Refuge at the Franklin Hotel
Earlier this year we started a partnership with the Franklin Hotel. While we are in different industries, retail and hospitality are both businesses that thrive on quality customer service, strong relationship building with customers, and community involvement. Travel is a core part of our business and whether you are a local or a visitor to our town, you can have an adventure at the Franklin Hotel and Refuge bar. On the Glass Top Counter we love featuring other local businesses who reflect our values and interviewing hotel owner Jay Patel was a true delight as he has disrupted the hospitality industry in the best of ways, investing in his staff and building a business based on trust. May you take as much joy in reading this interview as I did in writing it.
This month we bring back FREE Detox to Retox Yoga classes every 2nd and 3rd Tuesday of the month from 5:30pm to 6:30pm at the Franklin followed by cocktails in the bar. This fun partnership is a fun way to bring our customers together and gather the community for a unique experience.
Tell us about yourself. Who are you? What inspires you? What drives you? What brings you joy?
I grew up in rural North Carolina, Robeson county, one of the poorest counties in North Carolina, in a hotel property my parents owned. My parents were first generation immigrants and while I grew up in the South, I had a very traditional Indian upbringing.
By living on the hotel property I got to see all parts of the hotel operation. When things broke or the housekeeping attendants didn’t make it to their shift, my brother and I would fill the holes. We saw the value of manual labor at a young age while also getting a big picture perspective of how the hospitality business works. We got to see how you save money by buying in bulk on family trips to Sam’s Club. We learned the physical work and the customer service side of the business.
We were there 24/7 and we never said no to a guest request. We also rarely said no to our staff and my parents supported their employees in little and big ways. My parents were service minded to their staff too, thinking about the quality of life for the people who worked in those labor jobs - laundry, housekeeping and maintenance. The labor jobs were mostly occupied by low income, uneducated people who lived in rural areas outside of the town – usually in old, unsafe conditions. These people often didn’t have cars, so part of our operation was to give them rides to and from work. My mom would do the pickups and drop offs. If they didn’t get picked up, some staff would have to walk 6 to 8 miles to work. Seeing these lives up close gave me a deep appreciation for struggles that I might have escaped. Today that perspective helps me be a more effective owner and leader for my team. If I hadn’t had that experience, I would have a narrower viewpoint, and probably make too many incomplete and inaccurate assumptions about other people.
I am inspired by delightful human interactions and seeing people do things that are unexpected or really thoughtful. An example that stands out in my mind still is from when I moved to New York City after business school. It was my first time in the city and I had been warned about the “everyone for themselves” city mentality. But I didn’t find that to be true. The first week I was there I was watching people on the subway. There was a woman with a baby and a toddler, sitting next to these two teenage kids who looked like they were not interested or engaged in the environment around them. As everyone got off the subway, out of nowhere, without saying anything, the two young kids they picked up the stroller, carried it up the stairs for the mother and kept on their way. I kept seeing people do things like that and it validated my sense of optimism in how people can behave.
I am also inspired by people who create something new or build something innovative. I believe in always being open to all the possibilities.
What led you to buy the Franklin Hotel?
I had a really poor interview experience going into the hospitality industry when I graduated from my masters program at Cornell University Hotel School. I found this to be ironic as the whole premise of our industry is to be hospitable to guests. I couldn’t reconcile this treatment of potential talent with my expectation of how some of these companies probably treated their staff.
I decided I wanted to try a different approach, and have hotels of my own in which to manifest my own values.
I wanted to change everything that existed in the status quo of the hospitality industry: the organizational culture, leadership hierarchy, and the employee experience. I wanted to recruit world class talent and build a really cool team. I trusted that success would come as a result of focusing on hiring great, service oriented people. I’ve always viewed profits as a result of investing in clearly defined values and highly engaged staff.
I spent the first year and a half after grad school raising money and building my team recruiting philosophy. With great people I trusted we could build a competitive edge. With the money we raised, our company bought two hotels. We were looking at building a third, something in a really neat location to get into a higher profile, and stronger market. We were looking for land in 2007 in places like Charleston, Savannah, and other vibrant cities. But when we heard about the Franklin Hotel being for sale, we jumped at the opportunity as we saw the potential it had to be a unique hotel experience in our hometown.
As a local retailer we aspire to create a memorable experience and I know you all do the same at the Franklin. Tell us about what makes the Franklin experience a unique hotel stay.
Delightful unexpected human interactions set us apart. Our approach is to reverse engineer the process. From the time you first interact with us online and over the phone to the time you physically arrive, up to the moment you check out, we have dissected every moment and focus on making it magical, helpful, hospitable.
The industry wide systemic design of how hotels run does not allow for unexpected human interaction due to top down protocol and management structure. We tossed out the hierarchy of how hotels typically force feed protocol from upper management. We believe that a moment can only be made by a human being, not a systematized process. Layers of hierarchy only dilutes the magical moment that can be created when individuals are allowed to be themselves and provide the most appropriate response in any circumstance.
Our recruiting strategy is the main way to accomplish this. We look for the person who picks up a stray piece of trash on the street even when no one witnesses it, the person who helps a mom with two small children carry her stroller up the steps without being asked, the person who delights in human interaction. The people who thrive in our environment are open minded, effective communicators, and a risk takers – they’re mission is to build meaningful relationships with guests. We want these types of people at every level, from the front desk staff to the housekeeping team.
Another thing that sets us apart is we do not have managers or supervisors. Our talent developing strategy is to train through coaching and values-based leadership. We place trust in our team at every level to make the best decision to give the highest level of service.
Traditional corporate culture often designs work processes around mitigating some root fear or mistrust. We believe the opposite, and know that if we hire good people, we can trust them to make decisions rather than mindlessly follow some protocol.
I also recognize that quality talent needs to be treated with respect and paid more to reflect the increase in responsibility. I am proud to say we pay approximately 30% more than other hotels for our staff across the board.
What is Franklin Hotel’s mission? What is your personal life mission? How do they influence one another?
Our mission is to make the guest fall in love with the hotel. It comes back to the word “love” over and over. People aren’t going to necessarily love our hotel because we have the best sheets and towels, nicest rooms, or the tastiest cocktails (we do!). Of course all that stuff has to be top notch, but it is ultimately about the magical human interactions that happen that makes our hotel memorable.
We want people on our team who are living the mission. The kind of person who picks up a piece of trash when no one is watching. I want to be that person and be with other people who are the same. My most important job is to find those people because hospitality isn’t a job for them, it’s just who they are. I want to build this business that reflects my values and show that you can build a successful values based business.
How are you all involved in the local community?
I serve on a couple of boards to be involved in organizations that do meaningful work in our community. Additionally, we give gift certificates for a night at the hotel to any community based organization that asks for a donation to support their fundraising efforts.
But the most impactful way that I think we give back to the community is by running a values based business that hires local people whom we pay well and show a new way to think about business. My hope is always that our team is learning and growing and that they leave with the skills to start their own values-based business.
Our partnership with TB&C is another way we have deepened our roots in community, recognizing the good work being done by other local businesses in our community and find ways to connect with them. We want the hotel to be for the local community as much as for our out of town guests. This month we start free yoga classes for the community on the 2nd and 3rd Tuesday of every month from 5:30pm-6:30pm followed by cocktails in our bar, Refuge. We opened Refuge earlier this year as we saw an opportunity for a more inclusive gathering space with top notch quality food and drinks in a fun, sexy environment with art and ambience. There is a lot of great food and drinks in our town and we want to add to it. Being on franklin street, we might be able to add a little more to the scene.
We also always do our holiday party for our team at a local restaurant to give our staff an experience at a quality restaurant that invests in the community by serving local, seasonal cuisine.
What are some of the obstacles you have overcome to pursue this dream?
In 2007 and 2008 when the recession hit we had a hard time paying bills and our biggest success was that we didn’t default on our loans or lose any of our properties.
What are you excited about right now?
I’m excited about our team refocusing on our brand and letting the bar be an extension of everything about the guest experiences in the hotel. Refuge will be a way for the local community to experience what we do at the hotel.
What piece of advice do you have for any business seeking to create a unique experience? Put yourself in the shoes of the customer or the person who you are designing the business for. Don’t try to build a business for every kind of person. Throw demographics out the window and focus on the individual person and what that person values and believes in, and then build for them.
Figuring out how to make the bar root in the community and grow our experience oriented toward the local community.
Bonus question: What do you want your legacy to be? How do you want to be remembered?
I want the values of how we run our business to get so deeply rooted that no matter who is in this business, no matter the people, the essence never gets watered down. I want the values to be preserved throughout time. I would love for our industry to adopt our recruitment strategy and unique structure to empower their staff.