Hitesh (HP) Patel lived the prototypical Asian American immigrant story, growing up behind the front desk at his parents’ independent motel. He watched his mother run the motel while his father focused on building the family business. “My mom ran that motel from day one, but she did not have the tools and training she needed so she could grow in skill and knowledge.”
HP has dedicated his career to making sure owners of all types of hotels and motels are heard and receive the education they need to advance in the trade. This month, he takes the helm as chair of AAHOA, where he will oversee the association’s most ambitious educational and training platforms in its 29-year history.
The 45-year-old hotelier was elected secretary in spring 2015 after campaigning on a platform built with ideas on how to improve and expand training and educational opportunities for AAHOA members. The platform planks were not only his own; they were honed after meeting with countless members months before the 2015 convention and asking what they wanted from the association. What he heard was access to education, more training and clearer paths to advancement within the U.S. hospitality industry.
AAHOA officers are elected by members and progress in rank from secretary to treasurer to vice chairman and chairman. This year, Vinay Patel, founder of Fairbrook Hotels in Virginia is running unopposed for secretary, an association first. Also notable is next year Jagruti Panwala will be the first woman to chair the association.
The association has continually grown and adapted in an ever-evolving industry. Its members are largely the reason the hospitality sector in America is what it is today. AAHOA was formed nearly 30 years ago by a handful of men who wanted to fight discrimination in the industry. It would be years before a major hotel franchiser recognized members’ entrepreneurial prowess and financial resourcefulness. Today, all major U.S. franchisers turn to Asian Americans to help develop and launch new brands and grow existing flags.
This year, AAHOA will remaster several new educational initiatives, including relationships with hospitality colleges that will enable members to obtain master’s degrees; online courses that lead to hotel operations certification; and internships with major hotel companies and industry suppliers.
The programs will be announced this month during the 2018 AAHOA Convention & Trade Show at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. AAHOA expects a record-breaking attendance. It has more than 17,700 members, an increase of more than 1,500 in a year.
Membership is made up of hotel owners and their spouses as well as vendors. Not all owner members are Indian American as AAHOA began to promote membership to all hotel owners in the U.S. a few years ago.
One growing contingent of members is young adults. “The first generation hands down a hotel or a portfolio of hotels to the next generation, but do they know what to do with them?” asked HP. “If you are not a good owner/operator you can easily tank that business. I have long been an advocate for young people getting into the business, but we have to give them the tools to succeed.”
HP stresses the opportunities are available to all members no matter their age. It’s never too late to learn. “You have to be more engaged; to be willing to learn; and to continue to educate yourself,” he said during an interview at AAHOA’s headquarters in Atlanta. “AAHOA can give you those tools.”
Last year, the association sponsored 100 educational webinars.
This year, it has revamped its certified hotel owner course, streamlining it into an all-digital platform so hoteliers can fit the course work into their schedules. Previously, an owner had to dedicate five straight days to classroom training. While many took advantage of that opportunity, more did not because they could not leave their businesses for any length of time. Now both the course and testing are digital.
In collaboration with the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute, the International Council on Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Education and STR, another certification AAHOA offers is in hotel industry analytics. The program teaches owners such skills as how to read and analyze business data; break down a STAR report; analyze the hotel’s comp set; learn about net operating income and return on investment; and dissect a profit-and-loss statement department by department to identify deficiencies and capture efficiency.
Another educational series is focused on utility costs and energy consumption. Many hotels install energy-saving equipment when they don’t have to because the energy is cheaper in their area. “For example, why put censors in your property when you don’t have to?” said HP. “If it doesn’t make sense, why spend $30,000 on such infrastructure? We help owners do the math and then decide.”
Also last year, AAHOA designed two-day workshops on several topics in which members expressed interest – how to form a management company; how to finance a hotel; and how to develop a hotel.
The fact that many members still need basic, fundamental training is not lost on HP and other leaders at AAHOA. Current chairman Bhavesh Patel has said Asian American hotel families continue to sponsor family members migrating from India and set them up in their first hotel. Besides the family members teaching them to operate the property, AAHOA can provide access to training.
“We want to make sure that everyone is a smart owner,” said HP. “Asian Americans own 50 percent of the hotels in U.S., but how do we get to 70 percent? We do that by becoming better operators; better investors; better developers; and better managers.”
Efficiency is key to saving money and making money and attracting more business. Well-heeled owners, operators and developers have proven that. Over the past three years, major hotel companies have turned to the Asian American hotelier community to guide them in developing new brands with efficiency in mind. Best Western Hotels & Resorts worked with a group of owners to create GLō, a midscale brand rolled out in fall 2015. Hilton called on a group of developers to create Tru, its midscale brand launched in January 2016. Last year, InterContinental Hotels Group gathered a group of owners, many of them Asian American, to help craft Avid, its midscale offering it launched in the fall.
All the new brands tout low per-key construction costs as well as operational efficiencies, and the companies credit the advisory groups for helping them achieve those goals. In turn, most of the developers of the new brands are Asian Americans. “Ten years ago, do you think the major brands would have called on AAHOA to help with new brand development?” said HP.
The incoming chairman owns his own company, which he and his wife, Trusha, grew by the sweat of their brows. He wants to share their experience with others. “I have always been willing to help others in the industry,” HP said. Besides young people, he is focused on elevating women in the industry. “Women are more passionate and outspoken,” he said, and they work harder.
It was a strong contingent of women who fervently campaigned for him in 2015. “I give all the credit to my wife; she organized all of it,” he said, including holding strategy meetings where HP bounced ideas off supporters and heeded their advice. “You have to be open minded and listen to a lot of people. I also turned to professional people outside the hotel industry to find out their strategies for growth.
“I want to encourage and empower women hoteliers, to help make a wider path for them. We all know it’s a male-dominated industry, but we are starting to see more women get involved. Five years ago, it was like pulling teeth to get women to attend an AAHOA regional meeting. All that has changed now.”
One area of involvement attracting more women is in political advocacy. AAHOA holds two legislative summits a year in Washington, D.C., drawing 200 to 300 members each time. HP has seen the number of women at each summit grow.
Legislators and policy makers are more apt to listen to women and young people as they advocate for proposals or changes in regulations that make it easier to operate their small businesses. “At the end of the day, most Congressional members want to hear from their constituents,” he said. “Most lawmakers don’t know what it means to be a small business owner, and hearing from younger owners and women hoteliers makes a difference.”
Name: Hitesh (HP) Patel
Family: He is married to Trusha Patel. They have two children, Kylissa, 17, and Khaleal, 12. They live in Austin.
Business: In 1998, he and his wife built their first hotel, a Microtel Inn & Suites by Wyndham in Stafford, Texas. They went on to form Capital City Hospitality Group in Austin, Texas.
Background: Hitesh (HP) Patel was born in England. In 1980, when he was 8 years old, his family migrated to Elgin, Texas, where they own and operate an 18-room property called the Sunset Lodge. By the time HP was 10, he was working the front desk as well as in other areas of the property. His parents still live in and operate the motel.
Education: A 1996 graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. He is a certified hotel owner and certified in hotel industry analytics.
AAHOA Leadership: Joined AAHOA in 2004 and its board of directors in 2010. Elected secretary in 2015; served as treasurer and will succeed this month from vice chairman to chairman during AAHOA’s annual convention. The term is for one year.