The editorial staff of Hotel Business has selected six rising stars in the hotel industry and interviewed them about their career starts, current responsibilities and plans for the future. From top positions at hotel brands to heading up management companies to creating tech startups, these individuals, with their entrepreneurial spirits and take-charge skills, have already made an impact at their respective companies and, we believe, are poised to fulfill even greater leadership positions within the hospitality industry. Perhaps, today’s Hotel Business Up & Comers will be tomorrow’s Ten to Watch. Do you know someone who is a professional on the rise? Send me a note at [email protected]
It’s been more than a year since Lisa Checchio was appointed VP of brand marketing at Wyndham Hotel Group. She’s part of the team tasked with unlocking the authentic stories of each of the brands in order to tell them in fresh, new ways, as well as defining guest brand experiences and marketing programs. In September, a Hotel Business cover story outlined the company’s new brand positioning, which will include redesigns and guest-facing initiatives. Checchio credits being able to accomplish as much as the Wyndham team did to the strong support they received from various players across the organization.
“It has been an exciting year and it’s a transformational time for our brand. As a brander and marketer, I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity when I came in,” said Checchio. “I always say ‘Brands are built from the ground up,’ and in order to build brands, it takes the efforts of brand ambassadors—everyone who touches the brand—including our partners in digital commerce, operations, finance, field teams and the owners. In our world, the brands are what connect us to our guests, owners and all of our internal teams to find that success.”
Prior to joining Wyndham, Checchio served in numerous marketing positions at JetBlue Airways for 11 years and in account management at Sports+Plus. With past roles centered on the guest experience, she has been building brands where guests are the center and the experience is built around them. “It has prepared me for the role I have now,” she said.
“You think about what the guest is going through when they are interacting with your brand and that’s what you’re doing for any brand,” Checchio said. “We are building on these small touchpoints that are the foundation for an amazing stay. While they may seem small, when you think about it, there is a very large impact.”
Unlike many hoteliers, Justin Jabara has somewhat of an idea of what his immediate future will hold if all goes according to plan: the top spot at family-owned Meyer Jabara Hotels.
“From my first day, it was made clear that if I were to be in the hotel business, I’d need to know every aspect of it because I’d have big shoes to fill,” said Jabara, who’s currently VP of development and acquisitions at the 40-year-old hospitality group. “I started at the age of 16, working room service as a summer job.”
Over the years, Jabara, a third-generation hotelier, has worked nearly every position at the company, including guest services, sales, nightclub manager, F&B manager, construction, risk management and general manager. He has moved all over the East Coast for business matters.
Growing up in the industry, he observed the way his grandfather and father conducted business, in addition to gaining strategic insight from many other bosses throughout his career.
“This has given me the opportunity to take and leave what leadership traits I liked from each one and to build my style from that,” he said. “I believe that, much like them, I manage like a large extended family. It is not uncommon to go to an associate’s birthday party or the funeral of a family member. Everyone has my cell phone number, and I am highly visible and accessible.”
In the upcoming months, Meyer Jabara Hotels will attempt to grow its portfolio to the high 20s and expand its locations westward. “As a company, we look to grow our portfolio year-by-year by adding density on the East Coast and West Coast, and then bridging the two,” he said.” Our portfolio is on track to double and triple in the coming years.”
A third-generation hotelier, Founder/CEO of Qube Hotel Group, Himesh M. Jeram is happy to recount the pioneering efforts in hospitality of his grandfather, Jerambhai Patel, who came to America from England, as well as those of his father, Mahesh Patel. The family business, JHN Hospitality, got its start 38 years ago in Atlanta, then expanded to South Florida.
When it was time for college, Jeram headed to Sutton Coldfield College north of London and studied business/finance. After graduation, his father and grandfather offered him the opportunity to run the motel business—but he had no interest.
So, his father made him a deal: Do what you want for a year then come back and give the family business a shot. Jeram agreed, and after 14 months working in real estate and communications, returned to “give it a shot.” Only he used a bazooka. He wanted to take the business to the next level: a franchise brand.
“My first franchise was in 2006 and that was a Comfort Inn in the most random place: Erick, Oklahoma,” said Jeram. But that area was having an oil boom, and the hotel’s sellers, who wanted to retire, could not keep up with the demand. Jeram decided he could. The hotel became his stepping stone to more properties in the Sooner State and the Texas Panhandle.
“We stuck to economy, branded franchises: Motel 6, Red Roof Inn, Comfort Inn; then we started getting into Holiday Inn Express and Hilton brands,” he said.
In 2009, Jeram again wanted to raise the bar, to acquire a Marriott franchise. He decided to “take a shot” and create his own development and management company and established Qube Hotel Group.
Qube is now in rapid-fire mode. On Nov. 7, it opened the $10.5 million, 95-room Gen Four TownePlace Suites by Marriott McAllen in Edinburg, TX. “And,” said the CEO, “We have a 95-room Fairfield Inn & Suites breaking ground in February in Harlingen, TX, and we have a site secured in the Austin, TX, area.”
Taking a shot is making Jeram quite the marksman.
—Stefani C. O’Connor
It’s all about relationships. At once, the statement is a fact and a piece of advice. Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair and purveyor of fine dining and trendy restaurants, believes in the “seven rooms theory,” where each interconnected room is more exclusive than the next. Sevenrooms cofounders Allison Page, Joel Montaniel and Kinesh Patel bought into this notion—and it’s even inspired the name of their company.
“We weren’t trying to get at the exclusivity piece, but that it’s because of your relationships, it decides where you belong,” said Page. “It’s a good tie into how it’s all about people and our relationships with customers. You have to know who are your room-one and room-seven customers. Graydon Carter hasn’t tried to steal us, yet.”
Page is a Wharton School graduate who studied finance and real estate, and went the investment track after college. “It was my first experience in the hotel space. I spent a lot of time and due diligence underwriting mortgages for large hotel portfolios,” she said. “It was my favorite asset class to work on when I was in real estate. It’s funny that I’ve come back around to it and, this time, I’m doing it because I’m passionate about it.”
Sevenrooms is a CRM platform that serves the hospitality industry to track guests and their preferences. The goal is to eliminate the pain points for the operator. Page and the team came around to this the hard way. A previous venture, an online booking platform for easier access to restaurants and nightclubs, failed because it simply wasn’t meeting a need in the marketplace. The second time around, with lessons learned, they spent a lot of time with operators and working inside the venues and alongside the teams.
“What we found was, time and again, the big pain point was in understanding their guests, who they were and how to build that relationship with the customer,” she said. “They needed a tool to make service easier and help drive data-focused decisions about operations and the guest. We set out to build a back-end for hospitality operations and, today, we operate in 100 cities.”
To say Pooja Patel grew up in the business is an understatement. She (as well as her siblings) began helping out around her father’s hotels when she was quite young. “It began when I was five years old. My father had us picking up trash in the parking lot of our family hotel and cleaning the rooms alongside the housekeepers. By high school, we were introduced to more of the corporate aspect of the hotel.”
Only 21 years old, you could say Patel is still growing up in the industry. A student at San Diego State University who will graduate in May, she continues to work with her father at Hotel Investment Group, where as project coordinator, she oversees all design, procurement and project management of boutique conversions and remodels. Patel also is president of her own business, Veda Management Group, a hospitality management company. Additionally, she is the AHLA student chapter president for her school.
Of the many roles Patel juggles today, design is one of her passions. She cited the project she worked on a few years ago, Hotel Acqua Mar in San Diego, as the catalyst for that passion. “My father bought a motel and wanted to convert it to a boutique hotel,” she recalled. “He was having issues with the architects and designers. He tasked me with designing the hotel. That was my start. I was 18.” Patel successfully completed the redesign of the hotel and has since gone on to convert and remodel two other boutique hotels in the past three years. Her current project is Solis Place, an office building in Old Town San Diego that is being converted into a 21-unit, extended-stay hotel, set to open at the end of this year.
Patel is planning to attend graduate school and, eventually, hopes to become the director of acquisitions and development at Hotel Investment Group.
Considering what she has accomplished so far, Patel has had many opportunities to inspire, help and mentor other young professionals in the industry. As for her own mentors, she noted Carl Winston, the Dean of the hospitality school at San Diego State, has helped her tremendously in her career, along with her father. “Without a doubt, my father has been my role model for as long as I can remember,” she said. “I am who I am today because of him.”
Alexander Shashou, president and cofounder of Alice, grew up in hospitality. “My father helped build up the Malmaison and Hotel Du Vin boutique hotel brands in the U.K. and I had the fortune of being able to intern in the hotels growing up,” he said. “I believe hospitality is a personality trait, and those who share it invariably end up in our industry in one way or another. My favorite question to ask the people I meet is how they came to be in our industry. Almost all ‘fell’ into it—yet no one ever leaves.”
Four years ago, Shashou teamed up with cofounders Justin Effron and Dmitry Koltunov for Alice, a hospitality tech company that enables hotel staff members to better communicate with each other and with guests. “The idea for Alice started like most entrepreneurial endeavors—out of personal frustration. Justin and I traveled around Asia after college, and when we returned, Justin wanted to solve the check-in frustrations we felt on the trip. At its core, we were trying to improve the guest experience. Check-in was just the tool that first came to mind,” he said.
The cofounders’ decision to improve the guest experience through technology has come at an inflection point for the hospitality industry. “Timing is everything and the hospitality technology sector is set to be the most disruptive opportunity within the travel technology ecosystem over the next few years. I say this confidently because we are already seeing this transformation,” he said. “When we started out four years ago, the question we were often asked was ‘Why?’ This has now been replaced by ‘When?’ and ‘How?’ This excites us tremendously. We are seeing other great young tech companies innovating alongside us.”
Looking to the future, Shashou said, “I would love to operate my own hotel brand someday. However, that is many years out and for the near and far future, I hope to be able to continue this growth trajectory with Alice. We have a team of incredible minds coming from diverse backgrounds, all excited to evolve hospitality through technology. Everyone here is so curious, so driven and so humble; it has been inspiring.
“I cannot imagine better preparation for a hotelier than helping architect the guest service and staff operations revolution that is in front of us, as we are doing at Alice,” he said.