Sunny Patel spent much of his youth toiling at his parent’s motels, working everything from laundry to the front desk. So, it was no surprise to his parents when he headed off to college with his eyes on law school.
But unlike many of his contemporaries who chose careers in technology, medicine, or law, Patel came back to his roots and chose to stay part of the family business.
“I reached this fork in my path—do I want to spend the next 10 years becoming a recognized attorney, building up a practice, or do I want to spend those 10 years growing our family business?” he said. “I weighed a lot of things, including the fact that I’m my parent’s only son. But the fact is that I’ve always enjoyed the industry and hospitality was always ingrained in me. Guest satisfaction is something I love.”
Patel’s parents arrived in the U.S. in 1989 and started their new lives running what he called “mom and pop” motels, where they lived onsite and did everything themselves. So, he saw the entire operation for himself, and became a “jack of all trades” through osmosis. “Operationally I’ve done every position, and that’s how you get to understand housekeeping needs, maintenance needs, it kind of came naturally.”
When he rejoined the family business, though, he took a different approach. Patel created a management company to hold the growing portfolio of properties—and growing number of franchise banners, including Best Western, Microtel, Days Inn, La Quinta, and Quality Inn.
Today, as Chief Executive Officer at Aelius Management Group in Lodi, Patel along with his father (his mother is retired) manages a growing portfolio of seven small properties from Galt and Dinuba to Tracy and Vacaville, with three more in the pipeline.
Running the management company gives Patel a chance to use an eclectic range of skills, from business acumen to interior design.
“I’m hands on, and over the last seven or eight years working with my dad we’ve been acquiring, rehabbing, and building properties,” he said. “I love seeing the creation of a product coming to life, whether that’s repositioning a property, taking a dilapidated asset and bringing it back to life, which is very satisfying, or building from scratch.”
Patel loves what he does, but also understands why many of his former classmates have headed into careers other than hospitality: money and time.
“A lot of first-generation kids saw how hard their parents had to work and how time consuming it was. In the tech industry, they can look forward to a four-day work week, hybrid work models, and high-paying jobs,” he said. “With those tech jobs, you might get more of a chance to spend time with your family. Managing a hotel, though, is still a 24-hour job.”
For Patel, the choice was not only determined by his love for hospitality, but also his own and his family’s expectations.
“In our culture, parents want kids to get educated, get their degree, but they still want you to be able to run the family business at some point,” he said. “That is where the kids sometimes struggle. With my parents, it was not necessarily that they expected me to do that, but I also saw that they were getting older, and I just felt it was time for me to help them and manage the assets.”
As a “digital native” who grew up with technology, he also adds another lens through which the family business can view guest expectations.
“A lot of first-generation parents will struggle with things like mobile check-ins,” he said. “So, if these properties are still managed by the parents, they will struggle with the next generation of hotel advancements.” Not only that, he said, but since guests have a smart phone with video in hand, they are the property’s best marketers.
“A lot of consumers don’t consider price these days, they consider the experience. So, if you can create something cool, memorable, they can help you market your own product though things like TikTok,” he said. “The properties that are still thriving are the ones who understand that.”
Creating a new experience is what Patel hopes to do with the family’s newest property, the Sense Suites in Livermore, where he will position the Springtown Inn into a boutique property, which will fall under Choice Hotels, An Ascend Collection after the renovation.
“I knew we would have to reposition that property entirely regardless of which direction we chose,” he said. “And I saw a big opportunity to enter the upscale market in Livermore wine country.”
Patel said he hopes that more of his contemporaries will consider careers as hospitality executives and take advantage of programs from organizations like CHLA and AHLA to learn the business and put their generation’s stamp on the industry.
“My parents are like so many others: they wanted me to be more successful than they were, and I think I’m doing that,” he said. “I’ve been able to put my value into the business, and I think other next-generation hoteliers can find their vision, find their passion in this industry, and be able to do the same for their properties.”