February 8, 2017
Last summer we had an opportunity to interview local hotelier, Tejal Sood. She and her family have been in the lodging and tourism industry here in Santa Cruz for decades, and they are up to some great things!
Please introduce yourself and what you do
I’m Tejal Sood and I am a lifelong hotelier in Santa Cruz. My family owns, operates, and develops hotels in Santa Cruz.
Why did your family decide to start a hotel business here in Santa Cruz?
My parents liked the coastal community in Santa Cruz, and thought it was a great place to raise kids. I think they also thought there was potential for growth in the market here. So definitely they picked it for the good opportunity.
We came here from Berkeley in 1975 when I was just a little kid. My parents started with just a little motel, the Ebbtide motel down on Riverside. We all lived there. I grew up there. My parents lived there along with half of our extended family, and we all lived and worked there as well.
You grew up in a motel? That's a different life.
It is. When the school bus picks you up from a motel, it is kind of a different experience. But, I don’t know anything different than that, so it seemed normal. It still seems normal now. I bring my kids to the hotel and many times they work here in the summers as well. I don’t think they like doing towels and sheets and cleaning up dishes, but it brings back memories for me since that is pretty much what I did every break and every summer as a kid.
Why are you building a new hotel here in Santa Cruz?
We have a couple hotels in Santa Cruz now and this is a family business. My father started his business here. I always said I would never go into the business, but somehow here I am.
We are opening a Hyatt Place hotel, which is a select service brand of the Hyatt franchise. It is a 106-room hotel and offers amenities that are more upgraded including a bar, a lounge, some food service aspects, meeting rooms, fitness room, and an underground garage with full valet service. Guests rooms are similar to an all-suite concept that can work for corporate guests as well as leisure guests, which is really important in Santa Cruz. It is something that we don't really have here, which is why we wanted to develop it. Building the Hyatt Place will fill a void in the market, and I think it is something really needed and guests really look for. And even though it is only half way built, we are already getting feedback from people that it is a really great addition.
Why did you pick that particular spot at 407 Broadway?
My father started this business and all along has dreamed of doing a project like this. And he wanted it to be centrally located because people come to Santa Cruz and they want to be walking distance to downtown and the beach. It is something that people look for, and we feel that the center of the city is where real growth needs to be. Not to mention I grew up around the block and walked by there all the time as a child. Over the years we saw that that part of town had seen better days and we really wanted to bring something new and fresh there to revitalize the heart of the City.
What was the process of getting from idea to execution like?
The process was long. It's typical of development. No one should kid themselves that construction is going to happen in a 6-month period. That is unrealistic. We have been doing this for a long time, so we knew we were in it for the long haul. We want a good result in the end, and so you have to work a little longer and harder to get there.
We purchased the property on Broadway knowing that it is a great location in the heart of the city, but figuring out what we could do there took a bit of time. Once we knew what we were doing, we looked for a brand to support us. That is something that is desperately needed to bring that recognition to the City and a franchise brand hotel, which is why we sought out the Hyatt partnership. Then we worked through the development of the plans with the Planning Department, the Economic Development Department, and Hyatt; and then worked on getting buy-in from the community. This is a very tight knit community and everybody knows everybody. It is one of the charms of Santa Cruz; however, if you are going to develop in a neighborhood and not approach the neighbors that won’t help you moving forward. Then we got together a package and financing and now here we are, getting ready to open this Summer.
What gets you excited about the development of the tourist industry?
I would say the last 5-7 years have been a really exciting time for Santa Cruz. I’ve seen a lot of excitement, energy, and growth. In the last couple of years we’ve seen a lot of support from the community and from the city officials, and we've also seen a change in the way people understand that tourism is an integral part of this City. Santa Cruz is a quintessential California beach town, and a lot of people want to come to not only experience that but also see the redwoods and so many other things that we have to offer. Lately we have seen a lot of notoriety and people wanting to come visit, and that relates directly to tourism and we have seen a lot of benefits to that. We have seen the growth in the industry as a result of a lot of recent development as well.
How is business overall?
Business is doing great. Overall California is growing, but I think if you look at the data it shows that Santa Cruz is growing faster than California. And we have definitely seen that growth - we wouldn’t be building another hotel unless it was doing well.
Usually people always think of Santa Cruz as a beach town and people come here as a surfing thing, but actually it has gone well beyond that. People are looking for unique experiences, and I think that is something that Santa Cruz does provide: a unique experience.
How has the industry changed over the years?
Santa Cruz is a tourist mecca. People having been coming here forever, but the recent growth in the tourist industry has been significant. The mindset of tourism has changed, people don’t travel the way they used to. They would go to travel agencies to book a tour and then they are done, but now people want a unique experience. They go to the internet, they read what other people write about other communities, and so they will visit Santa Cruz because we gave them a cool food tour downtown or they got to go check out the sea otters and in the same day go check out the monarch butterflies - something they could do that is super unique and isn’t any old place on a beach with an umbrella.
What things draw people to Santa Cruz?
There is so much, and I think that is why people come. It is a beach town, but it is not just about the beach. The vibe of Santa Cruz is very unique. You go to any other coastal beach town and you won’t get the same feeling. Anyone that comes here can find something that they are interested in. If they are active they can do that. If they want to go on a food tour they can do that. There are just so many opportunities for them. That’s what makes it special.
What kind of local relationships do you have here in town?
As a hotel, we have to employ lots of different people and work with lots of different businesses to make the whole thing run.We have a lot of vendors, a lot of which are local, and a lot of them we have worked with for years. And we hire a lot of people, and we always try to provide opportunities to people here in Santa Cruz. UCSC has been a really great resource for us as well, not only from a business perspective, but we also have a lot of staff that come through the hotel. Students need a job, they work here for 4 years, they graduate, and we write lots of letters of recommendation for them.
How does your business fit into the local tourism industry?
Obviously as a lodging operator we are very heavily related to the tourism industry and we have tight connections with a lot of attractions and restaurants. We do a lot of work with Visit Santa Cruz, who promotes tourism in the County. Lodging in Santa Cruz is a really big component of the tourism industry, so we are able to work off the existing relationships with attractions and create packages to bring people here to ensure visitors have a good experience overall. We are looking at not just what visitors go see, or do, or what they eat, but where they sleep as well. It is all connected.
What do you recommend to guests to do in Santa Cruz?
I would tell them to walk, bike, or segway along West Cliff drive. It provides an amazing view and you can look back on the City and get a different perspective from how most people see the City when they are driving into town. It is pretty amazing.
What makes Santa Cruz special to you?
Location. You can’t beat where we live, and people want to live here. It is such an amazing community. As a developer, you need to have community buy in. And here people are really truly interested in what you are doing and they want to be a part of it. You probably find more people involved in community events and activities and part of the process here than in any other community. It also ensures that there are checks and balances. That things don’t go wild and we don’t have 20-story high-rises at the beach.
Final thoughts you would like to share?
Hospitality in Santa Cruz, for me I really grew up with it. I grew up here and I really have a soft spot for Santa Cruz. A lot of families have been here for generations, and people stay because it is special here. Once you come here, you can’t leave. I don’t know if I can grasp what it is, but it is special. People just want to keep coming back. It is like a warm hug.
* We would like to thank Visit Santa Cruz for the use of their beautiful b-roll video content. Visit their website www.SantaCruz.org to learn more. *