"There's nothing that would make me become a pessimist about hospitality," claims Alexi Khajavi, president of Questex's hospitality, travel, and wellness division.
That relentless optimism helps explain why Khajavi and his team are undertaking an ambitious goal right now: launching a brand-new trade show for the hospitality industry in the midst of historic labor shortages, economic concerns, and an ongoing pandemic. Questex—the event and media company that operates the 147-year-old publication Hotel Management—is teaming up with the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) for the gathering, which will simply be called The Hospitality Show.
Scheduled to take place June 27-29, 2023, at The Venetian Las Vegas, the event aims to reach AHLA’s hotel membership across all segments—ranging from suppliers to senior execs—as well as leaders from the restaurant, bar, and travel industries. The three-day show will include education sessions, an exhibit hall, networking, and personalized business matchmaking opportunities.
BizBash caught up with Khajavi to discuss the challenges of building a new trade show right now, how it will differ from other hospitality conferences, and what makes him so bullish about the future of the industry. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Why was now the right time to launch The Hospitality Show?
We started planning this event nearly four years ago as we saw an open space in the North American hospitality event space—which is arguably saturated, but fragmented along job functions between tech, real estate, and investment or design. Questex has deep and wide relationships with the owner-operators of hotels, bars, and restaurants, and we know that these entrepreneurs are the primary decision-makers of purchasing decisions for their assets.
Meanwhile, hospitality operations are increasingly becoming more challenging and complex, which in turn has spurred a lot of innovation in products and solutions to improve and optimize hospitality operations for profitability. Our research and expertise show there is a need for an event that matches those specific needs and solutions.
The experience economy is massive, and that's where (particularly Western-developed) countries are spending a larger portion of their disposable incomes. So on one hand, there's a lot of demand for it. On the other hand, actually meeting that demand—and doing it in a profitable way—has never been more challenging and more complex.
What will set this event apart from other hospitality-focused trade shows?
There’s no other event where cross-disciplinary teams in hospitality can attend together and collaborate with other companies and solutions around a common mission of optimizing operational performance and profitability. The show will bring senior-level decision makers from across the spectrum of operators, investors, third-party management companies, tech, legal, and advisory to learn, network, and be inspired. That’s practical for both buyers and sellers, and it’s frankly the right time to be focused on these issues.
We were really kind of shocked when, through research and focus groups, we saw there was this space in the world's largest hospitality market—no one was really doing this.
How did the partnership with AHLA come about?
As I mentioned, we started planning this four years ago, before the pandemic. Midway through 2021, we said, "You know what, one thing that hasn't changed is that the demand is still there. People do want to still travel, they still want to go out and have experiences, they still want to stay in hotels." Obviously, leisure was driving that first, and then corporate started coming back. So we dusted off the playbook, and the plan that we had put together.
At that point, we started talking to AHLA, which is the largest membership organization for hospitality in North America. In conversations with them, and in the efforts that they were doing during the pandemic to help hoteliers navigate that crisis, we started realizing we had the same mission—which was to empower, educate, and provide the tools for hospitality professionals not to just survive, but thrive.
Why Las Vegas?
Las Vegas checks all of the logistical boxes—it’s arguably the hospitality capital of the world, and it was a natural choice. We did look elsewhere, though, as a part of our due diligence. We wanted to find a location that was centrally located, and that embodies the focus of the event.
Surprisingly, it’s still really, really hard to find venues and dates into 2023. The calendar has somewhat gotten back to normal, but we were in an RFP process for several months. So it was about finding a suitable date and a suitable venue—and ultimately, we're very happy with The Venetian. It's such a top location with all of the bells and whistles that our attendees and exhibitors would want.
Can you tease any of the programming you’re planning? I know there will be education, an exhibit hall, and various networking opportunities.
Those are in fact the pillars, and what’s unique about the show is that we’re going to leverage our and AHLA’s relationships in the sector to deliver high-level educational programming that empowers the attendees with the tools and knowledge to discover and demo the solutions they need. All of this will be done amongst teams of senior-level decision-makers.
Your education will focus on topics like technology, guest experience, consumer trends, DEI, and more. How did you come up with those topics, and will Questex’s editors help curate the programming?
We have our own media brands—Hotel Management is a nearly 150-year-old publication, the oldest publication focused on the hospitality or hotel sector in the U.S. So we've got a long-standing history and an editorial team that's got decades of experience. We write about and research the sector on a daily basis, so our editors will work alongside our conference production team [to curate the programming.]
We’ve also got producers that will be developing the program in conjunction with our advisory board, which is part of AHLA’s executive committee. So these are senior-level CEOs from brands like Marriott, Hilton, and Hyatt, along with tech companies and third-party management companies. So we engage the advisory board—that meeting will be coming up in September—to define what those hot topics are and to help us identify speakers.
And then what we do is actually start to editorialize and build a wireframe program. We draft stories about those issues and those topics, talk to the potential speakers, and then measure how that all performs digitally. And as stories perform well on our digital platform, we use that as one data point to say, you know, this topic is resonating.
What do you foresee as the biggest challenge of launching a brand-new trade show during such uncertain times?
Investing in a new launch event in hospitality, on the heels of what was the absolute worst two years of performance, shows just how confident and committed to the sector both Questex and AHLA are. We’re confident because of the incredible amount of research we’ve undertaken that led us to making this investment, combined with over a century of both AHLA and Questex expertise and relationships we both have in hospitality.
The show is fit for purpose in terms of the timing, as the sector is still emerging from the crisis with challenging headwinds on the horizon—and yet demand is and will always be there for hospitality. So the purpose of supporting hospitality operators to improve their businesses and increase profits is of utmost importance in good times and certainly challenging ones as well.
At the end of the day, people—particularly in hospitality—want to connect in person. That's really where business occurs, and where relationships are either maintained or built. New launches are always very difficult; at Questex, we've done many. But we aren’t necessarily focused on the challenges, even though we know they’re there. We’re just excited.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges and changes you’re observing in the hospitality industry right now?
Oh boy, where do I start? It’s always been a tough industry. There are so many moving pieces, margins are relatively low, and quite a few things are outside of our control (like a pandemic, oil prices, or a war, for example).
Obviously, labor and inflation are the big issues the sector is facing at the moment, and those are not issues that will disappear overnight. Interestingly, tech is a tool that can be applied to solving or addressing both of these issues—but the reality is that hospitality is a people-powered industry, so even where we have tech, that tech is most efficient where it frees up staff to provide a better experience to guests and customers.
But you're still an optimist.
You know, if you would have said to me two years ago that 90% of the hotels worldwide would be closed and that flights would be empty—you would have been put into an insane asylum. But that's exactly what happened. The unthinkable occurred. And yet, just a short two-and-a-half years later, all of the operating metrics in travel and particularly hospitality are better than they were pre-pandemic. We're just seeing a huge, huge increase in demand.
There's nothing that would make me become a pessimist about hospitality. I'm an absolute optimist that a two-year pandemic or inflation or supply chain issues are not going to change 10,000 years of the human inclination to travel, to eat, to drink, to socialize.
That being said, it is a business. It's a difficult business, and investors and owners and operators need to make money. So again, for us to be able to do this show, and get the buy-in from senior-level C-suite folks across the hospitality spectrum, means that the time for this is good. And if we can help people continue to operate—but operate profitably—we think we'll be successful, and we know that the industry will be successful as well.
Click here to learn more about The Hospitality Show.