Morris Lasky discusses how The Lodging Conference aims to entertain and inform.

The Lodging Conference 2000 in Phoenix is decidedly laid-back, with attendees wearing shorts and T-shirts instead of suits. The conference's relaxed atmosphere is its trademark, and the Arizona Biltmore is the right kind of setting for a casual conference. While planning the first conference seven years ago, Conference Chairman Morris Lasky says he knew there already were plenty of conferences in the industry, so he wanted to create something different. He feels he's succeeded, but he's also proud of the educational component of the conference. This year's event features 180 industry speakers, 48 interactive think tanks, three general sessions and six "how-to" sessions on the time-share industry. The conference also will feature the second Deal Corral, an event that spawned some big transactions last year, and a road food festival.

Lasky is happy his conference has become one of the biggest annual events in the industry, but it has special meaning to him for another reason. He met his wife, Mary Lou, at the conference and married her on the grounds of the Arizona Biltmore two years ago. Lasky, who is the head of Lodging Unlimited in Chicago, recently talked with Hotel Strategies about the evolution of the conference, which will be held Sept. 12-16.

NREI: How did the Lodging Conference get started?

Lasky: This is going back seven years ago, and everybody mentioned to us then that they thought there were enough conferences in the hotel industry. So, having gone to all the other conferences - and I've been in the business 45 years - I said if we could find a niche that was really comfortable for everybody, it would work. The perquisites we considered - number one, it should be an absolutely great resort location and the Arizona Biltmore fits that description. We wanted the attendees to have more to do than just attend the educational sessions. We also gave them a great venue for networking. We have created a conference with a tremendous educational content. The average conference is real questionable when it comes to education. Our conference this year has 180 speakers. We cap the attendance at 450 people, so you can see the ratio of speakers to attendees is amazing. We have three general sessions, and 48 think tanks that always consist of a moderator and four to six advisers. And it's done in a workshop atmosphere where the moderator and his advisers sit around a table with at least 25 attendees. The end result is a tremendous exchange of information. We've created a lot of networking possibilities, too, and we have four cocktail parties. I walk around the conference and see people at the swimming pool and at the bar, having lots of little separate meetings concerning deals they're working on.

NREI: Can you describe the road food festival? That sounds unique.

Lasky: We got the idea that it would be kind of fun for people to have junk food. So what we do is get a list of the top 10 junk food restaurants in the country in any particular year, and we actually fly the food in for the day of the conference. So the conference, although it's very serious in part, has a tremendous amount of fun and relaxation built into it.

We find every year more and more attendees bringing their spouses. At the end of the week, we have golf and tennis tournaments. So, we find a lot of people arrive a couple days early and leave a couple of days after the conference is over. In order to entice people to come into the exhibit hall, we give a briefcase of $1,000 [each day]. Of course, people are happy with that.

NREI: What's new to the conference this year?

Lasky: We've only had seven concurrent sessions in the past. This year we're running eight. This year, the eighth session is all on time-shares, and we have six separate time-share sessions this year, literally going from time-share 101 on up to how to finance them. We felt the time-share topic is becoming such a big item, we would have six time-share sessions. We felt there is a demand for it. It's a growing, popular activity in the industry. We've also added three Internet sessions too.

NREI: How do you plan for the conference?

Lasky: Each year, I literally throw the agenda away and start from scratch. I never look at the old agenda. I come to a conclusion as to what to schedule by personally calling the 600 or 700 people who come to the conference to determine what they liked about the conference in the past year, and what they'd like to see next year, and who they'd like to hear speak. This has worked out very, very well in terms of creating the topics, the subjects and the speakers.

NREI: What is the Deal Corral?

Lasky: We started the Deal Corral last year. It's one of the better ways for people to network. Two years ago, we decided there has to be a better way to get people to network, so we created a whole day called the Deal Corral.

Deal sessions, similar to think tanks, cover topics such as banking, equity, financing and insurance. In the afternoon, we have what we call the trading post, which is set up in a market format with 20 desks and 20 different deal makers - equity players, brokers, finance people. We set up sessions that last a half hour. If somebody wants to come and finance a deal, buy a deal or sell a deal, they can make an advance reservation to spend a half-hour with any person who has a desk. I know of two deals, one a $25 million deal, another a $10 million deal, that were made specifically as a result of that session last year. So it really works. It's the highest level of networking you can achieve. This year we expect more than 225 people at the Deal Corral.

NREI: How do you gauge whether the conference was a success?

Lasky: We talk to the speakers and find out how their audience reacted and how satisfied they were. We also count the number of attendees, so we have a better handle on which topics succeeded and which topics didn't. I think over the last few years there are few topics that haven't been successful. Remember, the way I develop the program is by calling last year's attendees. And how I gauge success is through the rave reviews I get on the phone when I talk to attendees. One of the comments I often hear is, "Don't let the conference get any bigger." So we've made the decision to keep it at a manageable size."

NREI: How much is your wife, Mary Lou, involved in planning the conference?

Lasky: My wife is a partner in this, and she is a partner in my business. She does consulting with me. She used to be a banker, helping to run a $1 billion real estate portfolio for the Bank of Montreal before we got married. She helps me a lot with the conference. She does all of the brochures for the conference, and also does the set designs.