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Hotel Trundle

Columbia, South Carolina

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Interview with Hotel TrundleMeena Khalili
00:00 / 24:54

Interview recorded:
October 14, 2021

Rita Patel + Marcus Munse
Co-Owners

How do you market to the world when no one wants to travel?

Meena

So Rita and Marcus, this first set of questions are really about that getting to know you spot. So have you always been interested in owning a small business? And I should say that you, I mean you are partners, right? You're married. You're a married couple. And I understand the challenges that that can bring. But I mean together, have you always been interested in owning a small business.

Rita

No, no, no. Like, I don't think. I think I knew I didn't want to or a small business, and especially in hospitality, after, you know, growing up in it, I'm like, these are all the things I don't want to do so, I ran away. But you know, we got sucked.

Marcus

Growing up with it, I know you said you saw your parents worked so hard and there were, you know, long hours and things like that. So I don't want to do that, but. Now, I don't think we trade it for anything. Things great.

Rita

Yeah, and similar to you. Like my parents are immigrants. I'm I was actually born in Canada, so, you know to me, our kids are first generation Americans. It's just interesting how all of the twists and turns in life kind of brought us together in architecture school. And when we got married in 2010, which? Was like you know. The belly of the beast. And during the recession in architecture, there was no—There was no nothing.

Marcus

Positions open. I just yeah, I just got laid off from the one that I had in Charlotte working like, you know, when it was kind of a skeleton crew  there. But you know, had to do something. So we started working...

Rita

...With my parents and hospitality, because they own and operate hotels, you know, and they had one in West Columbia that opened April 22nd Earth Day.

We have a love for historical architecture and the preservation incentives in Columbia were just dynamite.

Marcus

Still tried to get out of it.

Rita

Yeah, we we did. We did. We we had like—Because we went to school in Charlotte and then we both moved in with my parents because that's where, you know, safe haven was, we had somewhere to live. We had a job. And then so for a couple of years, we just hustled, we work seven jobs for two years.

Marcus

Then decided that you went back to architecture, and I stuck with the business there, learning like a more managerial level and then this opportunity came up. We were just going to try to like make our parents business and grow more and that and then this opportunity came up to do it on her own. Even though the goal was Hotel Trundle. Yeah, it wasn't even. I think even when we looked at the first time, still with the intention of—

Rita

Growing their portfolio because they had all branded properties. So I don't know, I just get super emotional when I tell the story. So anyway, but we when we were riding around because we have a love for historical architecture, you know, the preservation incentives that were in Columbia were just. You know dynamite and so. Knowing that the boutique hotels that offered experiential stays are the future of travel or part of the future.

Marcus

And design freedom, which you wouldn't have with a brand. You can just take this and it and adapt it to the site. Here we can get still use what we love design and architecture.

​We get to do what we love.

Rita

Yeah, we went to school for. All of those beautiful things. And then this opportunity presented itself where it's a lease agreement. So we didn't have this giant pot of money to start the project. It was all pretty much set up for us and we pay overtime, you know like, but we're planning to purchase.

Meena

So you touched on a few points here. I was going to ask a question that I haven't asked anyone else and. And I've interviewed about five other businesses here and Charleston and why South Carolina. You touched a little on that, but I still want to know. And then in particular, why Columbia?

Marcus

Yeah, I don't think it was planned . The opportunity kind of found us. So you know, building with the incentives in place and kind of the structure of it is how it kind of found us, otherwise we wouldn't be here. Just being in the right place at the right time, kind of thing.

Rita

So I grew up in Orangeburg, sorry to interrupt you, but the hotel that my parents had just opened was in West Columbia. So, you know, just proximity of where we could get a paycheck. Basically, and then it had been like 4 years and we had our first son, Easton and over those four years, even though it was, a short amount of time, we fell in love with Columbia because we were not going to be here, we were going to be hotshot architects in New York City traveling the world, designing beautiful spaces, but here comes 2010 and you know, seven jobs, you know, whatever we could do to pay our bills that I'm pretty sure we were behind on, you know, we just had to do it.

And then I just knew what I did not want to do again. So and then you know finally, persuading my parents to think outside of branded properties presented itself for us to grow their business, which was very appealing to us in a way that we loved. As far as design, historical architecture and then being in the city. I would never leave now. Came here kicking and screaming, I said all the time. But I love it. So that's how Columbia came to be.

Boutique hotels that offer experiential stays are the future of travel.

Meena

So you mentioned Hotshot New York and and all these other, you know places world traveling. Who do you get to serve here in Columbia? Can you talk a little bit about that: The people that you serve.

Marcus

Well, there's business here and especially in the State Capitol, so there's government travel and you know, The Supreme Court. The university, you know. It’s not as much of a destination city. However, especially during COVID and everything, the leisure has been what's keeping us alive.

Rita

I think that's changing though. And I think COVID has really sped that up.

Marcus

So it's now it's big, not like Charleston for weddings. But there's I mean weddings all the time so. But yeah, especially with Main Street, where you have more of the, you know, law firms and things like that. And that's kind of the clientele we get. Yeah, but it's different than what we thought was gonna be. We thought we were gonna get, you know the the hipsters. The young professionals. But the I guess the hipsters, young professional, with more disposable incomes when it's actually more like the executives and the older crowd.

Rita

Yeah, the people that you know aren't really concerned with points, you know, they they're more experiential travelers versus and like the comforts and the feeling that you get from a stay versus I mean and don't get me wrong, he loves all the points, you know like we are members, we love Delta, you know. But when we travel we always go independent boutique. I mean, it's just it's just something different because it comes from a different place. You don't know what to expect. You're always surprised by some whimsical detail, and it just makes you feel good. You know, that's what we want people to feel here.

Marcus

That’s another reason why we would never do anything different. Because doing what we do gives us the ability. To travel, so we may not be able to, you know. Be living in New York but we travel as often as possible, yes. We go to LA, we go, you know, we. Bring the kids and show them the world, which was a goal of ours.

Rita

So yeah, we travel as often as possible because they travel and, you know, staying in really cool places and immersing yourself in a local hotel. I mean it gives you kind of a taste of what the city's potential is or what it can be or where it's hopefully going. And so that's what I wanted to do as part of our plan to do that for Columbia is like have people have never stepped into Columbia, let us be the gateway and set your expectations high.

​I just knew what I did not want to do again.

We have a vibrant art community; we have great small businesses, creators. Just so much potential and we don't, we don't get enough credit for it. So, I'm glad that we're here and can help spread the word. And I think during COVID, the hometown, the drive market is our market now. It's the road trippers that are coming, people that don't necessarily want to go to Charleston. Because you know. Hotel rooms on a Wednesday night in Charleston could be up to $1200.00, you know. And it is charming and beautiful, but so is Columbia. I don't care about being second, you know to Charleston. We're a great location. It’s a university, lots of really great weddings. Staycations birthdays, you know.

Marcus

And they do it just, like come from like Newberry.

Rita

Girls trips!

Marcus

They just want to go downtown and not have to drive back.

Meena

So what do people get here? And again, another question I haven't asked people. But what do people get here at your business? That they cannot get somewhere else.

Rita

They can get our wonderful team. I mean, Marcus and I have created this vision. Yeah, it’s pretty awesome we've created this awesome business and this environment, but our team, they carry it, you know, they make sure everything's tip top, they make sure our guests have the best experience possible. You know they work for us, but we also work for them too, you know. So like, it's our customer service and you can read our reviews, our reviews, you're like, “oh, you know, we have such a great time. The service is great!"

Meena

But there's something magical, and it's not. Just the Unicorns...It does help, but there is something magical about this spot from the details and the finishes. And just like everywhere when you walk in the door. The furniture, the seating arrangements, there is a vibe that comes through that sort of permeates the space.

Marcus

It's almost everything you want. I mean, you're not going to go somewhere else to get Indah coffee or Loveland coffee in your room or custom-made beds from the family-owned mattress company down the street there.

Rita

3rd generation.

Marcus

You know you're not going to the brand new hotel that has like a still life of flowers in a pot. You know, in every single room. You know? You’re going to get something just kind of fun.

Rita

Our people made your experience. We just kind of compiled it and put it all together, you know.

Meena

So, all right, let me take you back to March 2020. I know it's triggering and you are both parents, so it's triggering on a number of levels: You’re parents, you're small business owners, you have older parents as well. So, March 2020 schools started closing. People started questioning everything and hospitals started to get bogged down. What were your initial thoughts and your immediate concerns as small business owner?

Marcus and Rita

Terror. Like what are we going to do? We were sitting here and the phone just just not stopped ringing, cancellations. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of cancellations.

Rita

I mean it was. Crazy. I just remember looking at Marcus and just like. Are we going to do like what?

Marcus

I mean we heard like about maybe hospitals or governments taking over hotels and using them as like, you know, places to put patients, and, are they gonna come and just like take us over? Like what's gonna happen? Or do we do we? Is that an option? Should we maybe think about doing that just so we can like you know, get some money in like, but then we didn't want to. Risk anybody with?

Rita

Yeah, and everyone was scared, yeah. Everyone was scared like. We're lucky because we had, you know, our parents that are in the business and have been through like you know that cyclical 10-year tragedy. Like, 9/11, the 2010 recession, a pandemic, you know, you know even before that it was the Gulf War.

Marcus

What's in 2030?!

Rita

So it's crazy. And so they're they're like, we'll figure this out but and and so.

Marcus and Rita

And you know, fortunately our team stuck with us.

The phone would just not stop ringing with cancellations.

Marcus

And fortunately, because the way we were set up and everything and being tenants, you know the landlords were super understanding and they worked with us and so did their lenders and things. And we made it through to the point where like you know what, we're just going to close and we did. We closed for six weeks, just to kind of figure everything out and get our process in order and you know, put up barriers and whatever we need to do in the rooms, remove things and.

Rita

Yeah, take a moment. Step back. Take advantage of all of the assistance that was flying around new stuff every day, all these rules. And I mean it was just a **** show? And nobody knew! And so I think at one point I'm like, “OK. We just, we're all in this together, literally. We're all in the same position.”

So I think one of the best things about being a small business and working with so many local vendors and suppliers and services and stuff is you know, people picked up on the first ring. We talked about things. Everyone understood everything and it was cool. There were no hard feelings. People understood. I hear nightmare stories from other business owners and hoteliers that have brands. That people kept them on hook for so many months and it was just such a source of stress. And I'm just so thankful we didn't have that.

Marcus

We didn't do that with our team. You know, we, like even though we weren't open, we were still compensating them and then when we weren't open, but still trying to figure things out we’d do special projects (or even when we were slow) special projects in the room, you know, like things that are more like occupancy driven like housekeeping.

Rita

And being on hold with unemployment, for like 2 hours. I remember working with three people. Asking the right questions, getting their person the information they needed while we were on the phone. Did you receive this? Did you get this? As the employer you know with our team, you know, whoever needed the help because it was so complicated.

It's so complicated! The unemployment and then kids being at home, that was one of the biggest—I know, I'm like ranting now—some schools had all the technology and then some schools had nothing and if they did have anything, it didn't work right. Well, there's already a gap and it was creating a bigger gap. And you could see the frustration in everyone's eyes, and it was like, “Let's just get everybody laptops.” Yeah, we bought laptops.

Marcus

Everybody who had kids. We bought them laptops.

Rita

Get online, get your work done. At least that barrier's not there. You know, it's just and that I'm so happy that we were in a position to do that.

We're all in this together—we're all in the same position.

Meena

So you you bought laptops? For all of your staff, who had children, who were who were online schooling?

Rita

Yeah. We were all together. Yeah.

Meena

Did you have to lay anybody off?

Rita

Not because of COVID.

Marcus

No, no we didn't. Have to.

Rita

Thankfully, I mean like. Well, we love our team without our team we have nothing.

Meena

What was April 2021 May 2021 like?

Rita and Marcus

It was it. Was 0 to. 100. and then, like June, July and then the numbers started going up and it started to slump a little bit, but not too bad.

Rita

April, May, June and July, September is where on my on my scope and my measurables—Marcus measurables are a little different—but they were great we did great. People were getting travel confidence back and we’d done lots of stuff here at the hotel to help them feel more confident. If they needed something we absolutely tried to accommodate and continue, we've always done that, you know. As the numbers go up occupancy goes down, but as vaccination percentages go up, you know our guests are returning. You know, when schools are back in session, like at USC, orientations are in person. Because we have 41 rooms, we don't have 500 rooms. We have 41 very special rooms that we can fill. But it's just it's that week that Monday through Thursday, business that has just not returned yet.

Marcus

Thursday is kind of—I don't know why Thursday, I guess people will start the weekends on Thursdays.

Rita

But like it's the business travel that, you know, people would travel and it's just not there yet.

Meena

So what was the hardest decision that you had to make and the easiest decision that you had to make specifically because of COVID-19?

Marcus

Closing and we're like if we close what would be able to open back?

As the numbers went up, occupancy went down. As vaccination percentages increased, guests were returning.

Rita

That was a tough decision because hotels don't close.

Marcus

Fortunately, we had that option. With brands they’re like you can’t close.

Rita

I think, for me, my gosh it was so many hard things. You just didn't know how to market to the world when no one's traveling right? Nobody wants to travel.

Meena

So were you using social media quite a bit?

Rita

Yes. So what we did for those first few months was just kind of helped spread joyful stories of people in the community. You know, just like, what's something that is awesome that's happened because of COVID. And so we did like a small series called Cheer, Not Fear all via zoom, I didn't have like a really cool microphone. I wish I did, and we just kind of spread, you know things that were happening in the city that people who felt confident, you know, we just threw everything at the wall and whatever stuck it stuck.

And then we opened back up May 6th. We closed April first or third? Yeah, because we spent our 2nd birthday in our living room. We did a toilet paper, birthday cake and Easton threw up confetti and we did a social media happy birthday post from our living room.

Rita and Marcus

What was the easiest decision? Easiest decision, I don't know. Like doing whatever we had to do to keep our team making sure that they were OK too, because I remember when all this stuff was happening, we had a small meeting in the lobby, all spread out. And it was still so new and I just looked at everybody and they just were looking at me and Marcus for answers and I was just like, “I have to tell you we're going to figure this out together. We're going to close for a little bit.”

Rita

People have families, you know, it's just...but we're all here. And we all made it together and you know.

Meena

Are you hopeful about the future of your business and what's next for Hotel Trundle?

Marcus

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we're doing good, doing fine. We aren’t where we thought we were going to be at the end of 2019, but at least we're here, you know, existing. We're doing good, but I mean, we're always looking for an opportunity to grow, see something and some have popped their heads up some opportunities. We usually get like 95% of the way there and then something happens, they just fall apart. So we've had a few of those.

​Cheer, not fear.

Rita

We always have a good deal on the brink of falling apart.

[Laughter]

Marcus

So now we just don't count our chickens anymore. You know, we're just like. This we just anticipate this.

Rita

And like right now, we've got four potential projects and none of them will probably come to fruition, but it's always fun.

Marcus

I think one for sure will.

Rita

One might, yeah. We'll see. We'll see!

Marcus

And none and not all. Of them are like huge, you know, so.

Rita

Just it's like the the building, just like here, the building, the space has to be right. You know you can't put Hotel Trundle or any part of Hotel Trundle in a space that’s not going to work for Hotel Trundle. So the space has to be right. The building has to be right, but yeah.

Yeah, we're doing great. We want to grow.

Meena

That that's a wonderful place to end it. Thank you though so much.

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