The business events industry has numerous groundbreaking leaders — trailblazers who represent diverse sectors of the community and make meaningful contributions to advance inclusion and equity within their organizations. PCMA’s Groundbreaker Award, now in its second year, is dedicated to highlighting these individuals. Akshar Patel, vice president of conventions for the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), was among those nominated for the 2022 PCMA Groundbreaker Award, and with good reason — he has helped successfully lead his organization through one of the most difficult periods the events industry has faced — the COVID-19 pandemic.
Patel has been with AAHOA — the largest hotel owners association in the nation with nearly 20,000 members — for more than six years. Since early 2020, on the precipice of COVID becoming a pandemic, Patel was named vice president of conventions for the Atlanta, Georgia–based association. Like so many other business professionals, navigating COVID-19 has been the greatest challenge he has faced in his career so far, Patel said.
“There has been possibly no bigger obstacle, but also no better opportunity to learn and sharpen your skillset as an event executive,” Patel said. When AAHOA was forced to reschedule its 2021 annual convention no less than five times within the calendar year, “every day presented itself with new challenges, whether it be COVID-related, financial challenges, or contractual challenges,” Patel said, “but we were determined that the show must go on.”
Patel dealt with a fear of failure during this period, he said, “but coming together with clear communication, trust, and partnerships helped us weather the storm.” The AAHOA 2021 Convention & Trade Show was ultimately held successfully in-person in Dallas in early August with 6,272 attendees.
Groundbreaker Award Goes to Melissa Cherry
This year’s Groundbreaker Award recipient is Melissa Cherry, chief diversity and inclusion officer and senior vice president at Miles Partnership. Convene spoke with Cherry last fall about her focus on telling the stories of underrepresented community. “I get excited about being in the weeds,” she said during that interview. “I’m a working executive, as people have described me, and just really love helping bring that desire to have equity, diversity, and inclusion” be part of the work of organizations, she said, to raise them up to the next level.
Patel credits mentors like Pramukh Swami Maharaj and Mahant Swami Maharaj, the past and present gurus and presidents of a major branch of denomination of Hinduism, for teachings that he has held tight to throughout his career, and that includes having a sense of humility. “[They] always taught me that if you want to lead and be successful, you need to know what the needs and wants are on ground zero,” Patel said. “Our industry is not about one person doing it all; it is a collaboration of subject matter experts who commit to the end goal and work toward it.”
During Patel’s time at AAHOA, these are values he has been able to embody, not only in running the association’s annual convention, but creating its 175 annual in-house events as well.
“As a planner, I am responsible for the reputation and livelihood of our organization,” he said, “and if I don’t have the right mindset and tools to return on investment, our industry will not grow.”
Casey Gale is associate editor at Convene.