LISTEN IN CEO Mitch Patel, an engineer by degree, becomes a hospitality bridge builder …
LISTEN IN CEO Mitch Patel, an engineer by degree, becomes a hospitality bridge builder …
The library at The Edwin, Vision Hospitality Group’s luxury boutique hotel that opened September 2018 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The mural is an oil painting by Mia Bergeron, a local artist. The work was photographed and enlarged to fit the wall.
Every prospective hire at Vision Hospitality Group receives a little blue book that tells the company’s story. Measuring seven inches wide by five and a half inches tall, the book can be confidently balanced in the palm of a hand. The title is “True Blue.” Indeed, the cover’s dark blue is Pantone 301. The sunburst-shaped logo is bright blue, Pantone 298. Its 84 pages feature employee testimonials, Vision Hospitality’s culture statement, a list of its values and CEO Mitch Patel’s axioms about how to impress guests. It also has a lot of photographs. Mostly of people. One of those photos is of a young Ishwar “Ish” Patel and his family, wife Pannaben and pint-sized sons Mitul “Mitch” and Anand. The picture accompanies a short history of the genesis of Vision Hospitality Group.
In many ways, the larger story of Mitch Patel and Vision Hospitality Group is prototypical. It’s an oft-repeated tale of a family from India making good in the U.S. hotel industry. The first chapter usually tells about a patriarch making the move to America. The chapters that follow detail the persistent struggle to survive, to stake a claim in business and to grow the enterprise, eventually passing its success on to the children. The daughters and sons who cut their teeth – literally and figuratively – in their parent’s first roadside property often take the family business to the next level – building and buying branded hotels across the U.S. and generating high levels of wealth in the Indian American community, one of the most affluent ethnic groups in the nation, according to Pew Research.
For the most part, Mitch’s coming-of-age tale has followed a predictable path. In recent years, however, he has carved a new avenue in hotel design and development, starting with opening Vision Hospitality’s first independent boutique hotel, The Edwin, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The 90-room high-end property opened in September. It is a one-of-a-kind experience for Chattanooga, and Mitch said it is just the beginning for his beloved hometown as well as Vision Hospitality’s latest venture – a new division called Humanist Hospitality, which will develop and manage Vision Hospitality’s branded lifestyle, soft-branded boutique and independent hotels.
Before we dig into the metamorphosis of Mitch and his company, let’s lay some ground work by sharing how Vision Hospitality came to be. After all, as Mitch is quoted in the little blue book, “I believe if we are to understand our future together then it’s important to understand our past and our humble beginnings.”
“I like to start always with my father coming to this great country with $8 in his pocket and a dream. A dream simply for a better life for his family,” said Mitch, during an interview at The Edwin. “He went onto college here, got a job as a research scientist in Stockton, California. We were in this modest two-bedroom townhouse and he decides to lease an 11-room motel. So we move into the apartment behind the motel office. I remember helping my family clean rooms, taking out laundry and checking in guests as an 8-year-old kid.”
When Mitch was 10, Ish moved the family to Cleveland, Tennessee, where he bought a hotel. A fifth-grade student, Mitch continued to help with the family business. He matured, prepared to head to college and away from the hotel. “The last thing I want to do is pursue this business as a career.”
Mitch got an engineering degree and joined a company in Atlanta where he helped design roads. “I wasn’t very happy,” he said. “And I began to doubt myself. Do I have what it takes to be successful in anything?”
An uncle was building a hotel in Chattanooga and asked Mitch to take over the project. “I literally built that hotel as a general contractor, even though I never built a shed before.” Once the hotel opened, Mitch switched to managing the property. “I took off the hard hat and put on a tie to become general manager. I never managed anyone under me. It was daunting, but it was exciting. After 18 months, it wasn’t easy, but we found success. But most importantly, I found my passion where I never expected to, and the rest is history.”
WATCH: Mitch tells how the family business started in a company-provided video.
The hotel opened in 1997. Vision Hospitality Group was formed that same year. Today the company has 34 hotels with 17 in its pipeline. It involves his father, brother and a host of passive investors or partners. It employs more than 1,300.
Over the past 20 years, Vision Hospitality grew to be a developer and franchisee of premium branded hotels. In recent years, however, Mitch has begun to rewrite the playbook for his company to take advantage of new and emerging trends in hospitality.
Vision Hospitality is evolving, and so is Mitch.
Vision Hospitality’s newly opened boutique hotel, The Edwin, in downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee, epitomizes the developer’s shift from a sole focus on cookie-cutter branded assets toward a plan to create one-of-a-kind properties – unique accommodations that cater to both out-of-town visitors and local residents through an emphasis on provincial culture, history, cuisine and art.
Mitch says the idea to build his first independent hotel came about a few years ago when he was considering what to do with a one-acre tract Vision Hospitality acquired next to Chattanooga’s Bluff View Arts District. A vacant one-story brick office building occupied the site. Mitch earmarked it for a branded limited-service hotel – again, a prototypical plan.
Much to the amiable hotelier’s surprise his hometown neighbors pushed back. Although city leaders and district residents did not appreciate the eyesore that stood on the corner, they liked even less the idea of another branded hotel taking its place. They feared even more unbridled commercialization of their neighborhood.
Mitch went back to the drawing board. He thought in earnest about the best and highest use of the site. In the process, he underwent a change in mindset, a refocusing. He saw the land as not a development site but a rare opportunity to design and build something new for Vision Hospitality and for his hometown.
“When I travel, I am always looking for independent, unique hotels that have a sense of place, where you feel like you have experienced the city or local community. We do it through food. We do it through art. We do it through the hotels we stay at. Chattanooga did not have anything like that. This was a fantastic location where The Edwin is today.”
The hotel’s design gives a huge nod to the adjacent Walnut Street Bridge, the steel truss structure designed by Edwin Thatcher in the 1890s. The former highway bridge spans the Tennessee River, connecting Chattanooga’s north and south sides. Restored and reopened in 1993, it is the longest pedestrian bridge in the country. “It is our Eiffel Tower,” Mitch said. “It is very much celebrated.”
Mitch took his revised hotel-development plan to the city, which agreed to rezone the lot from residential to commercial.
The Edwin opened in September. It’s an upper upscale hotel with 90 rooms, a full-service restaurant, a coffee shop and a rooftop bar. The top floor also has meeting and ballroom space as well as a library.
WATCH: GM Greg Bradley shares what’s unique about The Edwin.
Although developing the hotel was overwhelming task, it stoked Mitch’s imagination as to what could be. As big of a step as developing The Edwin was for Vision Hospitality, Mitch took an even bigger leap when it formed Humanist Hospitality and its proprietary brand Kinley.
The Edwin is Humanist Hospitality’s first independent boutique hotel. The division’s portfolio also includes the Moxy by Marriott in Denver, the first new-build Moxy in the U.S. Humanist has three more independent boutique hotels in the pipeline and several more branded lifestyle hotels. Also under the Humanist umbrella are about eight restaurants and bars in the pipeline, all connected to its hotels.
“We thought that if we want to be successful, we need to start thinking a little bit differently because boutique and lifestyle are different from mainstream select- and full-service branded hotels,” Mitch said.
Mitch’s change in mindset positioned Vision Hospitality to not only take advantage of emerging trends in independent and boutique hotel development, but to carve a new path in the sector. The Edwin’s price point is high end. But Mitch wants to build hotels that cater to a broader traveler demographic. This is where Kinley comes in.
“The number-one question I get when I am on a panel about boutique or lifestyle hotels, a young person says, ‘This sounds great but I can’t afford it. I don’t have the wallet for it.’
“It’s amazing – young people will pay $15 to $20 for a martini,” but they can’t pony up $300 to $400 a night for a hotel, he observed.
“I think there’s a disconnect between what we are trying to design and that audience and their wallets.
“With Kinley, there is a huge opportunity to introduce a fantastic boutique hotel in many markets where they are under-represented. We felt like there is a missing component and an opportunity to create a hotel that absolutely has a sense of place, an independent spirit that gives you a taste of the localness through art and design and the B&F.
“We want a truly local and authentic experience. More and more people are looking for that. And we want to be able to provide that, but – and here’s the catch – at not a much greater rate than a Hampton Inn.”
Turns out, Mitch is on the right track, says Kim Bardoul, co-author of The Highland Group’s annual Boutique Hotel Report. There’s a void of affordable boutique product, she said. And developers like Mitch are acting to fill it. Creating a collection of products like Kinley is a wise move. There is plenty of room for mid-priced hotels. Of all independent boutique hotels in the U.S., Bardoul said, only 8 percent fall in the moderate-price segment.
Vision Hospitality’s first Kinley will open in Cincinnati. It bought a 110-year-old building in its downtown and started renovation in the fall. This winter, Vision will start on a new-build Kinley in Chattanooga’s south side.
Kinley’s focus is tertiary and secondary markets. No matter where they land, Kinley will bring new dining and bar concepts to their neighborhoods.
In Cincinnati, the three-meal-a-day restaurant is being developed in a partnership with Celeb Chef Ed Lee. In Chattanooga, the Kinley will have a lobby bar with small plates and an F&B outlet.
Indicating a new understanding of food and beverage trends, Mitch flips the acronym from F&B to B&F. Spending in hotel bars and restaurants increased by 5 percent in 2017, reported the BevSpot. Today’s boutique- and lifestyle-hotel developers are more focused than ever on the bar and restaurant scene, allotting as much space for F&B outlets as they do for rooms. Creativity and mindfulness reign as well.
Each restaurant and bar in a Kinley will depend on the local market, more specifically what is missing there.
“Just like a hotel. You don’t just build a hotel randomly. If there are 20 there, you have to find an angle,” Mitch said. “With The Edwin we wanted to do something unique, something that was missing in the market, that the community would embrace. It’s the same approach you have to take with the restaurant or bar concept in the hotel.”
Giving concrete shape to the new mindset for Vision Hospitality is Ashley Ewing Parrott. A former employee of Marriott International and now head of Humanist Hospitality. The division includes branded lifestyle hotels such as Marriott’s Moxy Hotel that Vision opened last year in Denver. It also manages The Edwin. Under development are the two Kinleys in Cincinnati and Chattanooga as well as a luxury boutique hotel called The Grady in Louisville, Kentucky.