Two thumbs up for Lodging Conference '99 in Phoenix It was like a scene from an old Western movie: a man rode in on a white horse and stole the show. This time, it wasn't John Wayne. It was Morris Lasky, chairman of the Fifth Annual Lodging Conference '99 held Sept. 28 through Oct. 2 in Phoenix, officially kicking off the event.

This was my first time in attendance, and the beauty of the Arizona Biltmore - the host of the event - coupled with the casual style made a lasting impression. This year's conference began one day earlier, offering the 450 participants a chance to participate in "The Deal Corral: Trading Post," a unique opportunity for one-on-one networking and dealmaking tips.

"There were 17 desks set up at the 'Deal Corral: Trading Post'," says Lasky. "Of the 17, about 85% of the appointments were taken. Each person had a desk - brokers, equity people and dealmakers. And each person filled six out of their seven appointments.

"People actually walked away with starts of deals," Lasky says.

I spent the remainder of my time attending think tanks, which are casual living-room style discussions where attendees can ask questions, give their opinions or, if they were like me, take copious notes. I also had the chance to attend several of the think tanks including: "Mega-Hotels," "REITs in Their New Structure" and "Public vs. Private Ownership."

The conference was not only a chance for me to network, it was a chance for me to learn. My primary area of interest was in REITs and the controversy over their survival in the hotel industry. "They're [REITs] meant to be passive holders of real estate," says Sandra Kellman, partner and Hospitality Practice Group Leader at Rudnick & Wolfe. In reference to hotel REITs, Kellman says, "It's like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole."

I also discovered the constant challenges hoteliers, developers and operators face on a daily basis. The bad news (or good, depending

on how you look at it), is these age-old challenges aren't going anywhere. During the Mega-Hotel think tank, Eric Danziger, president of Carlson Hotels Worldwide, revealed the simple truth about running larger hotels.

"When your [Mega] hotel is full, it's great, but when there's a 10% occupancy day, it is the most horrible customer feeling," says Danziger. "The challenge is, how do you make a hotel feel warm and inviting?"

And how does the chair of the conference feel about this year's event? "I guess in one word: spectacular," says Lasky. "Everything we planned worked out well."