Navin Shah is an entrepreneur at heart. Born in Ahmedabad, India, he was educated there as a civil engineer before emigrating to Chicago in 1971. He earned an M.S. in civil engineering from Purdue University in 1978, and then accepted a job with the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA).
Even as a full-time government employee Shah found time for a side project, building shopping centers as a way to generate some extra income for his family. After four years he left MARTA. “I went into the retail business,” he says, “and I figured out that I’d like to be a landlord. I decided to buy the shopping center that I was a tenant in.”
Holiday Inn & Suites in Covington
The Holiday Inn & Suites in Covington, Georgia, has 110 guestrooms. Image courtesy: Royal Hotel Investments.
In 1990, Atlanta was chosen to host the 1996 Summer Olympics, and Shah saw a new opportunity. He bought his first hotel, an independent property with 122 rooms, in 1995. He went on to buy his first branded hotel, a Hampton Inn, in 2002 and followed that with a second Hampton Inn in 2009. His company, Royal Hotel Investments, still owns and operates both properties, along with a new Hampton Inn Express & Suites he built in 2017. Shah has plans to build “at least one more” hotel in the Metro Atlanta area. “I don’t want to go beyond limited service,” he says. “It’s more oriented toward a family approach for the guest and the employee. We love that relationship, the people connection is so important.”
We are not exchanging goods; we are making memories.
Shah still likes the retail side of things, but “that business requires less effort,” he says, “and obviously, less effort will give you a lower rate of return. The rate of return on hotel investments is higher than the rate of return for shopping centers.” Still, he finds the shopping center business is relatively steady with the right location. “In shopping centers you take care of your tenants,” he says, “and in hotels, you take care of your guests. I’m a people person and enjoy dealing with the public.”
Treating guests like family and making them feel comfortable are of utmost importance to Shah. He is deeply aware of the stress that people can experience in unfamiliar surroundings. “Whether it’s a three-star hotel or five-star hotel, in downtown or a suburb, it does not matter,” he says. “Human beings have anxiety with new environments.” And since a peaceful night’s sleep is what a hotel should deliver, anxiety will never make for a good bedfellow. “All the other things fall into place once you make your guests feel comfortable,” Shah says. “Then they think, I can count on this hotel to get me coffee or call me a cab.”
Hampton Inn in Covington
The Hampton Inn in Covington, Georgia, has 105 guestrooms. Image courtesy: Royal Hotel Investments.
The hospitality industry is about experiences more than products. “We are not exchanging goods,” Shah says, “we are making memories. If I do something special, get a guest whatever they need, I am creating a memory. You won’t remember what you paid me; you will remember that it was raining and I got you an umbrella. A lot of people make the hotel business complicated, but I don’t know why. We are all in the business to create memories for our guests.”
It’s one thing for the boss to have this attitude, but how does it translate with the staff? “I tell all the new hires—experiencedor not—that the hotel business requires ability,” Shah says, “but more so it requires the desire to serve. If you don’t have that, you don’t fit into the hotel business.”
And the business is 24/7. “Don’t be afraid of hard work,” he advises. “And always think outside of the box to take care of your guests.” When I ask him for an example, he tells me about the time a guest complained about the hotel breakfast. “Go get something across the street,” Shah told him, “and I will deduct the cost from your room—just bring me the receipt.”
A lot of people make the hotel business complicated, but I don’t know why. We are all in the business to create memories for our guests.
And then there was the time a woman was checking in around 9 p.m. with her young daughter. “Mom, mom,” the little girl said, “where is my chocolate chip cookie?” The attendant told her they didn’t make cookies after 7 p.m. Shah said, “do me a favor. Make the cookies and call this lady in her room. It takes 15 minutes.”
“The value of the cookies is so insignificant compared to the value of guest loyalty,” he says. “In any business, you want loyalty. People go to a hotel not because of gold plated knobs in the bathroom,” he explains, “they go because they know they will be in good hands and someone will take care of them.”
Shah emphasizes the importance of repeat customers for the success of his business ventures. “I don’t want guests to be just happy,” he says. “I want them to be completely happy.”