WHEN HOUSTON HOTELIER Dina Patel looks back over the past year, she’ll have carved another notch in a long timeline of changes. Most were for the best, but one was the painful but instructive loss of her father, Natvar Patel.
He was the family patriarch, the North Star, and his sudden passing forced the family to take stock of their lives and reset their future. Along the way, Dina, her mother, Vanita, and sister, Jagruti, each found the fortitude to face life’s challenges, thanks to Natvar’s legacy of hard work, strong faith and devotion to family.
The year also marks the 12th anniversary of the opening of her first hotel and the completion of her newest hotel project, the Red Roof Inn Houston-Willowbrook. The ups and downs of life have taught her valuable lessons, knowledge she tries to pass on to others.
That education began when she moved to the U.S. as a child, and it continued when she first entered the hotel business. She found there was more to learn, and to teach, after her father passed, leaving her mother to run their hotel on her own.
Learning the language
Dina was 10 years old when she came to the U.S. in 1988, landing in Dallas with her family.
“Of course, my parents’ priority was to get us enrolled in school,” Patel said.
That was no easy task. The school year had already started and Natvar and Vanita faced a language barrier and had no jobs. But they were not alone. “We had our [extended] family that supported us,” Dina said.
Natvar and Vanita got their first jobs in housekeeping at former AAHOA Chairman Bharat “Bruce” Patel’s father’s motel in Dallas. Meanwhile, Dina and her sister were split up among different family members, Jagruti to an aunt in Houma, Louisiana, and Dina to her mother’s uncle, Peter Patel, in Chattanooga, Tennessee,
She lived there for a year. In the meantime her father learned how to drive.
“He got his license and he wanted to make sure that we were back together as a family,” she said.
It was a challenging year for Dina in Chattanooga, overcoming cultural barriers while living with an aunt and uncle she had never met before. “To this day, I am very close to my uncle,” she said.
Peter Patel is now vice president of procurement for Vision Hospitality Group. “I rely on him for guidance,” Dina said.
However, when the year was over and Dina had the opportunity to go home, she took it while her sister remained in Louisiana. “I was just a daddy’s girl, I couldn’t stay away too long.”
Natvar and Vanita had been working in hotels in South Dallas with the goal of getting back together as a family. One day, while Natvar rested from work, Vanita went to an event and learned about a motel for sale in San Antonio.
“My mom just wanted to do her own feasibility study,” Dina said. She asked friends and family about the hotel. “She did her homework.”
As part of that homework, she invited the uncle, Peter Patel, over for tea.
“It turns out it was his hotel,” she said. “My parents ended up buying that hotel with the $5,000 that they had with family helping.”
In June 1991 the entire family moved to San Antonio. Dina was in high school and her sister was in middle school. Working with her parents and family, Dina learned business skills such as bookkeeping by helping with the office paperwork.
“My parents were learning the language and things here, so they totally depended on me,” she said.
The Bandera Motel was their whole life.
“My dad, that was his passion, his love,” she said. “Even if you go today, it’s in tiptop condition.”
And Dina’s mom learned with him.
“My mom can do any maintenance. She can patch a wall. She can change a toilet,” she said. “My dad kind of prepared her.”
Dina graduated from high school in 1995 and went on to the University of Houston, finishing there in 1999.
Her first job out of college was as a systems analyst for Hanover Compressor Co., now called Exterran, a manufacturer serving Houston’s oil industry. She helped install the Oracle software package to unify the company’s diverse legacy systems it had recently acquired along with several smaller businesses.
In 2000, she married Prakash, who had graduated Stanford University with a degree in pharmacy. They later moved to Houston where they have two children, 16-year-old Kaylah and 14-year-old Kadin.
In 2005, after her daughter was born and she was pregnant with Kadin, Dina decided she needed a change of lifestyle away from the “corporate thing,” one that would give her more freedom. A return to the hotel industry seemed like the right move.
“I had started looking for land in the area. I already had my plans for what I wanted to do,” she said.
She arranged the financing and hired a builder while she was still pregnant. They sold their house while the hotel was under construction.
“My family was there. Just like they helped my dad, they were helping me,” she said. “That’s the importance of our community, we’re there to help each other out.”
But that help does add some pressure to succeed, and on Patel’s first project she encountered a serious threat to success. With $100,000 already invested in the project, her first builder began to show signs he was not able to do the work.
“He just kept telling me ‘Yeah, more building material, and I’m doing this and I’m doing that,’” she said. “And I just had this feeling like $100,000 is a lot of money for you just to move a little dirt.”
Eventually, by the second draw with still no progress she had to make the decision to replace the builder. It was hard, but Dina felt an obligation to the family and friends supporting her.
“There’s a big social responsibility. I just didn’t want to be a failure,” she said. “I’m so glad that I made the decision to fire him. While $100,000 is a lot of money, I could have been in a worse situation.”
She oversaw the completion and the opening of that hotel, a Scottish Inn. To get there, she spent every day at the construction site, often with her children at hand, to supervise the work.
Though Prakash works as a pharmacy manager for Walgreens, he also helps a lot with the hotel, doing everything from maintenance to accounts payable.
“He’s my other extra help who doesn’t get paid,” Dina said.
The student driver
For several years the family enjoyed success, Natvar and Vanita in San Antonio and Dina in Houston, operating their hotels. Jagruti also married a hotelier. Then, three years ago, Natvar died unexpectedly at the age of 60. Dina’s mother was with him and called 911, but the heart attack was too massive.
“He was to come visit me; his bag was still at the door,” she said. “We were like, what just happened? People couldn’t believe it.”
Now Vanita had to pick up the full responsibility of running the Bandera. In the financial planning, Natvar stipulated the hotel’s mortgage be paid up by the time of his death so his wife would not be in debt.
“I learned the importance of succession planning,” Dina said.
After her father’s death, other family members stayed with her mother for as long as they could to help her, but eventually she was left alone to run their hotel.
“She couldn’t even go to the grocery store, she was there stuck 24/7,” Dina said. “All of a sudden this realization came to her, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to have to learn how to drive.’”
Vanita was 57 and had never driven a car, so the idea of learning that skill hit her hard. Dina and her mother hired a couple to watch the hotel while Vanita came to Houston for driving lessons.
“I signed her up for adult driver’s ed because I wanted her to be with someone to learn properly,” she said. “It was harder than teaching a teenager.”
Vanita stayed a month and often struggled with the lessons.
“There were days when she cried, like this was not going to be something that she would be able to do,” Dina said. “There were days when she said, ‘No, I don’t want to do it.’
“I said, ‘No, you can do it.’ I made her drive in the rain. My husband, whenever he was off from work, he took her. We just made sure that she would be prepared to drive on her own in San Antonio.”
They bought her a car at the end of the month, which Dina then had to get back to San Antonio.
They let the managers take more responsibility at the hotel and bought her a small house near other family members. She’s been in that house, and driving on her own, for a year.
“She’s giving rides to people. It’s given her so much freedom,” Dina said. “Just having that mobility has opened up so many roads for her.”
But the experience was an education for Dina as well.
“You can apply this in any situation. Someone wanting to get into the hotel industry, anything,” she said. “If you put your mind to it, and don’t let fear get in your way when you’re put in a dire situation, the best of you is going to come out. Never say no, never give up.”
Graduation to a new life
In August, Dina Patel attended Red Roof Inn’s annual conference in Nashville, Tennessee, as an executive with Mirage Hotels, the owner of a recently opened Red Roof Inn in Houston. Dina was no stranger to the brand. Her sister’s husband has operated a Red Roof in New Braunfels, Texas, for 12 years. Jagruti is a comptroller for manufacturer Rave Gears.
But finally opening a Red Roof of her own was the fulfillment of a promise she had made to Red Roof President Andrew Alexander at the company’s women’s forum in 2016.
“He asked ‘Why aren’t you an owner?’” she said. “And I said ‘Andy, give me some time, it will happen.’”
That was when she decided to team up with Mirage Hospitality CEO Miraj Patel, a long-time friend and son of Samir Patel, the man who had encouraged Dina to get involved with AAHOA (see story on p. 32).
“Miraj is always thinking ahead to what he wants to do in the future,” she said. “He’s always observing people, so he wanted to start a management company.”
Miraj said Dina was one of the first people to support his idea for forming the company despite his young age, 21.
“She said ‘Age is just a number. I’ve got your back,’” he said.
Dina’s strongest asset for the company is her ability to persuade people, Miraj said.
“I said you would be perfect for marketing and sales,” he said.
He also admires Dina’s ability to multitask.
“She does a phenomenal job of balancing her life,” he said. “A lot of times when you reach the limelight you drift away from your roots. But for her, her roots are her life.”
And he acknowledges the role she played in his recent election as AAHOA’s young professional director for the western division. “She’s been a great motivator for me,” Miraj said. “Nothing is impossible, especially when you have people like Dina” behind you.
When Miraj was just beginning college, using information from AAHOA on how to build a management company, they formed Mirage Hospitality with Samir as president, Miraj as CEO, Dina as vice president of sales and marketing and Miraj’s best friend, Saajan Patel, as vice president for development.
“This opportunity came about, and of course I was going to push it for Red Roof because I had promised Andy,” Dina said. “Now that [Miraj is] done with his master’s degree, we want to take this up a notch.”
That included taking on new construction projects. The Red Roof in Houston was their second. The company’s first was a boutique Hotel VUE in Houston.
“We’re getting our feet wet. We’re looking at other new projects. The best is yet to come,” Dina said. “Miraj is very driven. He’s very hungry, very motivated, very passionate in this industry.”
Alexander also remembered his conversation with Dina at the women’s forum, which he credits with being one reason she chose the brand.
“Every time I see her she makes a point of saying ‘See, I told you and I did it,’” Alexander said. “She’s proud of herself, and we’re very proud of her because she set her mind, she was inspired by the forum. She’s a perfect example of someone who fits in our brand really well, because she’s a true entrepreneur but also needs some support. She saw in us, I think, that she could be the former and get the latter.”
So far Mirage Hospitality’s Red Roof, which opened Aug. 8, is doing well.
“We’re seeing the progress,” Dina said.
The company has provided a revenue manager to oversee marketing, and Dina is impressed with the strong personal relationship Red Roof leadership has with franchisees.
“That’s the common thing that I’ve heard [about Red Roof]: The connection, the relationship,” she said.
Even while working for Mirage Hospitality, Dina still owns the Scottish Inn, which is undergoing renovation. She also volunteers as a Sunday school teacher.
“I give the rest of my time to my kids,” she said. “They’re in high school, I want to be with them. They’ll go on to college and different things in life, so all my time is precious with them.”
Overall, her plan is to continue to learn and stay active.
“My plan is to continue doing something, stay humble, help people that need help,” she said.