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Startup Stories: Iowa Hotel & Lodging Association

Starting point. Iowa previously had a state-level hotel association, but the pandemic caused that organization to shutter, said Jessica Dunker, president and CEO of both the Iowa Restaurant Association and the newly formed Iowa Hotel & Lodging Association (IHLA). Without an association, hotels couldn’t advocate for funding programs to help them through the roughest parts of the pandemic, nor could they prevent a new hotel tax whose proceeds don’t support the state’s hotel, tourism, or hospitality industries.

“COVID really revealed you have to have a strong, unified voice in whatever type of organization or industry you’re in,” Dunker said. “The hotels, at exactly the moment they really needed that, their association folded. That’s why we started up.”

Iowa Restaurant Association members who operated inside hotels were telling Dunker about the problems hotels were facing and that they were looking for help. So, the restaurant group decided to start IHLA and serve as its management organization. IHLA has its own board.

“The reason we looked at doing this was because members that were in both industries asked us to consider it because they needed that unified advocacy voice,” Dunker said. Although some states have hospitality associations that serve both restaurants and hotels, Dunker said they chose to create a separate group because “we needed to have boards that were dedicated to the issues in a specific industry.”

Early work. IHLA’s first goal is educating hotels about important issues. For example, the legislature passed an initiative that provides free training for hotel staff on how to prevent human trafficking. The state also banned employees from hosting meetings or staying at hotels who haven’t done the training.

“Hotels didn’t have an advocacy organization to get that news out, so when that legislation became effective in January, not even a quarter of the hotels understood they had to get that training done,” Dunker said. “One of the first things we did was get the information out to people: Here’s the training. It’s free. You need to have all your employees do it. Here’s where you go and certify your hotel on the state site.”

IHLA is also looking to identify state pandemic recovery resources that may still be available to its members.

Next steps. The main goals for IHLA in 2022 are to grow membership and become the go-to voice for Iowa’s hotel industry.

“When any issue, whether it’s city or state level, comes up that impacts financially or operationally any hotel or lodging interest, we’d like to be the first call that gets made,” Dunker said. “We want to be at the tip of the tongue of people who are not necessarily in the industry, but in a position to make decisions that can positively or negatively impact our businesses on any given day. If we can do that, we will have accomplished a lot.”

(sihuo0860371/E+/Getty Images Plus)

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