As Houston Flooded, Dozens of People Turned to This Family-Run Hotel on a Hill
The owners of Hotel Ylem like a good cause. When Hurricane Harvey arrived, they got one.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
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Jay Dalwadi taught his children two things. Family sticks together. And always build on high ground.
Those lessons sustained the four siblings during Hurricane Harvey as they, their parents, their children, and around 70 guests, relatives, friends, employees, and neighbors hunkered down in Hotel Ylem, the family's mission-driven boutique hotel. Jay Dalwadi chose an elevated site to construct the property--originally a Holiday Inn Express--as well as 13 others in Houston and its environs. So while water swallowed cars in surrounding streets, "we were like a little island," says Manisha Dalwadi-Brahmbhatt, who at 46 is the oldest Dalwadi offspring.
Manisha calls Hotel Ylem, in a mixed-use neighborhood near Texas Medical Center, "a family soul project." Over 35 years the Dalwadis have built a small hospitality empire--organized under Dalwadi Hospitality Management since 2014--that employs 126 people, runs six hotels, and has constructed many more. With Ylem, "we wanted a property that allowed us to give back in a significant way and send a message," says Manisha. "If you are not doing something to make the world a better place you are not living your worth."
On normal days that "something" includes designating a portion of profits for charity and recruiting socially conscious vendors. Amidst Harvey's rage, however, the Dalwadis went from caring to caregiving, providing the stranded with shelter, hospitality, and a semblance of normalcy.
Although many Hotel Ylem guests had fled or canceled reservations before the storm, around 30 remained. Empty rooms soon filled with friends and locals. Sumit Dalwadi, 33, zigzagged around fallen trees and drove his truck on sidewalks to retrieve a neighbor who required a breathing machine at night and her disabled father.
Only three of Ylem's 20-person staff could make it through the floodwaters. So the siblings--Manisha; Sumit; Amisha Dalwadi, 41; and Sheetal Dalwadi-Oza, 36--did what they'd done more than 30 years ago as children living in their parents' first motel. Namely: everything. "We were doing laundry and maintenance and housekeeping and the front desk," says Sheetal. "Moving mattresses and putting down buckets when leaks came through."
Hotel Ylem serves only breakfast and has no real kitchen. With local restaurants shuttered--one intrepid pizza joint did continue to deliver--the siblings fed their guests Indian, Mexican, and Chinese dishes thrown together in a couple of Insta-pots brought from home. To provide distraction, they ordered the Mayweather-McGregor fight on pay-per-view and screened it at the bar. The hotel's weekly Game of Thrones viewing also attracted a crowd.
Now, with Harvey's exit, the Dalwadis spend long, exhausting days fixing damage at their three Houston-area properties and throwing themselves into charity drives and fundraisers.
"We haven't organized it all yet," says Sheetal of the family's efforts to help Houston get back on its feet. "If we see something we can do, we jump."
Before the storm
Indian immigrants comprise just 1 percent of the U.S. population but own roughly half of the country's motels. The Dalwadis are representative. The family owns a brick-making factory in the port city of Surat, started by Jay Dalwadi's mother after his father's death. Maniben Dalwadi made enough to send Jay to the United States, where he got a chemical engineering degree from Texas A&M and then a job at industrial contractor Brown and Root. It was also Maniben who, during a visit in 1982, urged Jay to buy his first motel, a 20-room property in Dayton, Texas, a small town about 45 miles outside Houston, even though he knew nothing about the hospitality industry.
And so the family's motel life began. Six people shared a three-bedroom living quarters attached to the office. Jay drove 50 miles each day to his engineering job while his wife, Kapila, and the children ran the place. When the business became sustainable, Jay sponsored the immigration of his brothers' children. Eventually 18 people crowded the apartment.
With so many dependents, thrift was the Dalwadis' watchword. "Our parents were religious about saving," says Manisha. "One paycheck would go into savings and the other we would use for our needs. Even when he was making just $25,000 at Brown and Root, by the end of the year they had $10,000 or $12,000 saved."
Those savings provided capital for the Dalwadis' growing empire. In the '80s Jay bought two more small motels in Texas towns, chiefly with the intent of creating more living space and jobs for his relatives. In 2000 he acquired a few more in Tennessee to settle members of Kapila's extended family.
A builder at heart
But buying and operating motels wasn't enough for Jay, who harbored a fascination with building things. On the way home from work and during family outings he frequently stopped off at construction sites. He was there so often that the contractors befriended him. "They would walk him around and show him what was going on and how to do things," says Sumit. "At some point he said, 'I think I can do this myself.'"
Jay began scouting land auctions. In 1991 his new business, JD Construction, erected its first motel, in Lockwood, Texas. A few years later he broke into the big time: Houston. Over the decades, the company has erected 14 motels and hotels and performed three full renovations. Some are for clients. Some--franchises of major chains--are run by the family. After graduating from college all four siblings (three with MBAs) returned to the family-business fold.
In 2004, JD Construction completed a Holiday Inn Express near the medical center, and Amisha was named general manager. Opening the property that would become Hotel Ylem presented a trial in its own right. The hotel debuted the weekend of the Super Bowl, which was being played in Houston, and sold out in 20 minutes. Amisha didn't leave the hotel for two weeks. Manisha brought her changes of clothes.
In February the Dalwadis relaunched the Holiday Inn Express as Hotel Ylem, a Hebrew word that translates roughly as "source of all things." Its mission: to find creative ways to support good causes. At Hotel Ylem almost everything a customer touches comes from a different socially conscious vendor--the throw pillows, hair-dryer bags, paper coffee cups, snacks, bath amenities, linens. Nonprofits use the meeting facilities for free. Artists who display in the hotel's gallery must be involved in philanthropic work and willing to donate 18 percent of proceeds to charity.
The hotel's principal philanthropy, however, is Charity: Water. Among other contributions, Ylem donates 100 percent of mini-bar sales and a percentage of sales from its bar to the clean-water nonprofit. A water theme woven throughout the dcor pays tribute to the cause. Unfortunately, those delicate drops now carry less uplifting associations.
After the flood
On Labor Day Sumit left Hotel Ylem to pick up an employee who had lost his car. "All you could smell was mold," he says. "I was passing by all these people pulling everything they owned out into their front yards. That's how they were spending their holiday. I thought we have to get out there and do as much as we can." As friends, relatives, and neighbors have left the hotel for their homes, the siblings are welcoming relief workers to all three Houston-area properties.
Meanwhile the Dalwadis have collected and donated shower curtains and blankets to a nonprofit that provides housing for people on limited incomes and organized a back-to-school drive for backpacks and school supplies. Profits from the bar are going to The J.J.Watt Foundation, which has fielded a major relief fund. The siblings are launching a furniture drive, starting with inventory from the old Holiday Inn Express, which they had planned to sell. And they are collaborating on a fundraiser for women and families affected by Harvey. A charity concert with the singer Vidya Vox is in early stages.
As they consult with their like-minded vendors, the siblings are on alert for new ideas and opportunities for collaboration.
"During the storm you couldn't help worrying about personal things. Now we are starting to pull ourselves out of those issues, " says Sumit. "This is the new normal. How do we help?"