By Dan Cohen
Sima Patel, an AAHOA member since 1994, has already lived a lifetime of firsts: She first learned English in Surat, India, at age 16; at 17, she moved to Oakland, California, where just years later she acquired the first plot of land that would become her and her husband’s first hotel development; she is the first Indian woman ever to chair a national or state lodging association in the United States.
But her latest first could be her biggest and most impactful to date. Last year, she took the helm of the largest state tourism marketing organization in the country.
“I am humbled to be elected to such a prestigious role within Visit California,” Patel said. “Visit California is committed to driving tourism to the state, and I am excited to help further the organization’s reach to both consumers and tourism industry stakeholders.”
Rather than running from challenges that would deter so many others, Patel has spent her life sprinting towards them. It has paid off: The self-made CEO of Ridgemont Hospitality built her own business and has more than 30 years of experience in the hospitality industry, serving on the Visit California Board for the past decade.
Her story is a shining example of the American Dream – a dream she had to fight to bring to life from a very young age.
Growing up in a conservative household in Surat, Patel dreamed of attending English-speaking school. Less than a year after being allowed to enroll at age 16, Patel moved across the ocean to join her husband, Pravin, in Oakland, where Patel began working in a family owned hotel.
Despite having less than a year of English education and no other formal training or hospitality experience, Patel was driven by an entrepreneurial spirit and a curious nature. She quickly took to the business, helping in the hotel office and learning the ins-and-outs of running a hotel, and she and Pravin were soon managing a second family property.
But it was in 1985 when Patel sowed the seeds of what would become her own hospitality enterprise. With help from her family, she and Pravin acquired the land on which they would build their first hotel, The Regency Inn. It became the first jewel in the crown of their new company, Ridgemont Hospitality.
Today, the family owned and operated company runs Oakland’s Inn at Temescal, Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inn & Suites, and Hotel Vue in Mountain View. Patel’s latest venture, a 110-room Hampton Inn in the heart of downtown Oakland, was approved by the Oakland Planning Commission in early 2016 and is expected to be completed in 2018. It will be the first new hotel in downtown Oakland in years.
In 2004, Patel made history when she was elected Chairperson of the California State Lodging Association – the first Indian woman ever to chair a national or state lodging organization. Under her leadership, Patel drove home the value of the tourism industry to the California legislature and helped to establish the industry as a driving force of California’s economy.
Patel’s efforts as an advocate for the tourism industry culminated in 2006 when she was elected by industry colleagues to serve on the California Travel & Tourism Commission, operating as Visit California. After serving two elected terms, she was reappointed by Governor Jerry Brown.
Patel is also an engaged leader in her community as a board member of Visit Oakland and the Independent Lodging Industry Association. She is also a member of the Oakland Rotary Club and the Oakland Airport Area Business Association. In addition to her lifetime membership in AAHOA, her advocacy efforts on behalf of the Indian-American community led to her found SAAHELI, a global online community for South Asian women.
Patel and the rest of her fellow board members represent the principal industry sectors – accommodations, restaurants and retail, attractions and recreation, transportation services, and passenger car rentals – that comprise the state’s $122.5 billion travel and tourism industry. She now chairs an organization that administers a $100 million global marketing budget that promotes California as a premier travel destination on behalf of the state’s travel-related businesses and destination marketing organizations.
Patel’s story has taken her across the world to California. Today, she is leading the way to inspire other South Asian women to excel despite their social or financial barriers.
“Sima has been a true pioneer in our industry. She epitomizes what it means to Dream Big in California,” said Caroline Beteta, Visit California President & CEO. “Hers is the quintessential American success story and proves the tourism industry supports jobs and builds leaders.” ■