EDGE Chattanooga hotel company's grasp of online ratings helps it succeed

EDGE Chattanooga hotel company's grasp of online ratings helps it succeed

August 1st, 2016 by Dave Flessner in EDGE

Vision Hospitality owner Mitch Patel is photographed at their offices in Chattanooga.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Gallery: Award-winning hospitality

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Company at a glance

Name: Vision Hospitality

Headquarters: Chattanooga

Established: 1997

CEO: Mitch Patel

Existing portfolio: 30 hotels, including eight in Chattanooga

Under development: 17 properties, including The Edwin near the Walnut Street Bridge

Staff size: 1,000, could reach 2,000 in the next few years

Goal: “Our vision is to be the best, most respected hotel company in America.”

Awards

* Marriott International Spirit to Serve, 2015

* Marriott International Developer of the Year, 2015

* Marriott International Best Custom Design, 2015

* Outstanding Achievement Award for the Hampton Brand, 2013

* Outstanding Achievement Award by Hilton Worldwide, 2010

* Better Business Bureau Torch Award for Marketplace Ethics, 2012

When Mitch Patel recently traveled to a small town outside of Oklahoma City with his family, he booked a hotel that his 15-year-old daughter immediately checked out and discovered was rated by TripAdvisor.com as the second best hotel in town.

"I thought I had done alright, until she told me there are only two hotels in that town," the Chattanooga businessman recalls with a laugh.

Patel, who has built one of the nation's fastest growing hotel chains over the past two decades, is keenly aware of the importance of online ratings and reviews, especially for young people. In the social media age, ratings by such services as Yelp and TripAdvisor can determine whether a hotel or attraction succeeds or not. While some in the hospitality industry bemoan the level of attention such sites generate and the attempts to either promote or hurt rival businesses, Patel accepts the online reviews as an essential part of doing business today.

"This business is more transparent than ever, and the online platforms are more important than ever," Patel says.

Patel, who founded his Vision Hospitality in 1997 with a single Chattanooga hotel, has grown his business to include 30 properties and is now building or developing plans for 17 more hotels. The key to that success, Patel says, has been the company's focus on its customers and employees. Social media has amplified the importance of having satisfied customers and workers, he says.

In the past, when a customer was either dissatisfied or elated by the service provided by a business, he or she might tell a dozen or so of their friends. With social media posts, such comments can now reach hundreds or even thousands of potential customers.

"We have always offered a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee and tried to teach and empower our staff to meet the needs of our customers. And when we make a mistake, or there is a misunderstanding, we don't get defensive. We immediately see what we can do to fix the problem," Patel says.

That approach has helped Vision Hospitality operate a majority of the Top 10 rated hotels on TripAdvisor in Chattanooga. Last year, guest satisfaction ratings and other customer service measurements helped the Chattanooga-based hotel chain win the top "Developer of the Year" and "Spirit to Serve" awards from Marriott International, which operates 4,500 properties in 87 countries around the world.

Vision Hospitality is a franchisee for both the Marriot and Hilton hotel chains. The company is preparing to nearly double its existing 1,000-employee staff in the next few years with new hotels throughout the country, including a 90-room boutique hotel being built near the Walnut Street Bridge in downtown Chattanooga known as The Edwin.

Patel, who started Vision Hospitality in 1997 by developing and managing a Homewood Suites by Hilton hotel near Hamilton Place Mall, literally grew up in the hotel business. At age 8, Patel moved with his family into an 11-room hotel in Stockton, California, 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 buy and run an 80-room Scottish Inn he found was available across the country in Cleveland, Tennessee. As a youth, Mitch helped out by cleaning rooms, doing laundry and taking out the trash.

It was enough to convince the younger Patel to shun the hospitality industry and pursue a degree in engineering. But after earning a degree in civil engineering from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and working with an Atlanta engineering contractor for the Georgia Department of Transportation, Patel soon recognized his road building job wasn't fulfilling his dreams.

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 in Chattanooga. He seized the chance and began to build what is now one of the country's fastest growing, family-owned hotel chains. Patel says having passion and a positive attitude are keys to success in the hospitality business, and he looks to hire workers at all levels of the company with the right attitude. "You've got to hire attitude — that's one thing we can't teach," he says.

Vision Hospitality has developed both online and in-person training programs from its Learning Center at its Chattanooga corporate offices to help company associates learn and grow in their jobs — and in their lives. Megan Brown, who worked for Marriott International for 12 years before joining Vision Hospitality in 2013, serves as the company's director of culture and talent development.

"We're adding more and more classes and not just about job skills," she says. "We want to be able to offer our associates training in other skills of life such as wellness and financial planning."

The company starts new employees with an orientation program to teach them about the values and principles of Vision Hospitality. Four years ago, top managers narrowed their initial list of more than 50 goals for the company to seven core values: dedication, integrity, respect, excellence, community, teamwork, spirit (which forms the acronym DIRECTS).

"We try to live by the Golden Rule of treating others like you want to be treated," Patel says. "We also try to offer every associate the chance to be part of something bigger than themselves so we encourage lots of community service activities at each of our properties."

Vision Hospitality three years ago launched a sabbatical program to allow managers and top corporate staff members the option of taking off 30 continuous days every five years. The offer is above and beyond the company's vacation policy, Patel said.

"We want to give people a little taste of what retirement is like in five-year increments," Patel said. "When people retire, they often say the best years of their retirement are the first 30 to 60 days. Well, why not let people have those 30 days while they are still working for us."

Patel says he knows of no other hospitality company offering such sabbaticals, but he is convinced it is worthwhile in helping long-time employees to stay and in giving opportunities for younger workers to move up in the organization. The result has been to not only build great loyalty among Vision Hospitality managers, cutting down on costly turnover, but it also helps other assistant managers and employees to get a chance to try out their hand in management.

"We've discovered some great talented persons who can fill in the ranks," Patel says. "That's been very rewarding and has helped us develop talent for the new hotels we are preparing to open. We like to promote people from within."

Patel is convinced that promoting a strong work environment for his associates will also improve the customer's experience — and ultimately his business success. The results of guest and employee surveys prove his thesis, he says.

"The hotels that have the highest employee satisfaction also have the highest guest satisfaction " Patel says. "A happy, loyal, engaged associate is going to take care of the customer. We hope to continue to invest even more in our employees in the future."