316 | Pandemic Trailblazer: Hunter Hotel Investment Conference leads lodging industry’s 2021 event circuit

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THROWBACK TO 2019: A panel of hotel industry leaders was part of a general session during the 2019 Hunter Hotel Investment Conference at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis. The 2021 conference is set for May 10-12 at the same venue with COVID-19 health-and-safety protocols in place.

Hospitality event will test COVID-19 boundaries as well as hybrid-meeting format

The Hunter Hotel Investment Conference will be the industry’s first large meeting to be held during the coronavirus pandemic. The Atlanta event will be a hybrid format of in-person and virtual access, also an industry first.

Lee Hunter, chief operating officer at Hunter Hotel Advisors and chairman of the conference, knows expectations are high among other conference planners as well as industry professionals eager to network after more than a yearlong hiatus.

He tells what it takes to organize the Hunter Hotel Investment Conference despite the fact that COVID-19 is remains a threat, albeit mitigated by health and safety protocols as well as the nationwide rollout of a vaccine.

PANDEMIC TRAILBLAZER: The registration area at the 2019 Hunter Hotel Investment Conference at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis was a busy place. This year, when the conference convenes May 10-12 at the hotel in downtown Atlanta, the picture will be different amid the coronavirus crisis. Attendees will wear face masks and practice social distancing, says Lee Hunter, conference chair. Episode 316 of Lodging Leaders podcast features Lee Hunter, COO of Hunter Hotel Advisors, talking about the challenges of launching the U.S. lodging industry’s 2021 event circuit. He shares what it takes to organize a conference that will be both virtual and in-person while feeling the pressure to get it right amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the industry’s eagerness to get back to business.

Remembering When

Lee Hunter vividly recalls the moment he and his team pulled the plug on the 2020 conference as the coronavirus crisis was emerging in the U.S.

News of the novel coronavirus outbreak in China first surfaced in late January 2020 at the Americas Lodging and Investment Summit or ALIS in Los Angeles, which had a record turnout.

Next on the calendar and 2,200 miles due east was the Hunter conference in mid-March and it looked like its 32nd year was going to break attendance records as well.

Lee Hunter describes the mental tug of war when trying to decide in the very early days of the pandemic whether it was wise to cancel the conference.

“The conference was scheduled to be Wednesday, March 18, to Friday, March 20, of 2020, and two weeks leading up to that I was on the phone with our advisory board members saying, ‘Hey, what do y’all think? Are we good? Are we not good?”

Lee, his brother Teague Hunter, who is president and CEO of the brokerage firm, and conference team members also sought feedback from speakers, sponsors and vendors. Everyone contacted said they planned to attend.

“I can distinctly remember on Wednesday, March 11, literally a week out from the conference, my son had his first baseball game of the spring season and it was a 5:30 (p.m.) game.”

“So, OK, I guess we’re having a conference next week. Heads down. Here we go,” Lee said. “And then within the next few hours, the world changed.

“That evening was when President Trump said no more inbound international travel and the NBA indefinitely suspended its season. So I walked in the office Thursday morning, the 12th, and we’d gone from, ‘Yeah, we’re having a conference’ on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 a.m. Thursday, ‘We got to at least postpone this thing to see how it plays out. Ultimately, the postponement as we now know turned into cancellation.”

Once the decision was made to pull the plug on the 2020 conference, Lee Hunter could take a deep breath. “Leading up to it was much more stressful. It’s like a lot of your major life decisions. Once you make the decision, you feel sort of relieved. And that’s what we felt.”

In the months that followed all major industry conferences were canceled – AAHOA Convention and Trade Show, NYU International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference, The Lodging Conference and HX: The Hotel Experience and BDNY.

MORE LIKE FAMILY: Bob Hunter, center foreground, is the founder of Hunter Hotel Advisors in Atlanta and its Hunter Hotel Investment Conference, which debuted in 1989. In this photo taken in 2012 with conference staff at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, the business patriarch who is now retired is flanked by his sons, Lee Hunter, left, COO of the brokerage firm, and Teague Hunter, president and CEO. (Photo: Ben Rose Photography)

Easing Back Out

But just as with the 2021 Hunter Hotel Investment Conference, these events will reconvene in the last half of this year.

A report by the Professional Convention Management Association in October revealed more people are becoming open to attending large events as long as COVID-19 protocols are in place and practiced by participants.

PCMA is a global organization and it is seeing green shoots of recovery in business events in Asia, which was the first region to report the coronavirus emergence in December 2019 and the first to begin to suppress its spread in 2020.

The U.S. hovers in the middle of the pack when it comes to people’s willingness to attend events, reported the association.

Both the Hunter Hotel Investment Conference and Hunter Hotel Advisors are a family affair. Bob Hunter, Lee’s father, founded the firm and the conference. He is now retired.

As Lee Hunter tells it, the idea of the Hunter Hotel Investment Conference began more than 30 years ago at another industry event.

In the mid-1980s, Bob Hunter was in the audience at the NYU International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference in New York City listening to a panel discuss hotel transactions. Hunter asked about a $15-million single-transaction deal he was working on. He said he was rebuffed by panelists who commented they only concern themselves with deals $50 million and up.

At that moment Bob Hunter decided the industry needed a conference that met the needs of owners, investors, developers, franchisers and financiers of relatively smaller transactions – the 80-room limited-service assets in the $20 million range.

Bob Hunter enlisted the support of Georgia State University’s John Mack Robinson College of Business’s Cecil B. Day School of Hospitality Administration, and in 1989 the Hunter Hotel Investment Conference debuted.

Limited-Service Growth

Little did industry leaders know at the time that in 20 years limited- and select-service branded hotels would dominate the lodging landscape in the U.S.

To illustrate that, here’s a look at the two brands that launched the sector – Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn Express.

When the Hunter Hotel Investment Conference was still a notion in Bob Hunter’s mind, Hampton Inn was becoming an established brand in the U.S.

At the time, Hampton was an exterior-corridor budget brand and part of the Holiday Corp., owner of Holiday Inn. In 1989, the year the Hunter Hotel Investment Conference debuted, Hampton became part of Promus Hotel Corp. and by 1990 there were 220 Hampton Inns open. The chain had transitioned into a midscale brand and was the first to offer a free continental breakfast.

In 1991, the first Holiday Inn Express opened in the U.S. when Holiday Corp. was owned by Bass Brewery in the U.K. The hospitality and travel conglomerate split into separate companies in 2003 and InterContinental Hotels Group was born.

Today, there are more than 2,200 Holiday Inn Express hotels open in the U.S. and more than twenty-five hundred 2,500 Hampton Inns.

In February, Lodging Econometrics reported Holiday Inn Express and Hampton Inn were among five select-service brands that have the largest U.S. pipelines with 326 projects and 281 projects, respectively.

Of course, we all know there are thousands more limited- and select-service hotel brands open and operating today, even during the coronavirus crisis.

But Bob Hunter’s prescience about the growth of the branded 80-room mid-priced hotel was spot on as was his idea for a conference that celebrated the segment.

Hunter Hotel Investment Conference’s slogan of “Where Main Street meets Wall Street” sums up the current industry environment.

Lee Hunter said when he attended graduated with a master’s degree from Cornell School of Hospitality Management in 1996, he talked about “this little known concept called a Hampton Inn and nobody knew what I was talking about. I said, ‘All due respect, I don’t want to own the Ritz Carlton; I’ll just own three or four Hampton Inns.’

“Back even in the mid to late ’90s, it was still all about large, big-box, full-service assets. And throughout the last several years select-service is getting its due.”

Protocols in Place

The Hunter team is also getting its due with the relaunch of its annual conference. It was the first industry conference to cancel in 2020 and it is the first to revive, albeit in a hybrid format with health and safety protocols in place.

And, although the conference was borne out of a need to promote smaller hotel deals, investors, developers, franchisers and owners of all size hotels are welcomed to attend the event that focuses on education and networking.

WATCH: RECAP 2019: To encourage attendance, Hunter Hotel Investment Conference planners created a video featuring industry professionals interviewed at the 2019 event.

A greater challenge than canceling the conference last year is organizing a conference while the coronavirus pandemic is still with us.

And greater still is the responsibility of having the first hotel industry conference since the pandemic shut down the event circuit more than a year ago.

Having a nationwide vaccination program in the works is a plus as is the fact that most of us are used to having to wear a face mask and practice social distancing.

“We understand the responsibility that we have on our shoulders to live up to making sure everyone who does attend stays safe,” said Lee Hunter.

The COVID-19 protocols most Americans have gotten used to will be in place – face masks and social distancing required and hand sanitizing stations throughout the venue.

“We’re working with the Marriott Marquis (staff) and following all the CDC protocols,” Lee Hunter said.

“We’re hopeful that, as people who are not from Atlanta do arrive in town for the conference, they know they’re given a sense of calm, a sense of security, that everything’s going to be OK.”

Virtual Visitors

Conference organizers know many people still won’t be ready for face-to-face encounters for months to come.

For that reason, the Hunter Hotel Investment Conference will be a hybrid event, meaning it will be in-person and streamed virtually over the internet.

The general and breakout sessions will be live streamed for real time viewing and they’ll also be recorded so registered attendees can watch when it’s convenient.

The virtual platform has opened a new avenue for students at Georgia State University’s Cecil B. Day School of Hospitality Administration to attend.

At past Hunter conferences, organizers faced a challenge of encouraging busy students to participate, despite GSU serving as a sponsor. The hybrid format should widen the opportunity for more emerging professionals at hospitality schools nationwide to listen and learn.

“The hybrid format is also for those not comfortable getting on an airplane or even if they’re within driving distance, they’re not comfortable attending in person,” Lee Hunter said.

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