By DAVE FLESSNER, Chattanooga Times Free Press
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — 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. 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.”
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. It was a comfortable job, but Patel soon recognized it wasn’t fulfilling his dreams.
So, in 1997, Patel gave up his career and got an opportunity with his uncle to develop and manage a Homewood Suites by Hilton hotel near Hamilton Place mall.
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, he 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.
There have been 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, 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.
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