The future may be blurry, but the youngest to chair CHLA knows we accomplish more when we work together
Bijal Patel is SOMEWHAT of a dual threat. He’s not only the youngest chairman of the California Hotel & Lodging Association in history, but he’s also the first Indian-American to serve on the board. A third-generation hotelier, it seemed only natural that Patel’s career would lead him to this momentous position.
Patel took the time to share with Today’s Hotelier what this career advancement means to him, how people can get involved in their community’s hospitality sector, and what he sees for himself and AAHOA in the future.
How did you get your start in AAHOA? What made you decide to pursue the hospitality industry?
I like to say that when my mother’s life as a hotelier ended, my life as a hotelier began.
In case that sounds overly dramatic, let me share the very important truths behind those words.
I am a third-generation hotelier. My grandparents immigrated from Kenya and London to San Francisco in the early 1970s, becoming hotel owners. Then, in the 1980s, my parents emigrated from London to San Francisco, also becoming hotel owners, so I learned the hotel business from an early age with hands-on experience at our family’s property.
However, by my early teens, I had no intention of following my mother and father into hospitality. My mother was a pioneer in our industry – the first woman to hold an executive position on the advisory board of the Econo Lodge Franchise Association and going on to serve as president of ELFA 2005-2006, even while she valiantly battled pancreatic cancer.
But then she died at a much-too-young age. I was only 16 when I lost my mother and when I saw my father lose both the love of his life and his partner in business. I immediately wanted to support my dad, emotionally as well as professionally. And I did.
Working together with my father became a powerful bonding experience for the two of us and it became a life-changing lesson for me.
From an early age, my parents taught me the Indian philosophy of “seva” – of giving back. I was reminded that too many people are willing to “take” like they’re entitled, while too few people remember to “give” like they’re obligated. Perhaps this explains why I’ve been active for the past five years in the leadership of both CHLA and AAHOA, including as a member of AAHOA’s Young Professionals and as an Ambassador for the North Pacific Region.
For me, serving our industry is in my DNA.
What does it mean to you to not only be the youngest association chair for an organization like CHLA, but to also be one who’s a minority?
Professionally, it’s a high responsibility and a rare opportunity.
The responsibility is to serve our members in a way that makes CHLA even more valuable for them. We are hoteliers because we are passionate about our industry – we enjoy caring for travelers and we want to do our job even better, for our guests and for ourselves.
The opportunity is to achieve progress on my three focus areas. First, attracting more young people to hospitality as a career; second, continuing and enhancing our fight against ADA nuisance lawsuits; and third, expanding workplace safety through voluntary measures rather than mandated regulations.
My plans are ambitious, but they are realistic and achievable. Above all, they will benefit our members financially so they can be more effective in managing their money and assets.
On a personal level, I am very honored, privileged, and humbled to become the youngest chairman ever of CHLA and only the third Asian-American. And I am ready.
What was the most challenging obstacle in your career so far? Was there anything that came easier than you expected?
My most challenging career obstacle was joining my father in business when I was just 16 after the traumatic death of my mother, his wife and business partner.
I was still in high school at the time, but I was suddenly responsible for managing the renovation and brand conversion of our hotel. It was a half- million-dollar project and it showed me how challenging as well as how rewarding hospitality can be.
I signed my first franchise agreement when I was 18. I earned my Certified Hotel Administrator (CHA) designation at age 20, and I began an active partnership with Choice Hotels and Marriott International that continues today.
The U.S. Navy SEALS have a saying that I embrace as a hotelier – “The only easy day was yesterday.” For me, it’s a reminder that our industry is not for the meek or the weak. It’s for people who are patient and persistent. It’s for people who are “overcomers,” those who devote themselves to working a little harder and a little smarter every day.
What would you tell younger people looking to join associations like AAHOA or CHLA? What’s the best way for them to get involved?
The hotel business has become incredibly sophisticated, so CHLA and AAHOA are essential support systems. These groups provide the learning skills and the networking resources that can help every hotel owner operate in a smarter, more effective way by properly using technology, by carefully managing people, and by innovatively funding renovation or construction projects.
Young people can benefit from others who have experienced the same problems or feelings they are experiencing and who have suggestions and solutions to offer. You can benefit from formal professional education courses and workshops, as well as from informal discussion and sharing.
My advice is to attend meetings at the local, state, and national levels. Serve on committees and in leadership positions. Run for office. Get involved. Because the more you put in, the more you will get out.
I’m especially proud that our associations are places of inclusion, where women are active as members and as leaders. Some of our brightest and most capable owners are women, and their roles continue to grow.
I sometimes use the term “actionpreneur” to describe members who become engaged in their associations. Alone, none of us can achieve very much. But together, we can go over, under, around, and through the obstacles we face at our properties. Together, we can be a whole lot more successful.
Yes, hoteliers struggle every day with many financial and operational challenges. But hospitality is still one of the best ways to earn a living in America today, thanks in large part to CHLA and AAHOA.
What’s your outlook for yourself over the next few years? Where would you like to see AAHOA and CHLA go?
My crystal ball is a little fuzzy, so I hesitate to make predictions for myself or for our industry. It’s especially dangerous to predict things for a business as challenging, competitive, and ever-changing as ours.
I can say that I don’t want to simply live my life, I want to build my life. For me, that means doing things in both my personal and professional dealings that make an impact, that make a difference. Not just for myself but to help others launch their own version of the American Dream.
Life is about more than chasing a buck, it’s about chasing hopes and dreams. So, I get great satisfaction when I can help others pursue their goals.
As for the future of CHLA and AAHOA, nobody goes into business to be average. We become hoteliers so we can be extraordinary hoteliers. CHLA and AAHOA are experts at delivering the services that put the “extra” into your career. They help us deal with challenges that range from labor practices to government over-regulation to brand fairness.
The challenge for CHLA and AAHOA is to always stay relevant for members. Their job as associations must be to make our job as owners easier and more successful. ■
Vinay Patel, Immediate Past Chair of NCRLA and CEO of SREE Hotels, was instrumental in AAHOA and NCRLA collaborating on goals and initiatives to better the hospitality industry. Vinay’s work with AAHOA and NCRLA is another example of what can be achieved when we all work together. Photo courtesy of NCRLA.
Bijal, his mom, and his father built a family business together before his mother’s untimely passing.
Bijal giving his speech upon becoming Chairman of CHLA.
We have to remember that a number of regulations are now being set at the city and state levels of government. If we want to protect our industry, our focus has to be on working with AAHOA’s state partners around the country to fight off bad legislation.”
– Bakulesh (Buggsi) Patel, AAHOA Past Chairman; Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association Past Chairman
“Being an active member in my state association has allowed me to not only stay on top of legislative issues that would negatively impact our industry, but it also provided a forum for me to advocate directly with key decision-makers on behalf of my business. In a state like California, this process is of utmost importance and a foundational piece of our political system. As a former chair of the California Hotel & Lodging Association, I gained an appreciation for the different yet similar perspectives that other stakeholders (larger corporations, brands, educators, vendors, management companies) had related to these same issues. Overall, the experience broadened my knowledge of our wonderful industry and helped me protect it from legislation that would impact our future.”
– Bimal Patel, California Hotel & Lodging Association Past Chairman
“As a hotelier, it is critically important to become involved in your professional community. Joining your state lodging association gives you critical access to important statewide information and a network of leaders that are influencing our industry. You also have the opportunity to see how external forces impact your business. As chairman of the Texas Hotel and Lodging Association, I saw first hand the importance of advocacy on our industry and on my businesses. Working with President and CEO Scott Joslove, his exceptional team, and our high performing board of directors, we were able to share the amazing story of economic development and job creation with our legislators and ensured they kept us at the top of their minds as they reviewed rules and regulations that impacted Texas hoteliers. I urge all hotel owners to complement their AAHOA membership with membership in their state lodging association and aspire to join the leadership ranks in each one.”
– Pratik Patel, Texas Hotel & Lodging Association Past Chairman
If you’re in the hospitality business and own assets and not engaged your state association, you’re really not protecting your business. Legislators need to hear your stories of how hard it is getting to run your business with all the new rules and regulations. If you don’t get involved, then legislators don’t know how these impact your business. Believe it or not, legislators do want to hear from you and hear your stories. Trust me, it makes a difference when they hear from you…. Experience has shown me that when we speak up as a group in DC or in N.J., we are able to stop bad legislation and protect our businesses. Advocating and having your voice heard is very important to your businesses, but other tools are offered by state associations, like education and special vendor programs, will also save you money and bring more tools to you and your employees. Get involved and get your voice heard to protect yourself, your family, and your business.”
– Bhavesh Patel, AAHOA Past Chairman, New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association Vice Chairman