Patel's vision: Chattanooga-based hotelier plans a half-billion dollars in new investments

Patel grows culture of hospitality for 25 years

Over the past 25 years, Mitch Patel has built one of the nation's fastest-growing, family-owned hotel chains with more than 40 hotels open across the country, including 18 properties in Hamilton and Bradley counties.

As the travel industry rebounds from the pandemic, Patel is preparing within the next three years to open another 15 hotels, most of them larger than those in the current portfolio of Patel's Vision Hospitality Group.

"To take this company from its humble roots right here in Chattanooga to nearly $1 billion in valuation and market cap has been a tremendous pride for us," Patel says. "But we're just getting started. We have about a half-billion dollars of investment that will be taking place, probably within the next three years, including about $200 million of new development in the Chattanooga area."

While Patel has built many $10 million to $15 million Hampton Inns and Holiday Inn & Suites locations in the past two decades, most of the new hotels will be larger, in prime locations and more costly, he said, with several valued at more than $50 million each.

It's a dramatic turnaround from two years ago when Vision Hospitality and other hotel chains temporarily lost most of their business as the Covid-19 pandemic struck and forced the layoff of more than 3.1 million hospitality workers across the United States, including about 1,000 of the 1,500 workers in the Vision Hospitality Group. During the pandemic, Vision Hospitality also sold six of its hotels for about $200 million in the biggest property sale ever for the company.

But the hotel business is quickly bouncing back, and in markets like Chattanooga it is already exceeding pre-pandemic volumes with higher hotel rates as travelers are eager to vacation again and business travelers and conventions are coming back following two years of lockdowns and travel restrictions. Patel said Vision Hospitality had its best fourth quarter in the history of the company in 2020 and expects to do even better this year.

"Even though we have a lot of new hotels in our pipeline, I really believe that demand is going to outpace supply in our industry for the next five to seven years," Patel says. "That gives me a lot of confidence that this is a very sustainable business and that you should never bet against the American spirit."

Pursuing the American dream

That spirit helped lead Patel's father, Ish, to come to the United States more than four decades ago when he began pursuing an advanced degree in microbiology at the University of California-Davis. Ish Patel moved his family into an 11-room hotel in Stockton, California, while working 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 a bigger motel, an 80-room Scottish Inn that was available across the country in Cleveland, Tennessee.

As a youth, Mitch Patel helped out at the Cleveland motel 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.

At the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Mitch 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. It was a comfortable job, but Patel soon recognized it wasn't fulfilling his dreams.

So, in 1997 at age 27, Patel gave up his career as a highway engineer building bridges to begin building hotels. Patel, who swore as a youth he would avoid the hotel business, got an opportunity with his uncle to develop and manage a Homewood Suites by Hilton hotel near Hamilton Place mall. He seized the opportunity.

With $3,000 he had 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. When it opened, Patel took off his construction hard hat, put on a tie and started managing the property.

"One small hotel, but one very big dream," Patel told nearly 300 friends, co-workers, industry leaders and others gathered this spring for a 25th-anniversary celebration of the company at the Hunter Museum of Art. "It's been an incredible journey."

Vision Hospitality Group

* Founded: 1997* Founder and CEO: Mitch Patel* Headquarters: Chattanooga* Properties: 41 hotels open in eight states, including seven hotels opened last year* Asset value: Over $1 billion in total real estate valuation* Staff: More than 1,400 employees, including over 300 in the Chattanooga area* Corporate motto: One team, one vision

Overcoming obstacles

That journey has included plenty of economic and market challenges. Although his first hotel was successful, a second hotel near the Nashville airport opened during an economic slump with lots of competition, and didn't fare as well. The third hotel Patel opened was the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Chattanooga, an $8 million venture that opened on Oct. 11, 2001 - just a month after the attacks of 9/11 in 2001 that discouraged many Americans from flying.

"I was very nervous about opening our biggest hotel and our first downtown hotel in a tough time, but we ultimately succeeded and I learned that even during the scariest times, people still want to travel and make experiences," Patel says. "While they may been reluctant to fly, they did want to travel so they drove to markets like Chattanooga which has always been one of our strongest [locations] during difficult markets."

Patel said he believes his company now has the financial foundation, staff expertise and the right brands for success, and he credits Chattanooga for much of that success.

"Even though our industry just went through an unprecedented crisis, I've learned that you can never bet against the American spirit," Patel said during his company's 25th anniversary celebration. "There's an African proverb that says smooth seas have never made a skilled sailor. We're stronger, smarter, more efficient, more resilient than ever."

Patel calls Vision Hospitality "the best brick house in the industry" with less debt, stronger brands, a loyal staff and the best markets to survive whatever economic storms in the hospitality industry.

Building company culture

For all of his nationwide growth, Patel said he works to stay committed to each community where he operates, which has helped the company achieve a variety of awards, including the Better Business Bureau's Torch Award, the Marriott's Spirit to Serve award and the Greater Chattanooga Hospitality Association Community Service honor. Each hotel has a committee that is formed to see how they can help the local community, and through the years Vision Hospitality has aided more than 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 people who have less."

Area hotels

* Aloft Hotel at Hamilton Place Mall* The Edwin Hotel downtown* Fairfield by Marriott in Lookout Valley* Fairfield by Mariott in Cleveland* Kinley Hotel on Market Street in the southside of downtown* DoubleTree by Hilton in downtown* Hampton Inn & Suites in downtown* Hampton Inn & Suites at Hamilton Place* Hampton Inn in Lookout Valley* Hampton Inn in Cleveland* Hampton Inn in Kimball* Hampton Inn in East Ridge* Hilton Garden Inn at Hamilton Place* Home2 Suites by Hilton near Hamilton Place* Holiday Inn Express & Suites in downtown* Tru By Hilton on Shallowford Road* Holiday Inn Express & Suites downtown* 10/North Apartments on the North ShoreSource: Vision Hospitality Hotels

Andrew Hibbard, senior vice president of finance and investments at Vision Hospitality, said the company's core values and foundation on the Golden Rule set Vision Hospitality apart from many hotel operators in the industry. Hibbard said he has benefited from that culture personally by the company's willingness to give him time and support during family deaths and he has seen how the business has benefited over time in developing long-term relationships with investors and other partners.

"We do a lot of joint ventures with different partners and by focusing on the Golden Rule and service leadership, we have developed great relationships now because we put them first," Hibbard said. "Treating other people like you want to be treated is powerful, not only in personal life but in business."

Hibbard said Vision enjoys strong interest from the family, friends and other investors who fund the hotels that Vision Hospitality continues to develop and operate. Those new properties should help swell Vision Hospitality's staff by more than 40% within the next few years, Patel said.

"We are very active on the development front," he says.

As a development company, Vision Hospitality has only bought one hotel - the former Clarion Hotel that Vision converted to the DoubleTree Hotel on Chestnut Street. Within 18 months, that hotel had become one of the top hotels in Chattanooga and Patel knew he had found his passion.

"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 says.