FLORIDA HOTELIERS WRESTLE WITH ASSOCIATION CHANGES

Florida hoteliers face an array of groups vying for their loyalty following dissolution of the state's financially and politically geriatric hotel lobby.

Last year, the Florida Hotel & Lodging Association disbanded after a bankruptcy filing and sale of its Hospitality Square headquarters in Tallahassee, a building that had been losing tenants. The splintering of a group that had dwindled from 800 to 300 members sets the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, the newly merged affiliate of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, against the Florida Hotel & Lodging Legislative Coalition and the Asian-American Hotel Owners Association.

According to an industry insider who requested anonymity, the members of the new legislative coalition largely represent beach hotels, which “are going bye-bye in lieu of condominiums.” Meanwhile, the majority of Florida hotels are smaller properties owned by Asian Americans some of whom, this source says, generally have “little to do with the American Hotel & Lodging Association or state associations.”

“The AH&LA has a different agenda,” says Nash Patel, a Pensacola hotelier who is director of the Florida AAHOA. “We've been in Florida for many years and we have been a part of the Florida hotel association in the past, but right now we are not.” The AH&LA hasn't engaged Asian-American hoteliers, Patel suggests. “With hoteliers, you continuously have to keep coming into their faces, enticing them.”

“The state associations have not been able to grow membership in the limited-service, mid-priced segment because so many of those hotels were owned by Asian-Indians who chose to join AAHOA for reasons other than just hotel services,” says Minnesota hotelier Kirby Payne, a past chairman of the AH&LA. “I wouldn't say that AH&LA didn't embrace AAHOA. There were tremendous areas of overlap but there were also areas where there were differences of approach.” He cites “some fear on the part of AH&LA” that its annual Legislative Action Summit would be “overwhelmed by AH&LA members that were also AAHOA members.”

If AAHOA is a key association headache, another is the coalition formed by Stuart Blumberg, president of the Greater Miami & the Beaches Hotel Association. Blumberg says his group fears that the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association won't push for the state's lodging interests.

“It's not a question of membership but of the passion of the industry,” he says, suggesting that the lodging component of the newly merged association will be more advisory than anything else.

His coalition doesn't collect dues like the association. Its primary role is that of a watchdog representing local groups concerned with state legislation that might, for example, affect the bed tax, give the Americans with Disabilities Act more clout in lodging and push back the school start date even farther into the summer.

When Blumberg met with Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association President Carol Dover in October, “we agreed on only one issue: as individuals, we're not adversaries. But from a philosophical standpoint, even though they have the word ‘lodging’ on their logo, their first priority is restaurants.”

Although Dover could not be reached for comment, Tom Cherniavsky, chairman of the state association's new lodging council, says it will push both restaurant and hospitality interests. Cherniavsky, the vice president of Hawk's Cay Resort & Marina in Duck Key, says the industries “are very much in sync when it comes to inspections and licensing, immigration laws, education programs and certification.

“We stand stronger united,” says Cherniavsky, noting the merged group represents 20 percent of Florida's economy, “a $57-billion industry that generates $3.4 billion in sales tax revenue.”

Cherniavsky downplayed differences with Blumberg's coalition. “We're working toward working together,” he says. “We certainly want to support Stu, and we'd like Stu to support us.”

The council Cherniavsky heads is the first result of an effort to battle defections. Members of the newly merged association met in Tallahassee Jan. 7-9 to discuss governance, formulate new bylaws and marshal their fragmented resources. Among those addressing them: Joseph McInerney, AH&LA president and CEO.

The AH&LA decided “the best thing for us would be to get involved with the restaurant association because they have strong representation in Tallahassee, and adding the hotels would make us have one voice in Tallahassee and could provide benefits for each other,” McInerney says. “The head of the Miami group was always against the Florida Lodging Association anyway, before it went out of business. He's looking to assume some kind of power himself without paying for it.”

According to Jordan Beckner, president of Fort Lauderdale company FiberBuilt Umbrellas, the first issue the association must deal with is changing bylaws to incorporate the lodging component. Lodging members, at least for now, can't vote.

There is one advantage to the merger, suggests the association member. In the past, members paid $10 a room for membership in both state and national associations. Now, $6.50 a room from properties with f&b gains membership in the AH&LA and the National Restaurant Association. Properties without f&b get 50 cents off.

“The biggest concern on the hotelier side in this whole deal is representation in Florida politics,” Beckner says. “Does the restaurant industry care about the bed tax? Does it care about baby cribs-type stuff that restaurateurs don't have to worry about? But they seem to have brought some good legislation to the table this year, like a move to push the schools start date back.

“Some schools start as early as Aug. 1, which cuts down on families going to the beach.”

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