Bharat Patel discusses his plans for AAHOA’s future

Bharat Patel, chairman/CEO, Gulf Coast Hospitality, has joined the ranks of AAHOA’s leadership team with his newly elected post, 2020 secretary. A second-generation hotelier, Patel has been active in AAHOA since 2008, holding positions as ambassador, as Florida regional director, and serving as a member of several committees. Patel has also helped guide a variety of hotel industry groups, notably as vice chairman of the Advisory Council for the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation; as a board member for the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association (FRLA); and as a leader for the Sarasota County Tourism Development Council. Here, he speaks with Hotel Business about his plans for AAHOA’s future.

What does being part of AAHOA and its leadership team mean to you? I value my new responsibilities as an AAHOA officer so I can help make an impact and make a difference for our industry and for my fellow hotel owners. That may sound like a cliché, but my comment is very sincere, very passionate.

I’m a second-generation hotelier who learned our business through “hands on” experience at properties owned by my parents, and who has owned and operated hotels for almost 30 years. Serving people is in my DNA. 

I have worked on behalf of many hotel issues at the local, state, and national levels—locally in Sarasota about crime, safety and neighborhood issues; at the state level about tax and zoning issues, including with the FRLA; and nationally in various AAHOA leadership positions since 2008. 

The hotel business is not just my job, it’s my calling. Now I have an expanded platform to move our industry past the status quo. It’s a responsibility that is both exciting and humbling—and it’s why I intend to aggressively tackle problems and find meaningful solutions that will improve the bottom line for owners.

What will be your main objectives? A big focus for me will be the little guy—namely, the small hotel owners who operate four or fewer branded properties or who operate independent properties. These people will have the hardest time as our industry goes through COVID recovery, especially in getting financial relief from brands and OTAs, and in gaining access to adequate sources of capital. I am not minimizing the problems of larger operators, but the reality is that as you own more properties, you have more clout with brands and with lenders—and that means you have more options.

I have never owned more than four properties at a time, so I am a “little guy”—I want to make sure these folks, who make up the majority of our industry, aren’t left behind, especially in these unprecedented, unpredictable times.

Your campaign significantly touted heavy reform, challenging the status quo and a commitment to owner interests. What do you see as the biggest challenges AAHOA members are facing today? The biggest challenge for the next 18 to 24 months is “staying alive”—to quote the popular Bee Gees song from 1977. Hotel owners are struggling and urgently need financial relief to survive—such as rollbacks in fees from brands; reductions in commissions from OTAs; loan reworking from lenders; and programs of financing and tax credits from government, including possible debt forgiveness.

AAHOA’s biggest strength is our numbers—our 20,000 members own 50% of hotels in the country. We must use this power responsibly but proactively to remind our business partners—like brands, OTAs and banks—that a partnership means sharing in the bad times, as well as in the good times.

It’s important to note that while COVID has changed the marketplace for all owners, these changes come with a silver lining for certain hotels. Consider exterior-corridor hotels that had become less popular among some travelers in recent years, but now these properties are an especially desirable and “safe” option for many people.

Also, among my immediate priorities is to make sure that AAHOA serves our members properly and promptly. If a member calls, there should be no long waits for the help they need. No transfers to multiple staff people. Let’s leverage technology so when members reach out online, they should find answers in five clicks or less.

AAHOA must have the systems and the staff that provide owners with the latest in high tech together with the most customized high-touch member care—at the speed of business. 

Where do you hope AAHOA will be when you take on the role of chairman? Right now, hotel owners are working harder and smarter than ever, but making less profit than ever. We simply aren’t earning enough return on our investment of time, energy and money. Every decision I make as an AAHOA officer will focus on how I can change that—how I can make member properties more profitable.

One example is the franchise model—it needs to be redefined, reimagined, reinvented. Owners need less headaches and more profits, instead of what we have now, which is more headaches and less profits.

Another example is AAHOA itself. We were founded in 1987 by hotel owners to be an association for hotel owners. Now it’s time to return to these roots—to being a member-driven group that is not under the influence of non-members.

I have plenty of ideas to offer and my ideas are ambitious, but I certainly don’t have all the answers for the myriad challenges facing hospitality in the post-COVID period. That’s why I will always be asking for advice from members and from industry colleagues—so together we improve our decision-making, rebuild revenues and re-energize our industry. HB