AAHOA’s next leader highlights the importance of ambition, compassion, and contribution to propel the association into the future
by Heather Carnes
Her career in hospitality began similarly to leaders who came before her. Driven and hungry for success, she found the path to achieve the American dream through her passion for hospitality. And today, with the same ambition and drive, she’s making history.
As a hotelier and president of Wealth Protection Strategies, a financial services firm based outside Philadelphia, Jagruti Panwala grew up with the perception that, regardless of gender or social status, the only limits to success in America are those that one places on him or herself.
With that in mind, and with a career spanning more than 25 years, Panwala is now taking on one of the most significant challenges and opportunities of her career as the first chairwoman of AAHOA.
Born in India, Panwala came to America when she was 15. Her parents, progressive for the time, ingrained in her that whether male or female, if you work hard and are persistent, you can be successful. And these valuable lessons have carried and served her throughout her life and career.
Growing up and working in her father’s grocery store, Panwala was exposed to hard work and business from a very young age. Far from the social notion that she grew up with in India, Panwala knew she was destined to experience life differently.
Insights for the Next Generation
Panwala says the biggest opportunity for the next generation of hoteliers is knowing what do with all the assets that have been created by the first and second generation.
Because they’re not working the front desk anymore, proper structure of the company will also become very important for the third generation. “Portfolio management will also be key. This generation sees the value of what their family has accomplished,” Panwala said.
This year, AAHOA is committed to workshops and tools that will help the next generation of hoteliers to grow their portfolio on a large scale.
A Stumble Into Hospitality
Panwala’s entry into the hotel industry was almost by accident. As a recent college graduate selling financial planning services door to door, she entered a small hotel one weekend in 1997 and discovered it was operating at a loss. She knew she could turn it around with her father and uncle’s buy-in and help.
So at the age of 22, with ambition and borrowed money, she and her husband purchased their first hotel. Working hard to make their dream a reality, they lived on the property and did whatever it took – housekeeping, front desk, maintenance – to make it successful. “These experiences taught me that no one is above doing the work necessary to make a business successful,” Panwala said.
AAHOA Enters the Picture
Another lesson Panwala’s parents instilled in her was the importance of community. “As much as being successful in business was a priority, they taught me the importance of giving back,” she said.
Once she got involved in AAHOA, a lot of things changed. In her first leadership position, she was tasked with getting more women involved. “I went to events, and maybe out of 100 attendees, there were only two or three women,” she said. “And this really surprised me; I was actually shocked.”
She says at the time, AAHOA encouraged open participation regardless of gender, but nobody was really able to break through to see the possibility. “I think members were ready; they were wondering why women weren’t in these positions even though they were qualified,” she said.
Knowing she was ready for the challenge, she ran for AAHOA Secretary in 2015, and won. “It’s wasn’t just about me; as an organization, the vision was there,” she said. “We needed equal participation.”
Carrying Out AAHOA’s Vision for the Future
During her tenure as Chairwoman, Panwala will be strategically focused on AAHOA initiatives, including grassroots efforts at the local level, open conversations with OTAs, building and strengthening the AAHOA PAC, and evolving educational programming for hoteliers who have reached the next level of their business.
She says that as the bloodline of the association, the AAHOA political action committee (PAC) grassroots effort is powerful. By raising money from members, instead of large corporate organizations, the PAC’s foundation is built on hotel owners from small cities across the country. “When we share our story and how far it’s come, it resonates with every single representative,” Panwala said.
There is significant room for growth of the AAHOA PAC, as only 15 percent of AAHOA Members currently donate. “If you think about each property donating $100, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be a $10-million PAC,” she said.
Jagruti is committed to growing AAHOA, primarily through advocacy and increased diversity. She credits previous President and CEO Chip Rogers with emphasizing the importance of political engagement. “He’s had such a huge, positive impact on the association and our exposure in the industry,” she said. “And in his words, ‘If anyone thinks that government will get smaller, they’re 100 percent wrong,’” she adds. “It’s so important for members to recognize the value, stay engaged, and share their story with government leaders.”
Open Communication As a Key to Success
Panwala’s dedication to the industry she loves doesn’t go unnoticed, and as a businesswoman, mother, and wife, it comes with sacrifice, but it has made her family ties stronger than ever. Spending 150-200 days away from home, she credits open communication as the secret to both professional and personal success.
“I’ve created a support system on the hotel side, the business side, and at home,” she said. While it’s been far from easy with a family and small children – and a puppy that she says has become a third child – life can get hectic, but she’s found joy and purpose in her journey.
“I always share AAHOA success stories with my daughter,” she said. “When she saw a video of me testifying in front of the United States Congress, it was the first time she realized the significance of what I was doing, and that helped me feel less guilt.” And with a son with special needs, Panwala considered the impact on him as well. Over time, she recognized that in being away, she was actually able to build confidence in her son to be more independent. “He’s doing more on his own now,” she said. “I think it has impacted him in a positive way.”
It Takes a Village
Of course, she hasn’t done it all alone. “My biggest supporters are my husband and my father,” she said. “I couldn’t do anything without them.”
And while Panwala can list hundreds of other individuals who have helped her along her journey, there are a few who stand out. “Bruce Patel has guided me for years, and I admire what he’s done for the organization and for me personally,” she said. She also credits women leaders, such as Nancy Patel. “It’s so important to have support from other women,” she said. “To have her stand next to me, side by side throughout my journey, has been very powerful.”
But Panwala doesn’t want to be remembered as just “the first chairwoman.” Although she takes a lot of pride in the role, she doesn’t feel she was elected because she’s a woman but rather for a purpose: to show others, especially the second and third generations, that anything in life is possible with hard work and good intentions, and by serving others.