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STEPPING UP: Bijal Patel, center, CEO of Coast Redwood Hospitality in Santa Cruz, California, poses in November 2019 when the California Hotel & Lodging Association announced he would serve as chair in 2020. With him are Lynn Mohrfeld, left, president and CEO of CHLA, and Chip Rogers, president and CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association. At 30 years old, Patel, was the youngest chair in CHLA history. He made more history this year when the board asked him to remain chair throughout 2021 as the lodging industry recovers from the coronavirus crisis.
When telling his story of how he entered the hospitality industry, 31-year-old Bijal Patel of Santa Cruz, California, narrates the prototypical Asian American hotelier journey.
He is a third-generation hotelier who lived on-property with his family until he left for college.
Patel lost his mother to pancreatic cancer when he was a teenager. He lives with his father and grandfather, who turned 100 years old this month. They own Coast Redwood Hospitality. Patel is CEO of the family business.
He’s also chair of the California Hotel & Lodging Association. He’s the organization’s youngest chair and he’s made even more history at CHLA by agreeing to serve an unprecedented second term as the lodging industry emerges from the coronavirus pandemic.
YOUTHFUL PERSPECTIVE: Bijal Patel, 31, is a third-generation hotelier. His grandfather, center, Purushottam Patel, turned 100 years old this month. His father, Umesh, at right, in 2009 joined Bijal in establishing Coast Redwood Hospitality in Santa Cruz, California. Bijal also is chair of the California Hotel & Lodging Association and is serving an unprecedented second term as the industry recovers from the coronavirus crisis. Episode 330 of Lodging Leaders podcast features a conversation with Bijal as he seeks solutions to the mass exodus of hospitality workers and young hoteliers from the industry.
Being so steeped in hospitality at such a young age is not new for members of the Indian American hotelier community, but Patel fears the pandemic has drained the industry of young talent from all demographics.
The labor shortage plaguing hotels trying to recover from the pandemic crisis is a “double whammy” as the industry faces a challenge to attract next-generation hotel owners, Patel said.
“We’ve basically wiped out an entire generation of hospitality workers, but we already had kind of a little bit of a succession problem getting – on the ownership side – second- and third-generation hoteliers engaged in industry.”
Long Live Lodging and its Lodging Leaders podcast met up with Patel in May during the Hunter Hotel Investment Conference. He represents a leadership demographic that is fighting for the life of the hospitality industry as they watch their peers veer toward other career paths.
Patel said living with his father and grandfather has given him a valuable perspective on the differences and commonalities among generations.
His father, Umesh Patel, moved from London, England, to the U.S. in the 1970s when he was 21 years old. He married Sandhya. Bijal is the youngest of their three children. He lived in his parents’ hotel until he went left for college. Sandhya died from pancreatic cancer when Bijal was a teenager, forcing him to grow up fast and help his father with the family business.
He and his father in 2009 established Coast Redwood Hospitality in Santa Cruz, California. Patel said the family enterprise is expanding to focus more heavily on hotel management. It’s a natural progression that clearly defines roles and processes the business has long been practicing but without any formal designations.
NAMASTE: Bijal Patel, speaks to members of the California Hotel & Lodging Association in November 2019 as he accepts the one-year term of association chair. Patel continues to serve as chair through 2021 as the association focuses on helping members through the pandemic recovery.
Patel’s grandfather, Purushottam Patel, was born in 1920 when the H1N1 or Spanish flu pandemic was easing its grip on the world. The flu strain claimed 500 million lives, about a third of the world’s population. It seems the outbreak, which came in four successive waves over two years, set the course of Purushottam’s life and his will to not just survive but thrive as a family.
Quarantining with his father and grandfather gave the youngest Patel time to talk about historical events that shaped the family’s life and its business, which marked its 44th year in 2021.
“My grandfather talked about what it was like to be around during the partition of India and then picking up and moving the Africa. He had brothers that were a part of the whole Idi Amin genocide in Uganda. “Purushottam Patel left Uganda for England. “It puts things in perspective a little bit,” said Bijal. When the family migrated to the U.S. in the 1970s, it struggled to start a business amid the Arab oil crisis, which reduced travel.
The enterprise survived several devastating earthquakes in California’s Bay Area. Several weeks after the 1989 quake, the Patels’ hotels operated without electricity and running water. And the came the terrorist attacks of 9-11, which paralyzed travel.
“It was kind of interesting to hear the generational perspective of look what we have been through, the ups and downs through that 44 years,” Bijal said.
Back to Basics
What stands out to him is his family’s and the industry’s resilience.
“We always came back. We never have shut our doors ever in 44 years. Even with no power, even with no water, the principles of hospitality stayed through. That value carries through generations.”
The coronavirus crisis is no different, he said. “I think what helped get us through or what we now see the light at the end of the tunnel is kind of just knowing that we’ve always been able to ride the wave out. That gave me a little bit of a little bit of incentive to continue to go out there and still do what we need to do to survive.”
Patel was forced to go back to basics. He cleaned hotel rooms, did the laundry, managed the front desk and performed night audits. “We stepped in where we needed to to stay open and keep going,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Labor recently reported that in April 4 million workers left their jobs. Analysts are calling it “The Great Resignation” as many people who either remained employed during the pandemic year 2020 or who returned to work amid the crisis, responded to a shift in mindset and set out in search of careers where they’re valued.
Of those who quit their jobs, 740,000 worked in restaurants and hotels.
Patel shares his experiences and those of his successors because he wants to let his peers know there is a strong tomorrow for the industry and to not abandon ship.
The pandemic recession forced hotel owners and operators to focus on the fundamentals as they were reminded just how difficult some of the line-level jobs are.
It’s also challenging franchising models and may lead to an overhaul of licensing agreements.
Patel believes these challenges mean the industry will emerge better and stronger for everyone, including employees.
He speaks from experience and a viewpoint unique to a mid-career millennial.
Patel was inducted as chair of CHLA in November 2019, two months before murmurs of the novel coronavirus were beginning to be heard along the West Coast. When it came ashore, COVID-19 attacked swiftly.
“We never expected (COVID-19) to come and then to hit California so hard. I’m exceptionally proud to be able to lead our association at such a difficult time,” he said.
PORT IN COVID STORM: The Grand Princess cruise ship docks in Oakland, California, on March 12, 2020, after members of the California Hotel & Lodging Association agreed to quarantine passengers in their hotels. The ocean liner was among many “ghost ships” from Asia that were prohibited from docking early in the coronavirus pandemic after a significant portion of guests and crew members were diagnosed with COVID-19.
Along with Lynn Mohrfeld, president and CEO of CHLA, the board and CHLA employees, Patel quickly stepped up to help members figure out how to save their businesses. The association reached out to membership twice a day and it developed a web portal that continually updated hoteliers on the ever-evolving situation in each of the state’s 58 counties. COVID-19 guidelines and regulations differed from one municipality to another and CHLA helped members stay on top of public-health mandates.
“My leadership style is to always look at the positive in any situation and not the negative,” Patel said. “And I can’t say this enough: When it came time for hospitality to stand up and really support our communities, our industry in the state of California, it really did stand up.”
He points to the Grand Princess cruise ship that in late February 2020 was traveling from Asia to U.S. when officials prohibited it from docking. It was among many leisure ocean liners dubbed “ghost ships” as the pandemic forced them to remain at sea.
“Nobody wanted to take responsibility” for the 3,500 passengers and crew members on the ship, Patel said. So a group of hotel owners banded together and accepted the people who had COVID-19 as well as those who needed to quarantine after being exposed.
The move attracted the attention of Gov. Gavin Newsom and lawmakers, who began to view the lodging industry differently, he said.
“Through that I will say we probably have the strongest relationship with our elected officials now than we’ve ever had.”
Patel’s mother, Sandhya, was the first woman chair of the Econo Lodge Franchisee Association. After his mother’s death, Patel and his father converted the property to a Quality Inn & Suites. Econo Lodge and Quality Inn are brands owned by Choice Hotels International.
Twelve years ago, the father-and-son team founded Coast Redwood Hospitality. They own and operate four branded hotels. They’re exploring plans to develop Marriott-branded assets, including a soft-branded boutique hotel.
LISTEN: Check out Episode 181 from Sept. 26, 2018, when Bijal Patel was vying for a leadership role at AAHOA.
Patel said he’s well aware of how the pandemic crisis has negatively impacted the franchiser-franchisee business relationship.
“At the end of the day, we, the owner-operators, are the ones that have our boots on the ground,” he said. “In times like these is when the franchiser-franchisee relationship really gets tested. Both sides have their value that they bring to the table.”
Some franchisers responded better than others as the coronavirus crisis unfolded in spring 2020.
“I honestly do think this is our industry’s 9-11,” he said.
That crisis “disproportionately” affected the airline business and caused it to adapt in significant ways. “If you look at the pandemic and you look at how devastating it’s been for the hospitality industry and the number of associates lost and the number of hotel closures and all those things, I think we actually do have to take this opportunity to really look at what’s working and what’s not working.”
When business was good, hotel owners and operators did not push back too hard against franchisers’ brand mandates, Patel said. But the pandemic made hoteliers question the value and financial sense of brand standards. Owners and operators wanted the freedom to innovate and come up with business solutions that made sense for their survival strategies.
“That innovation and that perspective that comes from putting your boots on the ground suddenly in a crisis, that’s kind of where a lot of the owners are now going, ‘Wait a second. We kind of do these things because the brand tells us to, but it doesn’t really make sense.’ The brands have to also give a little bit now.
“When we look at like the fact that we’ve wiped out an entire generation of labor in the hospitality industry in one year, at some point something’s going to have to change. There is going to have to be some type of vehicle or some type of mechanism to bring both sides to the table and say, ‘OK, what’s working and what’s not?’
“Being chairman of a hotel association but then having to be thrown back into operations in a pandemic, I can tell you we are as back to basics as we’ve ever been.”
Patel proposes the hotel companies, developers and owners take a more holistic view of the hospitality industry. Rather than require hotels to offer food and beverage, partner with restaurants in the area to create a “business halo” and support one another.
“When hotel guest comes, we don’t need to be providing complimentary breakfast in a manager’s reception and all these things. Let’s push them out into our communities and let’s help our communities return.”