of this improvement at Best Western,” he says. “Even though rates are still soft, the number of rooms booked through are reservations system has gone up every month for the past five or six months.

“The industry has a pricing issue, which must be resolved before things get better,” he says. “And, of course, we continue to have an imbalance in supply and demand: We’ve seen an average two-percent growth in supply every year for 20-plus years but we haven’t had the same demand growth.”

He’s optimistic that much less supply will be added to the industry’s inventory this year. “And demand is growing and will eventually catch up to supply growth. We also need transient and group business to pick up again.”

This will be a busy year for Kong as he juggles his role as AH&LA chairman with his duties at Best Western. He expects to travel about once a month on behalf of AH&LA, but many of those trips will coincide with industry events he would be attending anyway.

He believes the similarities between the structures of the two organizations is another advantage for him. “Best Western and AH&LA are both member associations so there are a lot of commonalities, although there are differences, too,” he says. “Having worked at Best Western for more than eight years has taught me a lot: to be flexible, patient and open-minded. And because of our diversity, and the same goes for AH&LA, I’ve learned to be a better decisionmaker.”

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