Jagruti Panwala takes reins as AAHOA's first chairwoman

There are mystery women and history women and Jagruti Panwala is most definitely in the latter category.

This April, as the Asian American Hotel Owners Association celebrates its 30th anniversary during its annual convention in San Diego, Panwala will ascend to the position of chairwoman, the first female to lead the organization since its founding in 1989.

But it's no mystery how she got there. Panwala already made history within AAHOA In 2016 when she became the association's  first female officer, and was named vice-chair two years later—again, the first woman to hold the position.

Breaking Ground, Taking Risks

Pushing at barriers is nothing new to Panwala, who comes from a family of business owners and was determined to run her own business from an early age. “It's something that my dad always told me,” she recalled. “Owning your own business, having your own independence—it’s always better, even though you're taking more risk. But I think the reward is much higher.” 

After studying finance and economics at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania (selecting her majors to improve her chances as a businesswoman), she became aware of an opportunity for an innovative and determined entrepreneur. While working for a financial services company selling insurance and investment products, a client complained that he wasn’t making a profit at his small independent hotel. Where he saw a money pit, Panwala saw an opportunity. She was already aware of the business side of hospitality thanks to an uncle who owned some properties, but she hadn’t considered hotels as the start to her life as an independent business owner. She borrowed money from her family to put a down payment on the property (using a lease-to-purchase option so the bank was not involved), and just like that, she was a hotel owner.

Hands-On Education

“It was a 44-unit, independent property, run down, the rooms were not working,” she recalled of that first asset, an independent Economy Inn in Allentown, Pa. While the bones and location both were good, the hotel needed a renovation and a dedicated team to make it profitable. Working together, Panwala, her parents and brother oversaw the front desk, housekeeping and maintenance for the property, even living there to save money. “I didn't have liquidity to hire a salesperson or a manager,” she said. "We really had to just cut out all the expenses and do everything ourselves.”

With her family’s support, Panwala was able to make the hotel profitable and she quickly picked up on the best practices for both owning and operating hotels. In hindsight, she is grateful for the hands-on experience. “If I had money and if we purchased a property, I probably wouldn't understand the hotel business as well as I do now because I pretty much had to do everything right,” she said. “We still have that property 22 years later, believe it or not, and it's profiting from when we started until right now.” 

Today, that hotel flies Choice Hotel’s Rodeway flag. Panwala also owns a Ramada Inn in Allentown, Pa., as well as a Holiday Inn in Warrington, Pa., and a Best Western Plus in the Bronx, N.Y., which opened this past September. Her next property will be a Home2 Suites by Hilton in New Brunswick, N.J. Through different partnerships, all of the properties are officially owned by different limited liability companies; Panwala’s team oversees the management of all of them. 

A Woman’s Place is on the Board of Directors

In addition to owning and operating hotels, Panwala also runs an asset-management firm and volunteers her time at AAHOA. While she doesn’t remember when she became a member of the association, she remembers her first convention, which she attended in 2001 for networking opportunities. After a decade, several members encouraged her to run for female director at large—and suddenly, she was a member of a much bigger team. “My position was to increase women's participation, to host town-hall meetings and conferences, to bring more awareness and bring more diversity—not just on a membership side, but also on the board level and then also on the leadership.” Attending more events as a director, she noticed that most of the attendees were men. “I asked myself, 'Why is there not equal parts, equal participation, and why is there not enough diversity in the association?'” 

Talking with members, Panwala realized that many women were uncomfortable because AAHOA did not have any specific agenda for women hoteliers at that time. “So we started creating a lot of educational platforms that help women personally and professionally,” she said. “We started doing small meetings throughout the country … [we] started having more open conversations with women hoteliers to say, ‘What can we do better? What are we lacking? Why is there no participation? What is it that women need to be successful in this business?’” As Panwala and the AAHOA team gathered information, they started to change the educational platforms to be more inclusive and to focus on women’s needs. “That's when we really started to see the difference.” Participation is up significantly, and the most popular sessions at AAHOA’s annual convention focus on women in hospitality, Panwala said. 

When she ran to become an officer of the association in 2016, she didn’t run as a woman, Panwala said. “I ran for that position because I knew I was the right candidate. In AAHOA, our elections are very unique: We are elected as an officer by other members.” Panwala ran against two “really good friends” of hers—male friends—and won. “I won my election because I was the right candidate,” she said.  

Of course, Panwala acknowledged, there’s still plenty of work still to do. “We have more women on the board level as ambassadors [and] as committee members than ever before, but even now as an officer, I'm the only woman who's ever made that position,” she said. “I'm hoping that's not news anymore in the next five years or 10 years, that we have multiple women in top leadership. That's what I’d like to see.”

Eyes on the Horizon

Panwala also wants to see improved educational opportunities for all AAHOA members, and over the past few years has promoted training in everything from how to recognize human trafficking to how to grow a portfolio. She also has taken an active role in advocating for the industry’s interests, and addressed the House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Subcommittee in 2014 to argue against joint employer status for large hotel companies.  “It was probably one of my most memorable moments in AAHOA because I didn't just do that just for me,” Panwala said of the experience. “I did it for a lot of business owners.”

At the same time, she added, she also keeps an eye on the brands, and takes steps to make sure the business relationship between the parent company and the hotelier is reciprocal. “Some of the brands come up with some ideas and that might not be the best idea for franchisees,” she said. By keeping an “open dialogue” with the big companies, Panwala is working to maintain a “collaborative approach” as new business models take shape and the ratio of branded and independent assets in hoteliers’ portfolios shifts.

In the eight years since she has been part of AAHOA’s leadership, Panwala has seen significant gains for women in hospitality. “Forty percent of AAHOA’s membership is women hoteliers,” she said. “That number can be better. We should have 50-50.”

More women are joining the board this year, and many hospitality companies are improving diversity in a range of ways, but Panwala still sees inherent challenges facing women in leadership roles. “When you get into the higher leadership position, it just requires so much time away from your family, and that is always a hurdle,” she said. “But do I think there's an opportunity being created? Absolutely. Can we do more? Absolutely. But we need to continue the dialogue, conversation, hosting more events, making sure more women are coming onto the main stage on all industry events, and I think this is really the one way we'll keep working at it.”