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According to the US Census Bureau, the number of Latino citizens reached 45.5 million in 2007, or 15% of the nation’s total population of 301.6 million. In 16 states, the Hispanic population exceeds 500,000.

With their status as the largest minority group in the US, it should come as no surprise that Latinos are making their presence felt culturally and within the business world, including, if the Hispanic Hotel Owners Association has its way, the lodging sector.Founded in 2006, HHOA is Washington, DC-based nonprofit whose aim to increase the percentage of Latinos that own, develop and operate hotels. This fall, the group held its first annual Hotel, Development and Investment Conference in Miami that was attended by more 250 participants from the US and Latin America.

GlobeSt.com recently spoke to Angela Gonzalez-Rowe, the founder and president of HHOA, about the organization and the current state of the lodging market.

GlobeSt.com: Why did you start HHOA?

Gonzalez-Rowe: To create a business network of ultra high net worth Latinos who had a significant interest in pursuing hotel investments and to partner them with existing Hispanic hoteliers who’ve been through this process. So it’s a business network as well as an educational forum.

GlobeSt.com: How many members do you have?

Gonzalez-Rowe: About 350. The majority of our membership is here in the US, and in 2009 we are going to be doing an aggressive outreach effort into Mexico, Central and South America and Puerto Rico.

GlobeSt.com: What kind of educational efforts are you pursuing?

Gonzalez-Rowe: We developed an educational program called the Hotel Investment Series. I sat down with the American Hotel & Lodging Association and Steve Rushmore from HVS International to develop a textbook that would also take our seminar participants through the steps of the lodging investment process. We launched that in June of 2007.

GlobeSt.com: Talk about your recent conference.

Gonzalez-Rowe: The conference is geared more toward our existing owners, developers and operators. It is meant to be an educational forum in which there is an exchange of ideas and success stories, in which attendees can dialog and learn from one another. We also had an emphasis on promoting brands and a special event that focused on culinary arts and the importance of a culinary program within a hotel, especially in a full-service property. We also created a program in which we could raise funds for students who are looking to further their education in hospitality.

GlobeSt.com: Back in 2006, you identified less than 1% of hotels in the US that were Hispanic-owned. In July, you reported that HHOA members had either began development or acquired 48 lodging properties in the previous 12 months. You also stated at that time a target of 500 Latino-owned hotels by 2011. How are you progressing toward that goal?

Gonzalez-Rowe: I don’t have anything that’s updated from that time; however, as a result of our conference, from the feedback we have received, there were about 15 deals that were set in motion.The whole purpose of hosting our inaugural conference was to be able to start tracking more of those statistics. With the economy and the downturn in the financial markets, it’s definitely put a halt on where and when hotels deals are going to be executed. So we will probably see a slight slump in development transactions. However, there are several acquisitions that are taking place. For instance, John Lopez of Suenos Hospitality is in the process of acquiring an existing hotel in Oklahoma City, and prior to that, had signed an agreement to develop five hotels. So we are still seeing some transactions take place, but they are just not on the development side.

GlobeSt.com: How would advise your members to survive this downturn?

Gonzalez-Rowe: I definitely think that all of our hotelier members already have put into place an action plan to really watch the bottom line and focus on the day-to-day management and operations of their properties. For those people who are looking at getting into the industry this is a great opportunity, I feel, because we are going to start seeing property values decline, and a lot of transactions that may be able to take place because of that. Also with the financial industry bailout, a lot of major financial institutions like Morgan Stanley and a few others had hotel assets. So many of those hotel assets will probably become available very soon for new investors to purchase. We are actively asking our members to pursue those interests as we want to continue to grow the number of Hispanic owned, operated and developed hotels.

GlobeSt.com: What is your background in the hospitality field?

Gonzalez-Rowe: For about 10 years, I was with a family-owned business in which I developed the business and marketing plans to launch a hospitality magazine geared toward the Hispanic community in regards to meetings, conventions and special events. Ultimately, I became an expert, if you will, on Hispanic travel trends and also the Hispanic market in terms of its value proposition to the meetings, convention and special event industry. Obviously, that ties in with hotels and convention centers around the country.

GlobeSt.com: How does your organization work the major brands?

Gonzalez-Rowe: Generally, in promoting hotel ownership, we look at it from two aspects. There is a franchising model that seems to work for a lot of business owners. In fact, many of our newest members are coming from the fast-food and food-service industries, people who have been highly successful in owning franchises with Burger King or Pizza Hut. We are also seeing people who own automobile dealerships coming into the fold. So they are very comfortable with the franchise model and therefore, we promote that franchising model with the various brands in various segments across the country. We also promote the fact that there are opportunities in the lodging industry to be an independent hotel that is managed by a third-party operator. We do highlight those, and in fact at our conference we held a workshop session on to brand or not to brand.

GlobeSt.com: Is part of your organization’s mission to reach out to non-Hispanic hotel owners and get them to engage the Latino community?

Gonzalez-Rowe: Yes. In fact that is something I did prior to developing the association. I was asked to speak at the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators & Developers conference on the value of Hispanic travel. Most hotels owners and operators don’t realize there is $40 billion in Hispanic meetings, conventions and special events that occur every year in the US. So if those hotel owners are not affectively marketing their properties and/or products to the Hispanic market then they are definitely losing their fair share.

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