Mitch Patel on finding your passion and giving something back
FINDING HIS PASSION
I ask Mitch if it has been a straight path for him to where he is today in the hospitality industry, or if there’d been any detours along the way. As soon as I pose the question I mentally move on to the next one, since I’d read that he grew up in a hotel family.
But Mitch jumps right in.
“Absolutely,” he says. “It’s the last thing I wanted to do. I had no idea I was going to get into hospitality. I grew up in the family business [an 11-room hotel in Stockton, California], helping clean rooms, doing laundry, taking out the trash, even checking people into rooms. Then we moved across the country and bought a larger hotel [an 80 room Scottish Inn in Cleveland, Tennessee].”
Forsaking his roots, he completed his Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Tennessee.
“I got a job in Atlanta as an engineer,” he says, “doing traffic studies and transportation plans. That’s what I studied and what I thought I’d do the rest of my life. But I didn’t love it. Sitting in my cubicle designing two- and four-lane roads, there was no creativity. I couldn’t wait til lunch time, til five o’clock to go home. If you don’t love something,” he explains, “it’s very difficult to become a success.”
But oftentimes, a guaranteed paycheck can numb the disappointment of doing work you do not love. And risking a sure thing for something uncertain can be a frightening prospect. In 1997, Mitch had an opportunity to develop and manage his first hotel, the Homewood Suites by Hilton Chattanooga/ Hamilton Place, and formed Vision Hospitality Group, Inc. “I took a chance,” he says. “I didn’t know if I was going to love it, but I knew if I didn’t jump on this opportunity I’d be stuck in a cubicle, designing roads and bridges— maybe for the rest of my life.”
It wasn’t easy. “I didn’t have any money,” he says, unapologetically. “I cashed in my 401(k), I had $3,000 after working three years as an engineer. I borrowed every single penny I could from friends and family, then convinced a local lender to fund the rest of the project.”
Mitch has been hands-on since the very beginning. “I literally built the hotel myself as the general contractor,” he says. “Then I took off my hard hat and put on a tie, as the opening general manager, even though I never managed anyone before.”
It took him 18 months to become the number one hotel in the market. But, he says, “something else happened: I found my passion.” That passion, and the confidence that came with it, led him to do another hotel. Now Chattanooga-based Vision Hospitality Group (VHG) is one of fastest growing hotel companies in country.
Since the company’s inception from that one hotel, VHG is still family-owned and operated, with a growing portfolio of 32 premium
branded properties and an extensive pipeline of premium select and full-service hotels affiliated with the Hilton, Marriott, and InterContinental brands. The company has over 1,000 employees, or associates. “It’s been a wonderful journey,” he says, “and we’ve got a wonderful team.” It’s been exactly 20 years since Mitch opened his first hotel. “I can’t wait to see what we are capable of,” he says excitedly, “in the next ten, 15, or 20 years.”
I tell Mitch that when I’ve met some of his associates, such as at the Hunter Hotel Conference in Atlanta in March, they can hardly contain their enthusiasm for their CEO. He thinks for a moment. “Passion is contagious,” he says. “When a leader is passionate, it is uplifting. It becomes a great environment. I want dreamers, I want doers, because it all starts with an idea, a dream, and we have done that over and over.”
That is the truth. With 32 hotels in VHG’s portfolio, and 18 more under construction or in a design planning stage, there’s been a lot of dreaming―and doing―going on. I ask Mitch what he’s most excited about in the pipeline.
“There’s a lot of great hotels in our pipeline,” he says, “urban hotels developing with a F&B component.” He mentions projects in downtown Atlanta and Cherry Creek, Colorado. “But what I’m most excited about an independent boutique hotel in my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee.” All of VHG’s properties are brand hotels, but there are three boutique hotels in the pipeline. “With a brand,” Mitch explains, “you get a box, you open it up, and everything is in there for you to execute the plan. Even down to the do not-disturb signs.”
He continues, “With an independent boutique hotel, I get a box, and open it, and nothing is in there. Every little detail you have to think of, and create. For someone like me, who loves the creative aspect of this business, it’s perfect for me.”
And even with the brand hotels, VHG is known to tweak the formula a little, adding local art or a rooftop bar for a singular experience.
“Today’s guest,” Mitch says, “is looking for that more than ever. Soft brands have opened the door for people like us.”
The Chattanooga boutique hotel, The Edwin, is scheduled to open this fall. “When you’re doing an independent boutique hotel,” Mitch says, “you’re writing a story, and a great story should have twists and turns. There should be an emotional connection.”
When he travels, he likes to immerse himself into a neighborhood or community and feel like a local. With his hotels, he says, “We get to create those opportunities for people. Whether it’s an historic building, or a piece of dirt where we’re building something new, the area can have an incredible story, and we’re bringing it to life.” It’s a chance for guests to have an authentic experience when they might not otherwise have the opportunity to explore those neighborhoods.
And of course, it is a business, but, he says, “There is a higher purpose now. I don’t just want to build hotels and it’s a commodity and all about a return on investment. I want more meaning to what I do, there’s a great opportunity to create hotels that people love.”
I ask him about The Edwin Hotel. Its beautiful rendering caught my attention the first time I visited VHG’s website. “We probably bought the best location,” he says. “It may be the best site in a 100-mile radius, adjacent to our historic, most iconic element in Chattanooga: the Walnut Street bridge. It’s the longest pedestrian bridge in the country, an old railroad bridge. When we have festivals there are tons of people walking across the bridge to our eclectic arts district.”
The bridge connects two parts of the city. The hotel is named, appropriately, for the bridge’s chief engineer Edwin Thatcher, who designed it in 1880. “It is a metaphor,” Mitch says. “When you tear down those walls around you, you connect to food, people, art, and culture. Everything [with the Edwin] is about connections, from the do-not-disturb sign to the menu to the beekeeper and baker and artisans. The whole idea,” he says, “is to attract people to our community through the hotel that we’re developing and create a very unique experience.”
He speaks from personal experience. When he travels, Mitch says more than once, his decisions aren’t necessarily made on destination, but rather on hotels that happen to be in a destination.
A lot of businesspeople give back to their communities, but Mitch’s passion project is something most people don’t discuss. He is deeply involved in raising awareness of human trafficking, a horror which many people may not know is deeply connected to the hospitality community. He’s even gone so far as to train all of his associates in this matter.
“Our company has always been community driven,” he says. “It’s a core pillar of our company, and at last year’s Marriott conference we were one of two companies that received their Spirit to Serve award.”
In fact, as a direct result of the company’s dedication to excellence, VHG has been recipient of many awards, as well as industry media recognition in the fields of development, community service, design, and achievement. Most recently, Vision received the Marriott International Developer of the Year Award, the Marriott International Spirit to Serve Award, the Developer of the Year Award for the Hampton Brand by Hilton Worldwide, and the Multi-Brand Developer of the Year Award by Hilton Worldwide.
But human trafficking awareness is his passion. “We take a lot of pride,” Mitch says of the recognition. “Every associate wants to be part of something bigger, and we’ve always had that in our DNA as a company.”
He’s right. It’s a human drive to give something back to humanity. But too often, unless you’re a high profile CEO, you may not have the time or material resources to do something for your community. In fact, Mitch not only encourages his associates to give back to causes such as human trafficking awareness, and to local needs in each hotel’s community through direct involvement, he equips them to do so through education and more. For example, to celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary, he and the executive team decided to “donate” 2,000 Vision hours companywide so associates can volunteer to support a local cause. Giving back and making a positive impact in their communities is a very important piece of VHG.
I ask Mitch how he got involved in fighting human trafficking. “Four or five years ago,” he says, “strong women leaders in the city approached me.” They explained the situation to him. Yes, there is a problem in Chattanooga, but it’s far-reaching and spans the entire country.
“The thought is that this happens in third world countries,” he says, “but it’s also happening right here in the U.S. and in smaller cities. I’m not one to bring spotlight of negativity to any particular community,” he is quick to say, “but it opened my eyes.” Mitch is the father of two daughters, who were 12 and seven at the time. He drops his voice. “The statistics blew me away,” he says seriously. “I was in shock, then angry, then upset. I thought this is something―being in the business we’re in and with the network that we have―this is something we could help with. We took the lead and wanted to educate ourselves more. First we educated people about the problem―the hotel business is not the problem, horrible people create the supply and demand―but the hotel industry has been a vehicle for horrible people. If they’re using our industry and our hotels, then we’re going to stop that.”
Mitch educated himself first, then created a plan. He has implemented a training platform for every one of his associates, teaching them what to look out for and signs or trafficking and abuse.
“Other communities and hotel companies heard about it,” he says, “then AHLA (American Hotel & Lodging Association) and AAHOA (Asian American Hotel Owners Association) started reaching out. Grassroots does work,” he says, “and it is not a coincidence that Senator Bob Corker is now spearheading this globally.”
“Isn’t it amazing,” he muses, “four or five years ago, we heard nothing, and now many publications are featuring [stories on human trafficking awareness in the industry.]”
SECRETS OF SUCCESS
I ask Mitch if he has any advice he would give aspiring hoteliers.
“First of all, you’ve got to have a passion for what you do,” he says. “Make sure there is a passion for hospitality, make sure this is something you’re going to love. Don’t do it because someone told you that you should― you have to find out for yourself.”
He explains further by saying that people have different strengths and weaknesses, but too often we work on our weaknesses rather than working on our strengths. He’s fond of saying a squirrel belongs in a tree and a fish belongs in the sea. A fish has no business trying to successfully scamper through the branches.
But Mitch has found his place and his strength. “You can clearly know I’m the squirrel in the tree,” he says. “Not everyone is that. You don’t have to be smartest, but you have to love what you do.”
Secondly, he says, “If you’re a business person who wants to grow your company, you have to be bold and think bigger.” He quotes Michelangelo, saying, “Your greatest danger is you aim too low and you reach it. This is a service business, people business,” he says. “Culture will absolutely define a company’s destiny at the end of a day, but character will define individual destiny. Treating people with respect and kindness and living your life that way is so critical. People want to be around that type of person.”
The hospitality business appeals to Mitch because, he says, “There’s so much heart. People love each other and love genuinely taking care of the guests.” It is the hospitality industry, after all.
VHG pipeline includes
- Tru By Hilton McDonough, GA - Summer 2017
- Moxy Denver/Cherry Creek - Fall 2017
- The Edwin Hotel Chattanooga/Downtown - Fall 2017
- Courtyard by Marriott North Brunswick, NJ - Fall 2017
- Hampton Inn Chattanooga/East Ridge - Spring 2018
- SpringHill Suites by Marriott Atlanta - Spring 2018
- Tru by Hilton Chattanooga/Downtown - Summer 2018
- Hampton Inn & Suites Atlanta/Decatur - Summer 2018
- Home2 Suites by Hilton Hamilton Place - Summer 2018
- Hilton Garden Inn Memphis/Downtown - Summer 2018
- Home2 Suites Atlanta NW/Kennesaw - Summer 2018
- Boutique Hotel Louisville/Downtown - Summer 2018
- Boutique Hotel Cincinnati/Downtown - Fall 2018
By Ashley Atkins