The Trade Show Duel
This week I will divert from my more typical subject matters to talk about something that is near and dear to my heart, and that has recently been the subject of much discussion in the North American (and global) hotel tech community. And that is dueling industry conferences sponsored by associations.
A Little Background on the Association World
Associations play an important role in our industry. A lot of people don’t really understand how they work, however, so before we get into the topic of association-sponsored conferences, some background may be helpful in explaining how they work and what drives their decision making.
There are many types of associations in the business world, focusing on a variety of issues such as political advocacy, education, cooperative problem solving, and standards development. In the U.S. and many other countries, most associations (including all the ones discussed here) are not-for-profit. That does not mean they can ignore revenue or expenses, in fact just the opposite. With no shareholders or owners, non-profits cannot sell stock. They cannot, therefore, access capital markets for funding to cover cumulative losses. An association that spends more than it takes in runs out of money.
Associations rely on membership dues, sponsorships, and events for most of their revenues. We would like to think that the associations we know, love, and volunteer for would play nicer with each other than competing for-profit businesses. However, the reality is that they are all competing for funding from the same budgets (mostly the marketing budgets of members and sponsors, although this can vary). So even if the missions of two associations and their events are mostly complementary, funds are limited and a decision to join one association or to sponsor one event often comes at the expense of another.
In addition, while most associations employ at least some paid staff (larger ones may have dozens or even hundreds) for administration, marketing, and management of various member activities, much of the effort expended by associations comes from member volunteers. Associations compete for volunteers’ time as well as funding. The ones that get the most time are the ones that provide the most interesting and engaging opportunities to their volunteer members (and to their employers, who fund their salaries and travel expenses).
Many associations play important roles in the global hospitality technology space as educators, innovators, or even just as voices for key user groups. These include Hospitality Technology and Financial Professionals (HFTP), Hotel Electronic Distribution Network Association (HEDNA), OpenTravel Alliance, American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA, which expanded its technology role through its merger with Hospitality Technology Next Generation, or HTNG, in 2021), and Hotel Sales and Marketing Association International (HSMAI), and the International Hospitality Information Technology Association (iHITA).
In an ideal world, major associations with overlapping missions align their activities to divide and conquer. They need to avoid too much duplication, in order to be seen as responsible stewards of the financial contributions and volunteer time commitments made by their members and sponsors. In past years, leaders of many of the organizations listed above met informally once or twice a year to discuss areas of actual and potential overlap and coordinate to achieve this – and to leverage each other’s strengths to support common missions. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked well.
Over the years, the hospitality tech associations coordinated on major event scheduling to make it easy for sponsors and attendees alike to attend the ones that mattered to them. This played out through both cooperative agreements (for example HSMAI and iHITA hold conferences in connection with HFTP’s HITEC) and by informal consultation among the association leaders as they started finalizing conference schedules. It was in their interest to avoid conflicts with any other events that were important to a significant proportion of their members. Over the 11 years as CEO of HTNG and planning 32 conferences around the world, I spent more time than you can imagine trying to avoid conflicts, both with association-sponsored and with brand-sponsored, vendor-sponsored, and commercial events. We (and others) often had to make last-minute changes in venue, city, or dates when we discovered another event being planned on the same dates.
The 2023 Conflict
This year, as readers of Hospitality Upgrade likely already know, the history of cooperation broke down when AHLA announced a new trade show in Las Vegas, The Hospitality Show, on the same exact dates for 2023 as HFTP’s HITEC show had already been scheduled in Toronto. AHLA is the largest and best-funded association in hospitality, and the new show is intended (in part, but only in part) to be a successor to the popular HT-NEXT conference, which HTNG previously co-organized with Hospitality Technology Magazine (HT-NEXT was itself a successor to standalone HTNG North American conferences prior to 2017). HITEC is, of course, by far the largest hotel technology trade show, while HT-NEXT was the largest standalone conference dedicated to hospitality technology.
While AHLA’s event will reportedly include more non-technology elements than HITEC, it is intended to still have a significant technology focus, and unlike HT-NEXT will be a full trade show with a major exhibit floor. Starting next year, it will replace HT-NEXT, which was never really a trade show but rather a large conference and networking event with a few dozen tabletop exhibits. HITEC and HT-NEXT always avoided scheduling at the same time of year. Attendees, sponsors, and exhibitors who found value in both shows could easily manage to attend both – and many did.
The reaction from the vendor community to the AHLA announcement about the new conflicting event in 2023 was harsh. I have spoken with absolutely no one who is happy about it. I estimate that vendors fund at least 98% of both HITEC and HT-NEXT. Most could not believe that AHLA’s choice of timing was anything other than intentional, although I have been told it was not. Descriptive words I heard included “bizarre,” “tone-deaf to the needs of members and sponsors,” and “a slap in the face of supporters.” Several members of the AHLA/HTNG Vendor Advisory Council were livid that their group, representing the companies who fund both events, was not even consulted until after the decision had been made. Whether intentional or not, the decision showed poor management of a complex decision, and a complete lack of sensitivity to the technology community. Not to mention that at least with respect to the technology component, it would be a much more successful event if the dates did not conflict.