Q&A with Shreyas “JR” Patel Helix Hospitality

Shreyas “JR” Patel, president/COO of Helix Hospitality, founded the company in 2009, right after graduating college. He recently spoke with Hotel Business about how hospitality is in his DNA and his company’s success.

Why did you pursue hospitality? Hospitality has always been a part of my family’s culture. My early understanding of professional hospitality comes not only from the example my family set, but also from childhood trips to places like Disney World. I’ve always been drawn to those magical experiences—the romanticized version of what hospitality is.

And, although my dad worked in the printing business for most of his career, in 1993-94, he bought a hotel that had about 100 rooms in Montgomery, AL, as an investment with a partner who acted as the operating manager.

A couple of months into running the property, my dad’s partner called him and announced, “I’m leaving the keys under a plant in the lobby. It’s too much to operate and I’m done.” My dad spent a little over a decade working at the hotel, going back and forth to oversee management, also buying more hotels.

Throughout college, I helped out at my family’s second property in Montgomery. I was determined to learn the ins and outs of hotel management, so I spent that time absorbing as much as possible, doing everything from cleaning rooms to working the front desk.

Every day presented new challenges to solve, which appealed to my curious but meticulous nature. I came to an agreement with my dad that if I could figure out how to make the Alabama property profitable, he would allow me to sell it and would invest the proceeds in another project of mine. I ended up selling it and purchasing two replacement properties. I also returned to Chicago, where I continued to grow Helix’s employee headcount (currently at 350-plus) and portfolio.

Helix Hospitality definitely had humble beginnings, but we were filled with hope and committed to hard work. And, under my leadership, our investment portfolio has grown from $10 million to more than $100 million in just over five years.

How did the experience of working at and managing your first properties affect the way you run your company? The work was all hands-on, which was an invaluable, real-life way to learn the industry in a short amount of time. It was kind of like boot camp. I was in the field learning everything on the job. I didn’t have any formal training or direct oversight. I was the leadership. It was a great way to learn both the hard and soft skills, such as helping resolve guest issues and even how to repair furniture and equipment with little to no budget. The experience gave me insight into what you need to have in place to build an organization. You need dedication, you need training resources, you need solid leadership and you need a structure, whether you’re operating one or 100 properties.

Do you have a central value system with which you operate? Absolutely. There is this sanskrit saying, “Atithi Devo Bhava,” which means the guest is the equivalent of God. That ties back to the culture of hospitality I grew up with. That same sense of hospitality extends to taking care of our stakeholders, team members and suppliers. When you take care of your people, they’ll take better care of the guests. To succeed and create a positive work culture, you need everyone to be invested and engaged in their work.

Also, it’s essential to take good care of our properties. In the hospitality business, we often talk about intangibles, such as the memories our guests make during their stay. But at the end of the day, we’re still in the lodging industry. Our properties are the products that people are consuming, so we have to properly maintain those assets.

As a company, we’re also deeply committed to being involved in the communities where we operate and the surrounding areas.

In the last few months, Helix has added three new properties and moved into a new office. To what do you attribute your success? Surrounding myself with great people, a great network and great team members are all vital.

In terms of our business plan, I attribute our growth to key areas like acquisition and construction/renovation. At its core, our strategy is simple: Find opportunity, determine how Helix can add value and execute. Innovation is crucial in an industry like hospitality, which is prone to volatility, so we stay a step ahead with careful planning that’s out of the box and progressive. We also lean heavily on the support of brand partners who play essential roles in our growth. This industry is best navigated through by being inclusive and having a sense of community, and we always open our arms to others in the business.

One of the key things I’ve learned in my leadership role at Helix is the importance of building and maintaining close networks. Hospitality by nature is a human industry. Creating and fostering relationships with others who work and value this world is crucial. It sets us up for success and really helps when the economy starts to get shaky. It’s important to always offer a hand to industry colleagues. You never know when you’ll need support in return, especially in such a niche industry like ours.

What do you view as some of the major issues facing the hospitality industry now and going forward? When it comes to sustainability, the hospitality industry is already evolving toward “green” innovations. In particular, Helix Hospitality is working toward integrating modular concepts into hotel rooms. This includes things like headboards with replaceable upholstery panels; artwork where we can easily replace the image without having to scrap the frame and glass; and modular LED lighting that can be easily moved or updated. This type of responsible design will allow us to respond to changing consumer demands in a cost-friendly way, while also seeing a huge reduction in waste. In the big picture, sustainable design will help keep real estate from turning into yet another disposable commodity.

In general, I think the key to addressing all of the current challenges the industry faces—including labor shortages—is to look ahead at developing the next generation of hospitality leaders and managers. It involves learning how to teach the next generation to control costs and operate efficiently in challenging economic and cultural times, along with preparing them to navigate the industry for the unknown. HB