Vijay Patel builds a hotel empire and crowns it with the Columbia Gorge Hotel.
By Oakley Brooks
Photos by Teresa Meier
Vijay Patel found Hood River’s Columbia Gorge Hotel grounds clogged with limbs and the gardens going to seed when he first looked over the place with the intent to buy in February 2009. Billed as the “Waldorf of the West” when timber baron Simon Benson built it in 1921 and immediately frequented by Jazz Age film stars Rudolph Valentino and Clara Bow, the stucco villa had been neglected for years. Put up for sale in a foreclosure auction later in 2009, there were no bids, but Patel was busy rounding up an investment group to buy the place. And despite receiving an ominous omen when a water-damaged ceiling collapsed on the day he was scheduled to close in November 2009, he went ahead and paid titleholder ShoreBank Pacific $4.6 million. He was the proud owner of a white elephant. “I love the challenge of turning around dumps,” he says.
But Patel also realized his elephant sat on one of premier tourist properties in all of the Gorge, high on the rim overlooking the Columbia River, with commanding views of Mount Adams and Mount Hood, and room to expand. “There’s so much we can do,” he says.
Born in Uganda, educated in his grandparents’ native India, and a Londoner for a decade and a half, Patel, 55, is inflected by Britain, right down to his natty tweed coat and gentle manners. After moving to Klamath Falls to manage a family-owned business in 1994 and then striking out on his own to found A1 Hospitality, he has performed some extensive hotel makeovers in Northeast Oregon and the Tri-Cities area. In Pendleton, he stripped an Economy Inn down to the studs in 2007 and rehabbed it into an America’s Best Value Inn and a downtown anchor. But in his portfolio of six franchise hotels, there’s nothing that approaches the prestige — however diminished — of the Columbia Gorge Hotel. “We really wanted to take a step forward and get involved with a boutique or historical property,” he says.
|A-1 Hospitality Group|
|President: Vijay Patel|
|Annual revenues: $8 million|
|Fun fact: Patel used a Rotary Club scholarship to motorcycle through Africa for 11 months in 1981.|
Fearlessly, he’s going after the century-old Gorge site with the same matter-of-fact, modernizing zeal he brought to his other properties. Now a year and a half into steady updating, his hardworking, bare-bones crew — a quarter of the staff employed by the previous owner, the Graves family — has replaced the bedding, carpets and bathroom tile in all the rooms. Bathroom fixtures and sinks are in the works. “Vanity is on the way,” says Paul Robinson, the hotel manager.
The new group repaired extensive portions of the roof underlying the building’s signature terracotta tiles. And Patel turned half of an oversized gift shop into a day spa, a popular spot with the hotel’s most reliable clientele: wedding guests. The staff also refurbished three guest rooms that had been previously used as offices, to push the total room count from 38 to 41.
Patel knows, however, that 41 rooms won’t support the hotel in the long term, even if they’re fetching the peak rate of $280 a night. Repairs and upgrades, which have to meet expensive national historic preservation standards in a listed landmark, are already projected to run more than $500,000, 40% above the original budget.
Photos by Teresa Meier
So he’s unabashedly looking to grow and change the century-old landmark. He’d like to put 80 to 85 more rooms on the west end of the hotel site, an area currently used as an extended parking lot. And he says he doesn’t anticipate problems in the land use approval process, even though the site sits within the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. “I would never have gotten into something where I couldn’t expand here,” Patel says.
By increasing capacity twofold, Patel will look to capture the wedding guests he currently sends to other establishments in Hood River because of his current room count. And the hotel restaurant, spa and lounge finally will be serving at full tilt. He’ll also be able to chase the corporate meeting market that has so far eluded the hotel.
“We’ve lost quite a few big events because there aren’t enough rooms here,” he says.
Patel’s immediate challenge is to lift the PR pall cast by the hotel’s abrupt closure in February 2009. While the occupancy rate has ticked up 2% in 2011 over 2010, the management is still overcoming the prevailing buzz that the hotel is closed for good. Robinson has booked just about every special interest group one could think of — from the Washington Wine Growers Association to QVC to the International Paranormal Reporting Group (there have been ghost sightings at the hotel) — to get the word out about the building’s revival.
Asked if he might use some high-powered vacationing starlet to help put the hotel back on the map, Patel demurred. “We’re here for our guests, we’re not looking to take advantage of them,” he says.
A moment later, Robinson produced a list of celebrity guests past, which included Burt Reynolds, Presidents Hoover and Taft, and Tom Cruise. It was proof of the new owners’ steadfast belief that, with the right appointments, the Columbia Gorge Hotel’s history is bankable enough.