Opening a new adaptive-reuse property is challenging at the best of times, but helping to convert a historic hospital into a dual-brand urban hotel in the middle of a global pandemic is something few general managers train for.
But Nilesh Pandey, GM of the Hyatt Place and Hyatt House Chicago Medical/University District (which opened July 28), has been waiting for an opportunity like this from his adolescence. While in high school, he took a job as a dishwasher at Tiffin, an Indian restaurant in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, and was hooked on hospitality. “I decided then, when I was in high school, that I was going to go to college for hospitality management and enrolled in the international hospitality management program at Kendall College [at National Louis University],” he recalled.
Learning the Trade
While at Kendall, Pandey worked as the assistant dining room manager at the Chicago college’s Dining Room Restaurant, a “living classroom” fine-dining American-French restaurant where culinary arts and hospitality management students prepare and serve dinner as part of their hands-on training. “It was very cool to learn different kinds of services,” he said.
He also attended Les Roches Marbella International School of Hotel Management in Marbella, Spain, trading the winds of Chicago for the beaches of the Costa del Sol for seven months. “It was like day and night,” he said of his time in Europe. “The European hospitality culture is very different than what we experience in the United States.” The overall vibe, he said, was “a little bit more relaxed” in Europe than in the U.S., but he learned quickly about what travelers from different parts of the world expect from hospitality professionals. “We're in a very, very diverse industry,” he said. “Any customer that you have is coming from a different background, so the more diverse you are, the better you’re set up to manage your hotel.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree in international hospitality management, Pandey started at the Hyatt Regency Chicago as a front-office intern, then front-office support, then assistant executive housekeeper, launching a relationship with the company that has continued to this day. The company, he said, has a very familial atmosphere that encourages loyalty. “They have a very good training program and what attracts people like me to Hyatt is the mentorship and lifelong friendship that they have, the culture that they've created to groom younger managers.” He worked his way up through the ranks at several Hyatt properties in the Chicago area, working in their front offices and the housekeeping departments before becoming general manager of the Hyatt Place Lombard (Ill.). “It was not an easy transition,” he acknowledged. Having overseen large teams at bigger properties, he knew how to lead, but still had to learn the nuances of revenue, engineering and all the logistics that make a hotel run smoothly. “The first six months [were] a really big learning curve for me,” he recalled. “Once that was completed, it was an easy ride [and] I was able to succeed there.”
After several years with Hyatt, Pandey applied to Interstate Hotels & Resorts in the summer of 2018 and became director of operations at the Hyatt Centric The Loop, putting his history with Hyatt to good use with another company. And in January, he was tapped to lead a new project for the brand: the $150 million adaptive reuse of the 106-year old Cook County Hospital into a new dual-brand Hyatt Place and Hyatt House development, one of the company’s first dual-brands in the city. He was the right fit for the role, he believes, thanks to his long relationship with Hyatt: “The brand knowledge, the mentorship and the training that I've received over the years—it makes all the difference.”
The development, he said, has been a decidedly unique project given the building’s connection to the community. “This building has a lot of meaning to a lot of Chicagoans like me—a lot of our construction workers, their parents were born here,” Pandey said. “I, myself, remember when I was a kid coming here with my father when he was seeing some doctors in this hospital. Everyone has something to do with this building.” The structure sat vacant for nearly 20 years until Murphy Development began the process of adapting it into a mixed-use development that would include a dual-brand hotel. The updated property will maintain a number of historic elements, Pandey said—the marble staircases, for example, will now lead to the hotel’s bar, and the new terra cotta will evoke the original facade. “There [are] only two vendors that supply terra cotta in the United States, and there were almost 5,000 pieces of terra cotta that we had to get to finish the restoration of the exterior of the building,” he noted.
When it opens, the property will be the first dual-brand hotel Pandey has worked in, and he’s aware of the challenges in store. “It's making sure the housekeepers are trained [in how to] clean two different room types, that the front-desk agents are aware what the customer is expecting in the Hyatt Place and Hyatt House, that any of the groups that are coming in—which brand will suit them? ... Our sales department has to vet out the groups on what the customer is going to want and try to fit them into the right hotel.” Still, he said, the adjustment is “a lot of fun” and “keeps things fresh.”
Of course, opening a new hotel in the middle of a global pandemic presents another range of challenges, and Pandey has had to lead his team through waters few GMs have had to navigate before. “We had to be cognizant of the fact that we may not open with the amount of business that we once thought we were going to open with,” he acknowledged. “We had to be smart about what our staffing schedule is going to look like to respond to the change in business and the demand. If we hire too many people, they're not going to have hours and that doesn't work for them, so we have to make sure that we’re being very strategic [about] what positions we will staff and how many members we're going to bring on board, and how they were going to do all their duties—wearing multiple hats to make sure that we're making the most of what we have.”
Thanks to his family’s roots in the Chicago area, Pandey has remained in the city for his entire career, rejecting offers that would require moving away. “It is not an easy thing to do,” he acknowledged. “I have two kids—a 4-year-old son and my daughter's just turned 1. You have to make sure that when you're with family, you're spending quality time and you're making the most out of it.” When he goes home at night, Pandey dedicates his time to his family. “A hundred percent of my time is with them. It doesn't belong to anyone else once I'm out of the hotel.” Opening a dual-brand—and one with a historic pedigree, at that—has meant a lot of long days, he acknowledged, but family time is crucial. “That is a lesson that I've learned from a lot of my mentors and I practice that on a daily basis.”
“When something like a pandemic comes, or the recession that we had a few years ago, [that’s] what creates the biggest challenges and you have to quickly figure out how you're going to battle that and survive.”
“We have to think about doing things differently. That can be wearing multiple hats [or] responding to guests’ needs that have changed, whether it's because of a pandemic or if they're traveling because of any other reason. We're in the Medical District and we're in the middle of all the hospitals, and our guests could be here for any reason—to see loved ones or if they're working in the hospitals. It's making sure that you know the changing customer needs are responded to.”
Advice to GMs
“Make sure you're always looking in the interests of the associates that you're working with as well as the customer. That's how you learn, that's how you grow, that's how you get the respect from your team.”
Secrets to Success
Genuinely care for people: “[That means care] for staff and guests alike. Listening to your team’s needs, and taking interest in their professional development, creates a culture of mutual interest.”
Develop a team that embraces change: “The hospitality industry is a constantly evolving industry. The more you can develop your team to accept new changes, the more dynamic your team will be to execute the operation with new ideas.”
Be humble: “Don’t take yourself too seriously. Have fun!”
Hyatt Place and Hyatt House Chicago Medical/University District
Owner: John Murphy | Management: Aimbridge Hospitality/Interstate Hotels & Resorts | Rooms: 210 | Opening: July 2020