Second-generation hoteliers reflect on lessons learned

(A large number of operators were born into the business, and they carry a literal lifetime of experience with them.)

Hospitality has always been an industry in which employees can work their way up from entry-level positions to management or even ownership. But there is  a large contingent of owners and operators who were born into the business.

Pete Patel, president & CEO of Promise Hotels, a hotel development and management company, said his parents were first-generation hoteliers of an Oklahoma motel, and growing up in that environment encouraged him to stay with the business. And, having watched his family in action at their property, he grew up with his own ideas as to how a hotel can (and should) be run.

“Being a second-generation hotel owner allows me to learn from the triumphs and tribulations of the first generation, being my family,” Patel said. “I learned as the first generations took risks, they were rewarded nicely. Also, if it wasn’t a calculated risk, many lost everything.”

Second-generation owners were brought up in the business, and bring the lessons they learned with them to new properties regardless of brand or scale.

Satish Patel, president of BMS Hotels and operator of an Ascend Hotel Collection property in Petaluma, Calif., said his father routinely took him to business meetings, which were often held during golf outings. This helped him learn how to conduct business during casual social interactions. “It’s a different personality and approach you need with different people you are working with,” he said. “I inherited my father’s contacts and obtained my own over the years, and those lessons stuck with me.”

While some operators were literally raised in hotels, Mark Bouzianis, owner of the Port Inn in Kennebunk, Maine, was employed to do odd jobs at hotels owned by his uncles in New Hampshire while he was growing up. He pursued business and accounting degrees in college before returning to hospitality. Eventually, when the family began to build an independent hotel and was in need of a GM, Bouzianis jumped on board. In this case, Bouzianis drew on the struggles of his family as they made a name for themselves in hospitality without having a formal education in the practice.

“My uncles were real estate guys, not hotel experts by any means,” Bouzianis said. “We were able to take that background, though, and figure out how to deliver excellent service. We built on the knowledge base they gave us and expanded on it.”

Different Vision

According to Pete Patel, the greatest challenge faced by second-generation hoteliers is the need to keep up with the evolving needs of guests. In order to keep abreast of the changing landscape, he said, employees stay involved with local communities, attend trade shows and keep up with current events—a strategy with which Satish Patel agrees.

“As second-generation owners, we bring a different vision in regards to adapting to the market,” he said. “The older generation had no internet, it was harder to make changes and they were set in how to do things. They weren’t as aggressive in trying new routes to success.”

For example, Satish Patel recently made the decision to sell one of his properties, a Comfort Suites, to buy the Hotel Petaluma in Petaluma, Calif., with plans to convert it to an Ascend hotel. The decision to go independent under Ascend gives him more creative control over what the property spends its money on. “Comfort Suites brand mandates a welcome wall with a logo, but that’s $10,000 that could be spent on amenities,” he said. “We are in the service business. We have to make sure the customer is happy or we won’t be in the business.”

The Port Inn in Maine is now a member of the Ascend Hotel Collection.

“We faced challenges in recognizing there was a need to change operations and quality levels as the market changed,” Bouzianis said. “This is contrary to family members who thought if things had worked well for 30 or 40 years, they should continue to work well. The challenge was convincing them that demands had changed and the competitive landscape had changed.”

For these operators who grew up doing the jobs of their employees, their approach to running hotels shows this experience. Satish Patel said that the biggest lesson he brings with him to operating his hotel is “there is no job beneath you,” a lesson he learned growing up and watching his father work to earn the respect of his employees.

“If you let people have the respect they deserve, sooner or later you are working side-by-side as opposed to above them, and that makes a big difference,” Patel said. “If the floor is dirty, I grab a broom and clean it. I move furniture. I take out the trash. The staff sees this, and they know I’m not there just to tell them what to do.”

Close to Home

All three of these operators say that the best part of being part of a second generation of owners and operators is the ability to build on the legacy of those who built them up.

“There is a connection we share with the generation before us, and being in the same industry,” Bouzianis said. “My uncles have passed on now, but they’d enjoy seeing what we are doing. Our property was built in the mid-1950s, they bought it in the early ’60s and would be very happy to see it’s still in the family.”

“Being in the industry in 2008-2009 was a good experience to have. We were able to see the market crash and learn how to get out of that situation,” Satish Patel said. “My father passed during that time, but before he did, he told me not to lose my love and not to be afraid of taking risks. We lost pretty much everything, but held on to our Comfort Suites. I went back as GM, and used my head to get into the business. The second generation needs to take on the responsibility of the first, and as time goes on, people will realize that.”