I come from a family of over-achievers. Growing up in an Indian household comes with certain expectations. Everything was centered around our grades and academic achievements. In fact, the rule was that for every A on your report card, you could watch one our of TV each week. For every B, it was a half hour. If you had any Cs then it was no TV at all. Growing up in a house where academics were so important had its challenges (you can read about that here), but now I can look back and thank my parents for pushing us so hard to study and do well in school. Some people, I believe, just aren’t wired for studying and academics. I was one of those people and in many ways I still am.
My oldest brother Sanjay went to Duke University, studied Economics and Public Policy, went to the University of Pennsylvania Law School and became a lawyer. The middle brother, Kunal, went to Colgate University, majored in Economics and Political Science, and went into investment banking. Me? University of Rochester… Spanish and Psychology. “What the hell are you going to do with that?” I really wasn’t sure. I went to college simply because it was the next space on the gameboard. You can read my opinion about that here. My goal when I got to U of R was to just take classes that sounded interesting and get through school with decent grades… and hopefully find a serious girlfriend. What, don’t all guys go to college hoping to find a serious long term relationship?? I’m weird, I know.
Anyway, back to the point. The hotel industry had always interested me. I can’t really explain exactly what it was that drew me to it, but as a kid I was always so excited to stay in hotels. Even on road trips I couldn’t wait to check into the little roadside motels. When we would go to Disney World, I was more excited about the hotel and ordering room service than I was about going to the parks! It must run in the family, because my grandfather, RJ Advani, opened the first 5 star hotel in India called Sun n’ Sand on Juhu Beach. It’s still there today, run by his grandson. He had opened another hotel in Mumbai called The Shalimar Hotel, also still there today, run by his nephew.
I had applied to the Cornell Hotel School for undergraduate school, but it was too early. At the interview on Cornell’s campus, the interviewer asked me why I wanted to go to Cornell’s Hotel School, and the only thing I could come up with was that I knew it was the best school for hotels. Needless to say, I didn’t get in. everything happens for a reason though.
One day during the first semester of my senior year of college, I was talking to one of my fraternity brothers (yes, I was in a fraternity… shocker I know… you can read about that here). He told me that he was going to interview with this company called Andersen Consulting (now called Accenture). He said I should go along with him because they were just doing 20 minute screening interviews for anyone that wanted to sign up. So I went.
I was waiting outside the interview rooms where they had several Andersen employees greeting us, and something prompted me to ask about the gentleman who would be interviewing us. I learned that he was an Associate Partner from the New York office but that right now he is working on a utilities client in Chicago. Great! I walked into the interview room and sat down. He asked, “Ok so before we begin, do you have any questions for me?” “Yes I do,” I responded… “So, I understand that you are based in the New York office and if I were to get this job, that’s where I would be based. Can you tell me about the culture in that office?” When he was done answering I asked “So it sounds like you really enjoy New York, is it difficult spending so much time in Chicago then?” He looked at me with a curious look. Clearly I had ‘done my homework’ which took all of 2 minutes just before my interview. “So what got you interested in utilities?” I asked…
Pretty soon the 20 minutes was up, and he said “We’ve run out of time and I didn’t even ask you any questions, but don’t worry you’re good.” I remember the feeling I had when I walked out of there, like “I freaking NAILED that.” Until that moment in my life I hadn’t really had many of those moments. I had always just done the bare minimum, just enough to get by. There were really very few things that lit my fire that would get me to push myself. Model Congress was one of those things. Getting up in front of hundreds of others and debating something was a thrill for me, and I was good at it. It just came naturally to me somehow, and I won the “gavel” awards at both Harvard and Princeton model congresses in my senior year of high school. The thing is, there was no ‘debate’ or ‘public speaking’ class in school where I could get straight A+s. It was all math, science, history and I hated all of it. Again though, I did just enough to get by. The one thing I excelled at during senior year was Spanish, and that’s because I had spent a month in Spain the summer between my junior and senior years. You can read about that here. I had just absorbed the language and so of course, Spanish came easy to me during senior year.
I went through two more rounds of interviews with Accenture and aced my way through both. “So, you haven’t studied anything technology related, what experience or background do you have that’s relevant for a technology consulting firm?” “Well, technology is all built in languages,” I said, “During the summer between my junior year and senior year of high school I did an exchange program to Spain. I lived with a Spanish speaking family and didn’t speak the language, but I quickly had to learn it and apply it, and now I’m fluent. I think the same principle applies to technology.”
I got the job. Maybe that was my strength? Bullshitting? I mean, I wasn’t lying… I just had clever ways of answering the questions. But it worked, and after college I moved to Manhattan to start my new job with Accenture, which I was told would involve extensive traveling. Very exciting!. The only problem is, I hated it. I worked at Kodak (back in freaking Rochester!), Sharp Electronics and Bristol Myers Squibb, both in New Jersey… not exactly the kind of ‘travel’ I had in mind. About 2 years into it though, somehow, I was contacted by a recruiter at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Seriously I have no idea how they found me. I went to interview there and I got the job! Hated that one too. Did projects for Mars Corporation in New Jersey, Corning in Corning New York, and I wasn’t doing a good job. I hated that feeling, just waiting for them to find me out. This was all from 1998 to 2001 during the dot-com craze so I was more interested than trading stocks with all this new money I was making than anything related to my job.
I had enough. I applied to Cornell University to get my Masters of Management in Hospitality. I went to meet with the head Partner of PwC’s hospitality division, Mr. Bjorn Hansen who I later found out was kind of a big deal in the industry, and he agreed to write a recommendation for me. I networked like crazy, going to every single cocktail party, networking event, you name it, I was there. I finally felt like I really wanted something for my career and I was on fire. At the interview with Brad Walp at Cornell University, he asked “You’ve never worked a day in your life in the hospitality industry, why do you want to come to Cornell?” So I whipped out my best bullshit ever. “I studied Psychology in college so I’m good with people. I speak Spanish which is crucial in this industry. Most importantly I now have 3 years of technology experience from Accenture and PricewaterhouseCoopers, and I believe that there is an opportunity to apply all of this knowledge to the industry.” Hey wait a minute, maybe that wasn’t bullshit after all? It was true… and I wanted this more badly than anything. My chances were slim though as they only accepted about 40 people.
But I got in… and this time I was thrilled. Good thing too because I had just been fired from PricewaterhouseCoopers! One of the managers (I think his name was Miguel, from Brazil) was questioning my work (rightly so), and I broke down into tears and told him that what I really wanted to do was to work in the hotel industry, and that I had applied to Cornell’s Masters program. I had also just broken up with my fiancée (that’s another story) so I’m sure that didn’t help my emotional state, but to top it off, the manager went and spoke with the Partner in charge of our group and a week later, I was fired. He called me into his office and said “You know Ashwin, I don’t have any problem with people pursuing higher education, in fact I encourage it. But you are applying to school for something completely unrelated to your job, so that tells me that #1 you don’t really like your job, and #2 you probably won’t be here very long. We have to reduce staff and I would rather have you go than someone else who really likes it here.” I smiled and shook his hand and said, “You know what? You’re absolutely right. It’s been a pleasure to work with you and I wish you the best of luck.” I remember he said “Wow you’re making this really easy for me!” to which I responded “No but you are right. I want to go to hotel school and hopefully I will get in.” I got the acceptance letter a week later. After a broken engagement and getting fired from my job, I was at a low point in my life. But there was a bright spot ahead. I had 3 months until Cornell started so I packed a backpack and went traveling through Asia by myself. You can read about that here.
I started at Cornell’s 2 year program (they’ve modified it since then to a 1 year program) in September 2001. A few days later, a couple of jackasses flew 2 planes into the World Trade Center and changed the world forever. Everyone was in a panic… this was the end of the hotel and travel industry as we know it. Normally, Cornell Hotel School Masters students would organize an internship somewhere with a company during the four weeks of winter break. But this year, after September 11th, the perception was that companies were scrambling and would not be offering internships. In response, the university created a Masters Class so the students could learn from industry veterans during the break. SCREW THAT… I thought. I want my internship.
Literally during the first week at Cornell, I started to research which company I wanted to work for. I knew I wanted to use my Spanish. During my 3 years at Accenture and PwC I kept telling them that I speak Spanish and they should send me somewhere where I can use it, but they kept saying that they have offices all over the world and there was no reason to send me anywhere. I quickly discovered Sol Meliá Hotels & Resorts (now called Meliá Hotels & Resorts). Based in Palma de Mallorca, Spain (OMG) with offices in Miami (OMG) and with beautiful resorts all over Mexico and the Caribbean (OMG OMG!). THIS was MY company. Every single time I met an alumnus during the first 6 weeks of school I asked “Do you know anyone at Sol Melia?” They all looked at me like I had 2 heads. Sol what?? They new Four Seasons, Starwood, Marriott… but Sol Melia? Never heard of it. Finally in October, serendipity struck. We all went to New York City for the NY Hotel, Restaurant & Motel show and I went to watch an alumnus speak named Peter Yesawich. Another big deal in the industry… He had his own PR firm, and they just happened to be the PR agency of record for Sol Melia’s Miami offices. Peter graciously offered to receive my resume and send it to his contact. Soon enough, I got an email from Emmanuel Schreibmaier, Sol Meliá’s VP of Marketing for the Americas, asking what I want. “I just want to work for you. Send me anywhere, I don’t care. You don’t have to pay me, I’ll pay for my own flight and everything. I just want the opportunity!” I had never wanted anything so badly. I just knew it was the perfect fit. “Ok, he said… we are just about to open a beautiful brand new all-inclusive resort in Riviera Maya in Mexico called Paradisus Riviera Cancun” (it has since been acquired and re-branded by AM Resorts) “I’ll put you in touch with the team down there and let’s see what happens.” I was jumping out of my skin with excitement. I had a call with Claudia Ritter, the Director of Sales who told me that they wanted me to come down there to help them, but they needed me asap. Looking back I have no idea why she said that, but I begged Linda Kanina my finance professor to let me take the final exams early so that I could go, and she agreed.
I flew down to Cancun where I was picked up and taken to Paradisus Riviera Cancun. I was given a beautiful Ocean View Suite right on the beach, and had the entire resort all to myself basically. I felt like I had discovered gold. Why wouldn’t everyone want this job??. I met the General Manager, Ken Dittrich, and over the next several weeks helped the resort discover e-commerce. They weren’t working with companies like Expedia, Priceline, Hotels.com, etc, so I got them to sign agreements. Ken called up the VP of Business Travel in Miami, Mr. Ron Roy, and told him he needed to come down to Cancun to meet me, which he did. I showed him everything I was doing and he said “I want you to come work with us in Miami as our Director of E-commerce, but I need you to come right now.” Now?? I still had 3 semesters left at Cornell! “Ron, you have no idea how much I would love to do that. It’s a dream come true, but I have to finish my Masters first.” “What about during your breaks? You must have a summer break? Can you work with us then?” he asked. “Yes absolutely!” I replied. “Ok” he said, “I’m going to organize for you to spend the summer at our head offices in Palma de Mallorca with our Chief Marketing Officer, Mr. Luis del Olmo. I can’t promise that we won’t hire someone for this position in Miami in the meantime but let’s see what happens.”
Is this really happening?? It was the first time that I saw with my own eyes what passion, perseverance and hard work can do for one’s professional career. I mean, I had felt that kind of passion for women before, and if you’ve read some of my other stories you know what lengths I went to for them. But this was the first time I felt that kind of love for my “work”. I say “work” because for me it didn’t feel like work at all, and maybe that’s the point. If you really love what you do so much, it won’t feel like work. During my 5 official years at Melia after my various internships, I was traveling to the most beautiful places in Mexico, The Caribbean and Europe, working with young, fun, cool people and I even met my wife! You can read about that here. I’m getting PAID for this?? I remember thinking. But man I worked my ass off. But I digress.
That summer I went to Palma de Mallorca. Paradise on Earth, is all I have to say. If you haven’t been… you need to go, and especially during the summer time. Ritzy restaurants, killer nightclubs, beautiful people, amazing weather, nude beaches with white Caribbean sand, and this was where I was sent to work for the summer. Again, I worked my ass off and I made sure they saw that, but boy did I enjoy my weekends. After that summer, I had planned to spend my third semester in Paris at a sister school (ESSEC business school) where Cornell had an exchange program with IMHI, their hotel school. Toward the end of the summer Luis del Olmo asked me what my plans were. I told him I was going to study in Paris, and he said “Oh, we have 8 hotels there, will you continue to work for us while you’re in Paris?” “Yes!” I exclaimed… “you don’t have to pay me anything, just give me a room in one of your hotels for 4 months so I don’t have to pay rent, and I’ll work for you guys while I’m there.”
Needless to say, I really didn’t study very much in Paris. Aside from exploring many amazing restaurants, taking salsa lessons, a photography class where we learned to photograph nude French models (yeah that was rough), I went to work with the team in Paris and again, put countless hours into it, working in the office until late at night. I brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for them. At the end of the 4 months Alfonso handed me an envelope with about 800 Euros in it and said “I know this was an unpaid position but you have put in so many hours and worked harder than anyone else in this office and I just wouldn’t feel right if you walked away empty handed.” I have to say that was one of my favorite moments. THAT’s what I’m talking about. Cancun, Mallorca, Paris… now that’s more like it. Screw that Rochester, Parsippany, Jersey City crap…
I went back to Cornell to finish my last semester and Ron called me to offer me the job as Director of E-Commerce in Miami after school. He said they had interviewed others over the last year but he insisted that they wait for me because he just had a feeling about me. I was on top of the world, and moved to Miami in June 2003 ready to kick some ass. I reported directly to Ron, who was the greatest boss ever. “You’re the expert,” he said. “You need money, people, just let me know. If you get yourself into trouble, I’ll help you get out of it, but you just do your thing.” This was my dream job.
For the next 4 years, I took their online sales from $0 to about $7 Million. I was promoted to VP of Distribution, Americas and took over the loyalty program and call center operations, responsible for about $30M. At one point, I was invited to a meeting in Punta Cana to present to the CEO, Mr. Gabriel Escarrer Jr. and his father Gabriel Escarrer, the founder of Sol Meliá Hotels & Resorts. While the others showed slide after slide of all the tradeshows they were attending and sales calls they were making, I got up there and gave it them between the eyes. I told the truth about things we needed to change in the company in order to advance and grow. Mouths dropped open as I presented, but Gabriel Escarrer Jr. took me aside and said that he appreciated my honesty. He gave me his email address and asked me to stay in touch with him, and to let him know if I needed anything or if I thought the company should be doing something. It was amazing…
So I kept in touch, sending comments and recommendations to Gabriel. Ron left the company, and the head of the Americas, Mr. Andre Gerondeau was asked to move to Palma de Mallorca, and to bring his best people with him. The Americas was excelling, and the head office recognized it. They wanted Andre to bring some of that to the head office in Spain, and he asked me to go. It just kept getting better and better!
Unfortunately, things didn’t go as well in the head office. While in Miami I had the autonomy and freedom to innovate, this was not the case at the head office. I think everybody meant well, but there was an adjustment period of having the crew from the Miami office ‘invading’ the head office in Palma and I suppose that back then I wasn’t patient enough to wait out the adjustment period. We also couldn’t come to an agreement on the conditions of my move and new position. I was so excited about going there that when they asked me to go and we would discuss the terms later, I just assumed it would all work out.
Here’s where things get a little crazy. Right about the time I moved to Palma to work with Melia, my parents were opening a restaurant in Miami Beach called Ishq. At the opening party, an older British gentleman named David Giles walked in and started talking to my dad. He happened to mention that in a few weeks he was going to Palma de Mallorca, so my dad told him I was there and suggested he reach out to me. When my dad told me about this interaction, I’ll admit I wasn’t very excited about him putting me in touch with random people. But when David contacted me and invited me to meet him for coffee, I decided to go. Turns out that David is involved in the music industry and knows The Rolling Stones, Lenny Kravitz and others. He was in Mallorca to rent out the bullfighting stadium for a Simply Red concert. He then proceeded to invite me to a music event that he was organizing in Marrakech called Purodesert Lounge. He was renting out an old abandoned palace in the middle of the old town of Marrakech, and the world’s most famous DJs at the time were performing (Buddha Bar, Basement Jaxx, Gotan Project). I was in awe of this collision of serendipity that had befallen me. I was invited to stay in the same hotel with David and the artists and attend the event as a VIP. David then invited me to tag along with him to some social functions that he would be attending that weekend in Mallorca.
Of course I said yes, and soon found myself mingling with the rich and famous in Mallorca. At one of the parties, I was introduced to Morten, a wealthy Danish entrepreneur and he asked me what I did for a living. When I explained that I was the Global VP of E-Commerce and Distribution for Sol Meliá Hotels and Resorts, his eyes lit up with excitement. Morten had built his fortune through a variety of entrepreneurial endeavors, but had always wanted to try something travel related. He invited me to his house for coffee. And by house, I mean his 4 million Euro mansion overlooking the sea. So I go to visit Morten and he tells me that he wants to me quit my job and move back to Miami. He was going to put $2M in a bank account and wanted me to hire some people and start up an online travel business. He offered me 5% of the company. I asked for 10% and he agreed. Oh, that and he basically doubled my salary. I couldn’t say no. I gave in my notice to Melia and headed back to Miami.
I hired a team of trusted friends and we worked on this project for Morten and his business partner for about 2 years. We worked really hard actually but we just couldn’t gain any traction on the multiple ideas we had to generate revenue. I felt terrible and blamed myself for losing Morten’s money. I remember the night that we met for dinner to discuss this and was dreading what he was going to say to me. But he was extremely nice about it and did not make me feel bad at all that the project hadn’t worked out. Morten taught me a lot of things. He taught me to think bigger, to think WAY outside the box, to not be confined by conventions and to not be afraid to change course if the current course isn’t the right one. I’ll admit when I first met him I was a little turned off by his direct and slightly aggressive demeanor, but after a while I realized I could use some of that myself. In the end it was a great learning experience, and in particular, I now knew what it felt like to be running a company.
Now what? Do I look for a job? I wasn’t sure I could go back to working for a company or a boss after having a taste of running something myself. During the 2 years I worked with Morten we were developing all of our technology with a small software team in Argentina. I had gotten to know them very well and there was a lot of trust there. We had become friends along the way. They reached out to me and suggested that we start up a project together. Sounded great to me, but what? I thought about it for a while and decided that we should build an online reservations system for hotel websites. I had just gotten married and so I couldn’t go and spend whatever money I had saved up on a technology development project, especially after I had just seen how hard it is to make money. So in 2010, the guys in Argentina agreed to build a prototype ‘booking engine’ for me. The agreement was that I would give them all of the profits from year 1, and 5% of the company. Regatta Travel Solutions was born.
We had the first system ready to go by April or May. So I got in my car and went knocking on the door of pretty much every hotel in Miami. I couldn’t get anyone to bite. “What hotels do you already work with?” I needed to find someone who would give me a chance. I eventually resorted to the seedy motels on Biscayne Boulevard between 30th and 79th streets. These days those motels have all been renovated and now it’s an up and coming area, but back then you really didn’t want to walk into these places. But I found one in particular called Motel Bianco. The owner, Jose Licata, was a young nice Venezuelan man who didn’t speak a word of English. His motel was light years ahead of the others. It had been really nicely renovated and painted. But he was still taking people off the street and renting rooms by the hour. “I would really like to start working with Expedia and Booking.com,” he said, “But they won’t speak with us because of our location.” “Jose,” I said, “I can pick up the phone and get someone from Expedia and Booking.com to come see your property. Once they see it, I’m sure they’ll agree to include you. But I need you to let me build you a new website and use our booking engine to get direct business.” He agreed! “Ok,” I said, “But if we’re going to do this, you have to stop taking people off the street and renting rooms by the hour right away. If Expedia customers walk in here and see prostitutes at the front desk, they will leave negative reviews in Tripadvisor and then you’re done. You only get one shot at this.” He agreed.
I contacted a local photographer who had taken some amazing pictures of the hotel, and paid him out of my own pocket for his photos. We built the website and got it online, and before we knew it, the bookings started to come in. Jose was so excited, he would call me every few hours to talk about how many bookings he was getting. He started to fill up his hotel in advance and doubled the rate he was charging per night. We were making $1,000 per month from this one little motel with 36 rooms! More importantly, I finally had an example to show other hotels!
We started to grow, one hotel at a time and in our first year made almost $100,000, almost all of which went to my friends in Argentina. I was so excited about what was to come. Toward the end of the first year, Sina (who worked for Rock Resorts, a division of Vail Resorts) had to go down to St. Lucia on a business trip. So I said “You know what? I’ll go with you, and go visit the hotels to see if I can get anyone to work with us.” So I went and visited every single hotel on the island. Konrad Wagner, owner of Calabash Cove, a stunning upscale hotel in the north of St. Lucia, signed with me. My first hotel in the Caribbean and it was a great one! He negotiated an amazing deal, but I knew from experience that having Calabash Cove on my list of customers would help us grow. There were a few other hotels in St. Lucia that showed interest as well, so I decided to focus my efforts on the Caribbean. The hotels were thirsty for knowledge and willing to try something new, unlike most of the hotels in Miami.
So I pulled out the map to check what island was close to St. Lucia. Barbados! It’s bigger… there are more direct flights there, and there are a ton of independent hotels. So I contacted a hotel and rented out a conference room for some time in January. I then called every single hotel one by one and invited them to a free seminar where I was going to teach about how to improve hotel websites, explain how Google ranked different sites, and other things that hotels should be aware of. One hotel in particular suggested that I reach out to the Barbados Hotel & Tourism Association (BHTA) which I did but got no response. 20 hotels said they would attend my seminar, but only 5 showed up. I went ahead with my presentation and people seemed interested. Afterward, a woman named Claire Jordan approached me. She said that she was doing some consulting for the BHTA and that she loved everything I had to say and the booking engine system I showed. She said that the BHTA was looking for a system like ours and invited me to participate in a competition to win their business.
A few weeks later I was back in Barbados to present to the BHTA. The other companies presenting were large, well established companies. I started my presentation by asking them what they hoped to accomplish and as I listened, I wasn’t hearing anything that we were not capable of delivering. They chose us. Years later I asked them… why did you guys choose us when we had very little experience compared to the other companies? They said, “We chose you because the other companies showed us their systems and what they were capable of doing. You asked us what we wanted the system to do, and offered to give us what we were asking for. We were convinced enough that you could deliver what you promised so we took the chance.” That was Sue Springer, who is someone I have learned a tremendous amount from and will forever hold in very high admiration. Because of Sue Springer and the BHTA, Regatta Travel Solutions got into the destination business. I hired my first employee to start taking care of the hotels we had signed up and we doubled our development staff to start building a system for destinations.
The Barbados project performed extremely well and we eventually got the official website of Barbados to use our system on their website. I was going down to Barbados and holding town hall meetings with all of the hotels every 3 months to discuss the system, gather feedback and generate ideas of how to innovate. We came up with ideas to grow bookings that no other system out there was capable of. I owe a lot of thanks to the people and hotels of Barbados for the success of Regatta. At one point I even offered to give some equity in the company to the BHTA but they said it would be too complicated legally. Now I wish we had done it!
Thinking about how to grow this business, I reached out to an association called DMAI (Destination Marketing Association International). They have since rebranded as Destinations International. I could see from their website that every major destination was a member. I called them and asked how I could join, and they offered me some ‘allied membership’ for $1500 or something like that. I said “no, I want the highest level membership you have.” So they told me about their Alliance Partner level which was $50,000 per year for 3 years. I thought to myself… now I could hire some sales person to go out and talk to these destinations, and that wouldn’t get me nearly as far as aligning myself with DMAI. So I took the plunge and signed, and it was a great decision. I suddenly had my logo on their homepage right next to USA Today, American Airlines, and others. It wasn’t long before my phone rang (while I was in Barbados ironically) and it was my now good friend Mark Nold with the Seattle Washington Convention & Visitors Bureau telling me that he found out about me through DMAI. They were using Expedia on their website and were looking for an alternative. Not only did we sign Visit Seattle, but over the next few years we signed about 50 more.
In 2012, we hit our big break. When I started working at Sol Melia back in 2003, a guy named Gerardo Garcia walked into my office. He had just started with a company called Travelclick and was selling intelligence reports. I became his first big customer. 9 years later the tables had turned. I was the founder of a growing business and Gerardo had just taken a job as the VP of E-commerce for Palace Resorts, one of Mexico’s premier resort chains. Gerardo agreed to introduce me to the owner, Mr. Roberto Chapur. Palace was using Expedia to take bookings on their own website and there was no volume. I asked if he would allow me to put my system onto Palace Resorts’ website and he said yes, as long as we would build a system for their vacation club as well. He didn’t seem very concerned about the booking engine on the website because it wasn’t producing anything, but I knew what the potential was from my experience at Sol Melia, and I was right. Our revenues took off like a rocket.
In 2015 we hit a big bump. Palace Resorts split into two companies. The new company was called All Inclusive Collection and they were rebranding all of their properties as Hard Rock Hotels. They really liked working with us and wanted to keep our system, but the Hard Rock corporate offices had an agreement with a competitor and forced All Inclusive Collection to drop us and switch. This was a major hit to our revenues and I wasn’t sure if we could survive it. I stopped paying myself a salary, and looked for other ways to earn money. Thankfully Sina was still working at the time, even though she didn’t want to, but we had her salary. I started to drive for Uber and it was the perfect timing to do so. Charlottesville, Virginia had just recently introduced Uber and because there was a large population of college students, demand was off the charts. I was driving at nights and on weekends as much as possible, normally until 2:30am or 3am. I was exhausted… and hardly saw my kids for a while, but we were trying to survive. We also decorated three rooms in our house and started renting them out on AirBnB. This was amazing, and we made enough to almost cover the mortgage. Not to mention, we really enjoyed it! You can read about that here.
But where there is a struggle, there is also opportunity. In that same year, companies started to approach us about acquiring us. Altogether we had conversations with five different companies. One company in particular seemed interesting and I thought they had a lot of potential. They were about to raise significant capital and there were clear synergies between our two companies. I was in discussions with them for at least 8 months and we agreed on a price. Finally they completed their capital raise, and one of my brothers asked to see the details of the capital raise. Thank God he did, because there were red flags everywhere. First, they had stated that the private equity firm that had already invested would not be participating in this round. Now, they were the ONLY investor participating. This was a clear sign that no new investors were convinced by their pitch, and that the original private equity firm had no choice but to invest more, or risk losing everything. Plus they had taken out a loan at a very high interest rate, which was a sign of desperation. It can be helpful to have one brother who’s a lawyer and another who is in finance. I certainly never would have asked to see this information and even if I had, I may not have seen the red flags. I backed out, and 6 months later they were bankrupt. Talk about dodging a bullet. Everything I had worked for and built would have been flushed down the toilet, just like that.
There was another company called Kognitiv that had reached out to me because we had a common client in The Caribbean. The Director of Sales of that hotel suggested they speak to me because of how good our system was. At the time I couldn’t speak to them because I had an exclusive with the other guys who we almost signed a deal with. But as soon as that deal was dead, I reached back out and they were still interested. I went to meet the founder, Peter Schwartz, over a really nice dinner in New York.
Wow, is all I have to say. We saw completely eye to eye and I loved everything he had to say. Not to mention he clearly had an amazing and successful background. I also got the feeling that he was an honest and ethical person and that goes a long way with me. When investors meet founders they sometimes invest because of the founder and not necessarily the business. That’s how I felt here. There was clearly a lot we could do together but I knew it was time to hitch my wagon to a faster train and I knew that if anyone could build something valuable, it was Peter. That was March 2016 and we signed the agreement on August 31st, 2016. The actual negotiation of the deal was not fun at all, and I would not enjoy having to go through that again, but Peter was always extremely fair. The deal almost fell through because I had put my confidence in some stupid lawyers that screwed me. You can read about that here. But luckily it all worked out.
Here we are almost 2 years later and I don’t regret my decision for one minute. Kognitiv is an amazing company to work for and I continue to learn a tremendous amount from Peter and the incredible talent we have around the table. When I was selling my company everybody was telling me “You won’t be there after a year. Either you won’t get along with them and you’ll leave, or they will find a way to get rid of you.” My experience has been the opposite. I have a leadership position in the company, I feel valued, and still wake up excited to see what happens that day. Of course I hope that the company continues to grow and succeed but it has been a truly unforgettable adventure, and the best is yet to come.