Hotels today are pushing local experiences, but, frankly, I don’t think local experiences cut it. Consumers are looking for genuine experiences. If you have someone visiting Chicago for the first time and they say, “I want to try deep dish pizza”, anyone can rattle off the top locations and then say, “Pick one. They’re all great.” That is local. If you say, “Hey, you should check out ABC place, located at X, it’s the best pizza you will ever have in the city!” that is genuine. That’s what guests are really looking for — curated experiences, not just blanket recommendations.
As part of my series about “exciting developments in the travel industry over the next five years”, I had the pleasure of interviewing President and COO of Helix Hospitality, Shreyas ‘JR’ Patel. Patel has overseen the restructuring and expansion of Helix’s network of hotels and has grown the company’s investment portfolio from $10 million to over $100 million in less than 10 years. Patel’s journey with Helix Hospitality began in 2009 after he graduated early from DePaul University with a dual degree in Finance and Management. He moved to Montgomery, Alabama where he worked at Helix’s first property, getting firsthand experience learning the ins and outs of hotel management. Wanting to absorb as much as possible, he helped out wherever needed, including cleaning rooms and working the front desk. As Patel advanced, his business acumen and creative thinking opened up new opportunities for Helix. In 2012, Patel managed his first acquisition, a high-risk property that he guided to success and subsequently sold at a profit. Patel returned to Chicago and the company’s main office, where under his leadership, the company has grown to over 300 employees and the investment portfolio has increased tenfold. Outside the office, Patel is committed to helping the next generation of hospitality professionals. In addition to mentoring undergraduate students, where he offers relatable, real-world advice and hands-on practical knowledge of the hospitality industry, Patel also serves as a board member for the DePaul University School of Hospitality Leadership and co-chairs the Academic Program subcommittee, further developing DePaul’s Hospitality program.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
After I graduated from DePaul University in 2009, I had the opportunity to work at a family-owned property in Montgomery, Alabama. I was determined to learn the ins and outs of hotel management, so I spent the time absorbing as much as possible, including cleaning rooms and working the front desk. A few years later, I founded Helix Hospitality to own and manage properties across the country. Under my leadership, our investment portfolio has grown from $10 million to over $100 million in less than 10 years.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
This is one I’ll never forget — I was selling the first property I took over. The night before we were supposed to close, I was sitting in my room and heard a really loud explosion. I walked outside and saw that most of the power was out. The property manager had already called the utility company and found out the 2000 amp electrical lines into the hotel had been cut, causing a brown-out. It caused a complete panic since the closing was scheduled for 9 a.m. the next morning. We scrambled to figure out how to fix everything in time. Thankfully, the utility company worked with us through the night and was able to repair the lines. The buyers walked in the next morning and had no idea.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Two stories come to mind:
-Back when I was very still green, I signed a legal document for a bank that had my name spelled incorrectly. It took me weeks to explain to the bank that both spellings were actually mine. They were very confused and couldn’t get past the idea that there weren’t two separate people. To make matters worse, they produced additional documents from the originals with the wrong spelling. Moral of the story: read — no triple-check — anything you sign!
-I went into one of the first property takeovers without planning for all the challenges we might face. My Director of Operations and I walked in 72 hours before closing (per our contract), and the existing team of 20+ people staged a walkout — taking hangers, toiletries and even artwork from the lobby! Since we hadn’t officially closed the deal, we had no authority over the situation. Looking back, it was quite comical — but — the lessons learned there are — communication is key and have your ducks in a row when prepping your team for takeover day.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We have such a variety of backgrounds and experiences within our leadership team at Helix Hospitality, from traditional backgrounds in finance and management to less traditional ones such as microbiology and nuclear physics. We take our unique experiences and apply those perspectives to the work at hand on a daily basis. The problem solving ability of a team with so many different backgrounds and experiences is tremendous. We never know who might be walking through our doors, but we are dedicated to providing a best-in-class experience to everyone. I don’t think a lot of organizations are comfortable having so many intra-disciplinary but hospitality focused individuals on a team.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? Can you share a story about that?
Build a great team and delegate. Train someone to be able to manage in your absence. Learn to trust in their abilities while understanding that a team member’s mistake is equivalent to your mistake as a leader. That is the core of it.
I have experienced burnout twice in my career. In 2015, we were on a roll; it was a big year filled with acquisition projects. I took on too much, and before I knew it, I completely shut down, I couldn’t go forward. I had run my already super-lean team into the ground. I had to step away and ask myself what I was doing and what I wanted. I pulled myself up by putting together a plan with a 5 to 10-year outlook, along with building a team that could support me through it all.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Two people come to mind…
-My dad is the ultimate entrepreneur. He taught me about grit, the industry, the art of seeing a project through, how to make a little go a long way and how to build relationships by following through on what you say you’re going to do. He built a reputation on being true to his word, something that’s hard to find.
-Years ago, I brought on a Director of Operations. I understood the industry from being in it at a young age and had a basic knowledge of deals, but I didn’t have the polish that comes with his level of experience. He became a mentor to me and opened so many doors and connected me to other people who had deep industry experience. He went as far as accompanying me to conferences to make in-person introductions. He was truly phenomenal and helped pave my path to success.
Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
I recently wrote a piece of original content that was published in Green Lodging News titled “What About Those Sustainability & Green Initiatives?”. In it, I discuss the fixed life expectancy of certain items in hotel rooms plus the volume of renovation currently underway across the industry. Based on a conversation with a friend over drinks, I put a spotlight on the idea that sleek new energy-efficient features in our rooms just don’t justify the amount of waste our industry creates. Ultimately, I posed critical questions about how we think about sustainability in a systematic way and innovate accordingly.
I’ve received so much positive feedback on the content and am working on developing this concept further. As I say in the article, “It’s up to both the developers of the future and the operators of today to push the boundaries further to prevent real estate from turning into yet another disposable commodity.”
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation?
Up until now, the concept of being efficient and conscientious within the industry has been dumped on the guest. If you love the earth and you don’t want your linens changed, put this card on the bed. If you don’t want towels replaced, hang them up. Candidly, it isn’t the responsibility of the guests to do that. In our guests’ minds, they are spending X amount of dollars to stay at our hotel; they want fresh sheets every day, beds made in the morning, fresh towels and robes. We owe them that service.
We live in a culture full of constant upgrades and ever-changing consumer demands. As an industry, we should recognize this and move toward a more sustainable model without putting the onus on the guest.
How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
Green design innovations could change how quickly our industry can responsibly adapt to ever-changing consumer demands and would allow property owners to maintain rooms at a much more practical price point. As a result, we would likely see properties across the board become nimbler at upgrading; see an uptick in how well properties are maintained at a lower cost; and, most importantly, see a substantial reduction in waste and an adoption of a more sustainable approach to construction and renovations.
Can you share 5 examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers like to travel?
1. Differentiation — With brand mergers like Marriott/Starwood, emerging concepts and even boutique hotel experiences, who knows what a particular brand means what anymore. It is difficult to figure out who represents what.
2. Genuine experiences — Hotels today are pushing local experiences, but, frankly, I don’t think local experiences cut it. Consumers are looking for genuine experiences. If you have someone visiting Chicago for the first time and they say, “I want to try deep dish pizza”, anyone can rattle off the top locations and then say, “Pick one. They’re all great.” That is local. If you say, “Hey, you should check out ABC place, located at X, it’s the best pizza you will ever have in the city!” that is genuine. That’s what guests are really looking for — curated experiences, not just blanket recommendations.
3. Technology — As consumers, we all want this and are incorporating it into our homes every day, so why not in our hotel rooms? We’re seeing the industry shift into this mindset with the installation of smart TVs, docking stations and standard WiFi, but we need to move faster.
4. Communal space — The last decade of hotel development has been all about big lobbies, bars and restaurants — spaces for guests to get out of their hotel rooms and be social. Unfortunately, there is still a need for semi-private spaces. This is where Airbnb has an advantage. If you are going on a friends’ trip for a weekend and there are seven or eight people, you are probably going to go this route just so you have a living room and kitchen where you can hang out and enjoy time with your friends.
5. Operations — Nimble revenue management. Every manager deals with supply and demand and what the rate should be depending on reactive booking. Brands across the industry realize this is a problem. We have booking windows, (basically how far in advance you start to see rooms booked). Ten years ago, the window was two months because corporate travelers knew what their schedule would be months in advance. Now, advance notice has scaled down to less than a week, often just two or three days. Also, accessibility has changed so much; you can book online or on your phone instead of relying on a travel agent or office assistant. Our industry needs to be more aware of how people are booking and how far in advance they are booking, then allow it to trickle down to the hotel companies. We would all be more profitable if we put more emphasis on how and when guests are consuming the product.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
Ocean, sand, cold beverages, umbrellas and somewhere/something to grill! This may seem like a modest fantasy, but I think anyone with a personal connection to the business would agree: if you work in the business, you don’t want to take a vacation in the business.
Can you share with our readers how have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Currently, I serve on the Hospitality Advisory Committee within DePaul University Chicago’s School of Hospitality Leadership. This industry has historically been taught on the job, offering experience-driven positions. Now, you have higher institutions of learning offer programs that teach skills in a classroom setting that used to be taught on the job. The opportunity to mentor allows me to be a part of shaping not only curriculum but future leaders of this industry.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Greater access to education. I’m not saying we should have a society full of scholars, but I do think there is so much potential across the globe that could be enriched by more access to quality education. It could change more than one person’s life; it could change the trajectory of an entire country. Education means progress.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!