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A Hotelier's Dream

Sant Singh Chatwal

Age: 64

Company: Hampshire Hotels & Resorts LLC

Title: Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Time in current role: 29 years

Currently reading: “The 4-Hour Work Week” by Timothy Ferriss

There's no shortage of immigrant success stories in America. But it's not every day that an immigrant succeeds in one business and then enters another business so successfully that he expands it in his native country. But that's the story of Sant Singh Chatwal, who started in the restaurant industry before venturing into hotels.

Chatwal immigrated to the United States from India in the 1970s and is now chairman and CEO of New York-based Hampshire Hotels & Resorts LLC. His company owns about 2,500 hotel rooms, including the boutique brands Dream, Time and Night hotels in Manhattan.

Since last year, Chatwal has overseen the company's expansion into India, following the opportunity posed by a rapidly growing nation with a scarcity of hotel rooms. Currently, two Dream boutique hotel properties are under construction in India, one in Kochi on the west coast and another in south central Hyderabad. By 2012, there will 10 Dream properties in India, Chatwal says.

“I have an advantage in India, not only with family and professional connections, but also I understand better than most of my competitors which new things will be well received.”

Chatwal is more than a hotelier with a penchant for international expansion. He's a major fundraiser for the Democratic Party, including Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. He's also been in the society pages, especially for the wedding he threw for his son, Vikram, who married Indian model Priya Sachdev in a multi-city, multi-day event in India. Vikram is marketing director for Hampshire, and head of subsidiary Vikram Chatwal Hotels, which develops the boutique brands.

In the 1970s, the elder Chatwal foresaw opportunity in the New World not in terms of hotels, but as an upscale restaurateur. In 1979, he opened his first Bombay Palace restaurant in New York's Rockefeller Center, and followed with U.S. and international expansion.

Initially, he entered the lodging industry through a side door. “I started investing in hotels at first as a tax shelter, but discovered that the hotel business is much more interesting than restaurants,” he says. He acquired his first hospitality property in New York in 1986 as an early investor in Times Square when he bought the 334-room President Hotel, which he later renovated.

As both a restaurateur and hotelier, Chatwal has endured his share of rocky times. In the 1980s, a sour merger with Lifestyle Restaurants Inc., owner of Beefsteak Charlie's, drove Bombay Palace into receivership for a time. During the hotel slump of the early to mid-1990s, tax and legal troubles dogged him for a number of years, forcing another bankruptcy and the loss of an apartment building due to a tax lien.

After recovering from that down period, he saw an unsatisfied market for boutique hotels in Manhattan as the business recovered strongly from its post-9/11 slump. He and his son opened the boutique hotel Dream in New York in 2004, followed later by brands named Time and most recently Night (there's also a Dream hotel in Bangkok). “We've also been able to compete with our nearest competition, W, by offering the concept for perhaps $50 or $100 less per night,” says Chatwal.

As for India, Chatwal expects the Dream concept to be supported not merely by strong economic growth, but also by an increasingly affluent population of 25- to 35-year-olds who are eager to taste the pleasures of leisure and business travel. “India can absorb half a million rooms, including the most luxurious,” Chatwal says. “Young professionals are eager to have what we take for granted in the West.”

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