The accidental hotelier: Incoming AAHOA Chairman Neal Patel

Attend an AAHOA convention and it’s the enormity that strikes you first. Large, city-center convention centers are the only venues that can handle the scale, which is underscored by the rows and rows of booths that crisscross the trade show floor. The capacious setting is filled by a swarm of AAHOA members from across the U.S. And they don’t show up alone: grandfathers, grandmothers, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters and the occasional grandkid all make the trip. 

At 20,000 members, AAHOA is one of the largest trade associations in the U.S. and a strong cohort that is courted by politicians on both the local and national level. Keynote speakers at past conventions have included President George W. Bush and Texas Governor Rick Perry, which gives you an idea of the membership’s political leaning, though President Bill Clinton and former DNC Chairman Howard Dean also have spoken, which gives you an idea of how important it is to try and solicit its favor. 

And like a political party, AAHOA takes its elections seriously. Deeply. So much, in fact, that debates are highly guarded affairs, where motivated candidates aren’t unwilling to try and curry favor with the moderator, a furtive attempt to be fed questions beforehand. (I should know: In 2019, I moderated the secretarial debate.) It was in that debate, in San Diego, that I first came across Neal Patel, who now assumes the mantle of chairman. 

AAHOA debates are not unlike a presidential one: some sniping, some prevaricating, some theatrics. What is different is that the debates decide the position of secretary and winners automatically ascend to the chair position three years later, moving up from secretary to treasurer to vice-chair to chair. Win and you’re in.

Neal Patel brims with confidence. At 30, he will be the youngest chairman to ever serve; assuredness is a required trait to have to lead an organization so vast and so demanding. After all, AAHOA may be a familial, collegial affair, but making money through the owning and operating of hotels is its undeniable raison d'etre. 

Like many AAHOA stories, Patel’s begins in India but blossoms in the U.S., where he and his family immigrated to in 2004, living a peripatetic lifestyle that included extended-family stays through various states. The family finally settled in Giddings, Texas, where his father pumped his live savings into buying a 20-room motel, financed with equity and interest-free loans from any and all friends and family the Patels could tap. 

The Patel family’s first hotel in Giddings, Texas.
The Patel family’s first hotel in Giddings, Texas. (Patel family album)

This was the American dream, but not Patel’s idea of it. “It was a small town and every day after school we’d [he and his brother, Sunny] come home and do our homework at the gas station that also sat on our property because my mom and dad were cleaning rooms,” Patel said. “It was like this for the first seven years. I hated it. I didn't want to be a part of it.”

It didn’t help that Patel came to the States not knowing a speck of English, thrust into American culture, deep in the South. “I had no idea what people were saying in school,” Patel said. The small portion of English he could pick up on was British English, but the Southern drawl made it incomprehensible. Kids there played baseball; he played cricket. It was all backwards.

At that tender age, Patel believed they had it fine in India. His father was an attorney there and instead of his parents’ cleaning guestrooms, they had people cleaning for them in a big house. “It was good,” he said. What he didn’t understand—and didn’t until years later—was that his parents made the move to better his future—a magnanimous gesture bestowed onto the second generation. “My parents left everything they had to give us a better future,” Patel said.

Lucky for Patel, he had an aptitude for business, which he displayed right out of the gate. “I always thought about innovation and making things better,” Patel said. For example, since the family owned the hotel and the gas station on property, Patel saw an opportunity to streamline labor by posting a sign in the hotel notifying guests to check in at the gas station. Now you only needed one person to do the job of two. He also implemented simple but necessary additions, such as keeping accruals and debits through an Excel spreadsheet. His family thought he was a genius: “Look, Neal tracked the cost of goods sold—how excellent,” he said. “It felt good to be part of something.” 

The family later sold their first hotel and bought a franchised hotel in Round Rock, Texas. By then, Neal had a better grasp of English (his parents did not), so, naturally, he handled the deal, negotiating the purchase-and-sale agreement and brand discussions. He could hammer out a franchise agreement but couldn’t legally drink a beer. 

Today, Blue Chip Hotels owns eight hotels totaling some 1,100 rooms.

A decade later, Patel finds himself in the chairman’s position of one of the most powerful organizations in the U.S. and is tasked with helping guide it after two years of global tumult. Addressing labor will be a monumental task—even before COVID, some 90 percent of AAHOA members surveyed said workforce shortages were a pressing concern. “It would be 100 percent of hotels today,” Patel said.

In true millennial form, Patel will champion technology during his one-year stint at the top. And just because he is young doesn’t mean the brands get a pass. “They need to be equal partners and make it a mutually beneficial relationship,” he said. “If you look at the hierarchy of things, their shareholders are No. 1. And then you have the guest or their team members. We’re on the bottom and I think that needs to obviously change.”

Forceful words from a guy who once didn’t know baseball from cricket. He’s acclimated quite well.