March 27–Over the past two decades, Mitch Patel has built one of the nation's fastest growing family-owned hotel chains with 30 hotels already open across the country and another 16 hotel properties either under construction or under design.
The Chattanooga hotel developer– and more recently apartment builder as well — has combined his engineering training with a development zeal and hotel management roots to grow his Vision Hospitality Group into what Marriott recognized last year as its "Developer of the Year" among more than 700 of its hotel operators around the globe.
Quite an honor for someone who previously had no interest in getting in the hotel business like his father did after coming to America a generation ago.
Following his father's footsteps
Mitch Patel literally grew up in the hotel business.
At the age of 8, Patel moved with his family into an 11-room hotel in Stockton, Calif., while Patel's father, Ish, worked as a research scientist at a local pickle factory. The family ran the motel for three years before Patel's father decided to try buy and run a bigger motel he found was available across the country in Cleveland, Tenn.
"So our family moved in the middle of my fifth grade year from one of the most liberal places in the country to the buckle of the Bible Belt," the younger Patel recalled.
Patel's father was used to following his dream. He came to America in the late 1960s with only $8 and a dream of getting an advanced degree in microbiology at the University of California-Davis. When he moved to Cleveland in 1980, Ish Patel took over an 80-room Scottish Inn, which Mitch helped out by cleaning rooms, doing laundry and taking out the trash as needed.
It was enough to convince the younger Patel to want to get out of the hospitality industry and pursue a degree in engineering.
Finding his passion
At the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Patel studied civil engineering, and after graduating he took a job in Atlanta as a project traffic engineer with an Atlanta engineering contractor for the Georgia Department of Transportation in Atlanta. It was good and comfortable job, but Patel soon recognized it wasn't fulfilling her dreams.
"I wasn't passionate about what I was doing and my best friend became my watch waiting for the workday to end," he said.
Patel, who swore as a youth he would avoid the hotel business, got an opportunity with his uncle in 1996 to develop and manage a Homewood Suites by Hilton hotel near Hamilton Place Mall. He seized the chance.
"I didn't have any experience building or managing a hotel other than what I had done in my youth," Patel recalled. "But I knew I didn't want to be in that cubicle designing four-lane highways in Atlanta fighting traffic that I was supposed to fix."
With less than $5,000 in his pocket saved from the three years he worked as a traffic engineer, Patel borrowed most of what he needed and used his engineering skills to help build his first hotel in 1997. When it opened, Patel took off his construction hard hat, put on a tie and started managing the hotel.
Within 18 months, the hotel had become one of the top hotels in Chattanooga and Patel knew he had found his passion, exactly where he never expected he would.
"When you love what you do and you have a passion for what you do, you are going to work harder and do more to overcome obstacles to find success," he said.
Growing in hard times
After three years of managing the Homewood Suites by Hilton, Patel saw other opportunities and added a couple more hotels in his portfolio, including the Hilton Gardens Inn he built next to the Children's Discovery Museum downtown and opened on Oct. 11, 2001 — just a month after the 9/11 attacks.
"It was a very difficult time to be in the hotel business and we were an under capitalized business that didn't have tons of experience," Patel said. "If that hotel were anywhere else, I don't know if this company would be around."
By 2006 with a half dozen hotels under his belt, Patel acquired the former Sheraton (later Clarion) hotel on Chestnut Street for $7 million and Patel thought he could renovate the hotel for another $7 million. But the cost proved to be far higher.
"We thought it was a pretty good price, but we didn't realize all that was required to bring it back to where we needed it to be," he said. "We didn't have a lot of experience and ended up spending a lot more than what we expected."
To renovate the former Sheraton Hotel into the Double Tree hotel on Chestnut Street, Patel spent $28 million on the property — twice what he first projected. The hotel opened in October 2008, just a month after the collapse of Lehman Brothers that helped pushed the U.S. economy into its worst economic downturn since World War II.
"I really believe if that hotel had been anywhere else but where it was, our company would have been challenged," Patel said.
Although Chattanooga didn't enjoy the business boom of some markets like Atlanta, it also didn't suffer as much of a bust when markets soured in the Great Recession.
Chattanooga's tourism appeal as a relatively low-cost, family-oriented city in a growing business and convention town also helped to double tourism spending since the turn of the century.
Patel and other hotel developers in the Chattanooga area have collectively added, on average, more than 200 additional hotel rooms every year since the past decade and a half.
"Chattanooga enjoys a central location for many people to easily drive to our town and we're an affordable city for those booking conventions, meetings or family reunions," said Ed Dolliver, vice president of sales and marketing for the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Staying focused on the customer
In downtown Chattanooga, Patel's costly venture redeveloping the former Sheraton Hotel into the Double Tree gained the new hotel one of the chain's top ratings in guest satisfaction scores shortly after the property reopened in 2008. The favorable ratings came at the same time that social media feedback began to take hold and become important or many consumers choosing among hotels in a market.
"I really believe if you do a great job of taking care of your guests, you are going to perform better than ever," Patel said. "In the past, it used to be that one bad experience for a guest would be told to 10 others. Now, those with bad experiences are telling thousands on Yelp, TripAdvisor and other media platforms."
Social media has helped Vision Hospitality properties, Patel said. The Vision Hospitality founder is passionate about customer service. Combined with what he says have been good locations and properties — and his engineering discipline for construction — Patel managed to remain profitable and grow even through the Great Recession when many in the industry struggled.
"We were opportunistic when others were fearful," he said. "No one is immune to these downturns, but we have been disciplined and fortunate and we've never had a hotel that lost money."
During that growth phase, the hotel chain won top development awards from both Hilton and Marriott, the two hotel chains Patel has affiliated with for nearly all his properties over the past two decades.
A bridge builder in Chattanooga
The only exception to Patel's reliance upon the Marriott and Hilton brands is his newest venture in Chattanooga — the Edwin Hotel near the Walnut Street Bridge.
"Of all the projects we are doing, I am most excited about the Edwin,' he said. "I think we have this wonderful opportunity to tell the Chattanooga story through this hotel."
Patel likes to cite one of his favorite quotes from Isaac Newton: "We build too many walls and not enough bridges."
That quote will be displayed in the Edwin Hotel, along with 75 works of art being commissioned for the new 90-room boutique hotel. The Edwin, which is named after Edwin Thatcher who led the development of the Walnut Street Bridge in 1891, will include a rooftop bar, a restaurant and other luxury amenities.
"More than ever, travelers are looking for unique, memorable experiences," Patel said. "Everything about The Edwin, from its location and name, to its art and food, will celebrate Chattanooga."
The hotel is only a few blocks from the 30,000-square-foot corporate headquarters that Vision Hospitality opened downtown in April 2014. The headquarters includes a training room where more than 200 classes have already been conducted for hotel managers and employees exchange ideas and are taught better ways of customer service.
Last year, Patel also ventured beyond the hotel business for the first time, again in his hometown of Chattanooga. To capitalize on the growing demand for downtown rental property, Patel is building a five-story, 84-unit apartment building on the North Shore near Renaissance Park.
Patel said he will always be based in Chattanooga, but new properties are being added from Denver to Wilmington, N.C. and from Houston to Orlando, Fla.
"I think we'll get to about 50 hotels by the end of this decade and truly be a national company," he said.
For all of his nationwide growth, Patel said he works to stay committed to each community where he operates, which helped the company achieve Marriott's Spirit to Serve award last year.
Each hotel has a committee that is formed to see how they can help the local community and last year Vision Hospitality helped in aiding 75 nonprofit groups, predominantly in Chattanooga, Nashville and Atlanta.
"Community has been a core pillar of our company and of our culture," Patel said. "When my father came to this country and ultimately settled with our family in Cleveland, we didn't have much. I don't think anybody handed things out to us, nor did we ask, but we can relate and appreciate to people who have less."
"The golden rule to treat others like you want to be treated is the foundation of this company," Patel said. "I think everyone can relate to it."
Contact Dave Flessner at [email protected] or at 757-6340.