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Getting to Know Ron Vlasic, the New AH&LA Chair

Ron Vlasic jokes he was the only San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels & Resorts employee to volunteer for a job with the boutique hotel company in Chicago. That was 11 years ago, when he thought heíd come home for a few years to oversee operations of Kimptonís then three Chicago properties after serving as general manager of the Sir Francis Drake in San Francisco.

But heís still there, now heading Kimptonís 14 Midwest and Northwest properties, and on Jan. 1, heíll become the chairman of the board of directors for the American Hotel & Lodging Association.

At the annual inauguration gala Sunday in New York, the Chicago native and regional vice president for Kimpton was formally introduced as the upcoming chair of the AH&LA, the role now held by Carlson-Rezidorís Nancy Johnson. Vlasic took a break during the International Hotel, Motel & Restaurant Show to chat about his career and upcoming year as chair of the AH&LA.

Sustainability is important to you?
Itís huge. A few years ago Chicago Mayor Richard Daley tried to get an initiative in the city to get buildings to reduce their carbon footprint, and it struck a chord with me. I got involved and took initiative to get our four hotels (in Chicago) to a green level. Now Mayor Rahm Emanual has taken it a step further and has a whole division focused on it and Iím working with them on that. Itís just community outreach and Iím trying to use Kimpton Hotels as a model for other buildings.

Do the recent presidential election results change anything for the hotel industry?
Not really. Regardless of what side of the aisle you belong, last year at our legislative action summit in Washington, we made a big push to educate legislators. The number one topic was tourism, and thatís non-biased, whether youíre a Democrat or Republican. People travel and need to stay at hotels, and that provides so many jobs. Both sides can relate and support it. We were very successful to get the president to speak about it and act on it. We think it will continue.

What are your goals as chairman of the board?
We need to ensure a smooth transition to a new president and CEO. Weíre in the process of going through that. Weíre hoping by the first of the year weíll have that wrapped up or identified a little closer.

We need to continue to be advocates for the industry. Weíve been really pushing and making sure Washington understands our voice is the voice of the industry. One way is our Under 30 Gateway, which pairs up professionals under 30 with industry veterans. It helps them to get more involved on the political landscape.

And then our Women in Lodging program is very important. We have 21 chapters that were founded this year and I want to continue on that growth pattern.

With your background, will sustainability be more of a focus?
It is personal to me, but whatís interesting is the industry has really embraced it. A lot of hotel companies, owners and operators have moved in that direction. Iím not sure if it needs that much attention or education, because theyíve gotten it. If people want more, we can fill in that gap.

So where are you at on finding a replacement for Joe McInerney and how much will he be missed?
Weíve hired a search firm, and they interviewed all of us on the search committee on what weíre looking for in a leader and compiled that and now going into the field to find someone. Joe has been here 11 years and knows everything and everyone. There isnít a hotelier out there he isnít aware of, but heís ready to do his next phase and wants to move on.

How will you balance this role with your job at Kimpton?
One thing Kimpton has always preached is personal growth. [Kimpton leaders] donít want anyone stagnant, whether youíre taking courses or getting another education, whatever that looks like, they really want you to do that. This is a big part of it. When the opportunity came available and I approached my bosses, they said you have to. We support you and recognize it will take time from your regular job, but they supported me by offering additional help.

And back at Kimpton headquarters, how are things with former president and chief operating officer Niki Leondakis leaving for Commune Hotels?
It was a surprise, a huge surprise. Sheís been with Kimpton 19 years, and helped develop whom we are today, working side by side with Bill Kimpton. She really championed the culture. Her goal was to be a CEO of a hotel company and this opportunity came along. Itís great for her, but you know Kimpton will still go on. We have a lot of great people there. Our momentum will carry through.

Howís business?
People are traveling. A lot of folks within the U.S. were rediscovering the U.S. and spending more time here than going oversees. Rate could go up more, but occupancy is great.

Are boutique hotels proving to be viable in the Midwest and non-gateway cities?
Yes, weíre finding people are more educated to what a boutique hotel is. Once they experience one they want one in their hometown.

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