HM Exclusive: CH&LA chairman follows in his mother’s footsteps

Bijal Patel, the California Hotel & Lodging Association’s newest and, at 30, its youngest ever chairman, grew up immersed in the hospitality industry. A third-generation hotelier, he said he spent the first 15 years of his life “living at a hotel and learning everything that it takes to run the business, from answering the phone to sweeping corridors to helping housekeeping.”

Despite those early experiences, Patel said he had no intention of actually joining the family business until high school, when his mother, Sandhya Patel, lost a 14-month battle with pancreatic cancer.

“My parents were 50/50 business partners, they ran the business together, and suddenly my father loses not only his wife, but his business partner,” said Patel. Only 17 years old at the time, he “jumped right in and immediately started to pick up the pieces that [his] mother used to handle.”

Bijal Patel stands with his grandfather Purushottam
Patel and father Umesh Patel. Photo credit: Jim Vetter

Soon, Patel said he was signing a franchise agreement with his father, Umesh Patel, and overseeing the conversion of his family’s hotel in Santa Cruz, Calif., from an Econo Lodge to the Quality Inn & Suites brand. During that 18-month project, he began work on a business management degree at California Polytechnic State University, driving two and a half hours to and from his classes back to the property to help finish the renovation.

Resolved to continue on in the hospitality industry, Patel decided he wanted to take his family’s business to the next level, to not just continue what his parents did, but to create a legacy to honor their hard work and to honor his mother.

In 2012, he and his father formally created Santa Cruz-based Coast Redwood Hospitality, where Patel currently serves as CEO. Since his grandfather started the business and his parents had continued it, he said the action did not change much immediately. “It was just kind of a natural progression for us,” said Patel. Today, the company owns and operates a portfolio of hospitality and multifamily assets, including four hotels with 263 guestrooms open or in development with Choice Hotels International and Marriott International.

Becoming Involved

Inspired by his mother’s own involvement within the industry—Sandhya Patel was the first woman to serve as president of the Econo Lodge Franchisees Association of America—Patel became involved with hotel associations early on. “My mom kind of put the spark in me in terms of getting involved in the industry and making sure that your voice is being heard and that you’re also advocating for others at the same time,” said Patel.

Patel quickly became involved at AAHOA, attending his first convention in 2010, taking on a leadership position as an ambassador and joining the organization’s young professionals committee. Through AAHOA, he began participating in legislative summits in Washington, D.C., and “quickly developed a passion and a knack for advocacy and legislative issues and dealing with elected officials,” Patel said.

During that period, he said he came to see that California often drafted the legislation that the national government would come to adopt. “Some of the issues that we’re dealing with on a federal level, I mean, California is like already three or four iterations down the line,” said Patel. “I quickly realized that I needed to also focus on California and get involved in the issues here.”

It was while advocating in Washington that he met Lynn Mohrfeld, a member of AAHOA’s government affairs committee and the president/CEO of the CH&LA. “We had congressional meetings together and I spoke a lot at the meeting and shared my thoughts and kind of handled the meeting and he was very impressed with that and then ultimately asked me to be involved in CH&LA.”

As a member of the CH&LA, Patel became a mentee of board member and past chairman Bimal Patel. “He kind of held my hand in navigating the waters and getting involved,” said Patel. From there, things moved quickly and after his third year of involvement, Patel said he was unanimously elected to be an officer.

Plans as CH&LA Chairman

This past November, the CH&LA installed Patel as chairman—like AAHOA, the organization has a progressive leadership whereby he was in line for the position since being elected as an officer—and in January, he formally stepped into the role.

“One of my passions in being the youngest chairman of CH&LA is to inspire other youth, that ‘Look, you can make a really rewarding career out of this and you can make a difference. There’s still an opportunity for you to be involved and to be engaged and to kind of help shape the course of the industry.’”

To accomplish that goal, Patel said he is working on a program that would include potential partnerships with associations like AAHOA and the American Hotel & Lodging Association. “Ideally, what I’d like to do is start a pathway or develop a plan that if you want to get more involved in the industry, we have a program for that endorsed by all these different organizations and we’ll help you throughout the way,” he explained.

Toward this goal of helping the next generation, the CH&LA last year established the California Hotel & Lodging Association Hospitality Foundation, which has a $3.4 million endowment fund for scholarships and educational support. In October, Patel said he attended a gala that brought together scholarship recipients from across the state.

“We got to hear their stories and their stories were so moving and powerful,” Patel said. “I thought I struggled a lot in my story—and I know I did—but hearing some of the other students and their stories and their struggles, it kind of just reinforced the fact that we need to be doing more. We need to encourage more people and we need to provide assistance to them.”