Upon first glance, it may seem that there is little overlap between the work of a doctor and a hotelier. One must attend medical school, while the other would be better served in business school. One deals with patients, the other guests. Some would argue that a doctor experiences a more rewarding career, but for Pinnacle Hotels CEO Dr. Barry Lall this couldn’t be further from the truth. In moving from hospitals to hotels, Lall was able to continue taking care of human beings while also enabling himself to pursue his lifelong dream of entrepreneurship, and in many ways caring for a hotel is similar to caring for a human.
“I think whether they are patients or guests, I think they’re all the same,” said Lall. “And generally, guests just want to be well taken care off and not to be treated as just a routine mechanical process.”
Born in the British colony of Nyasaland in southeastern Africa, Lall grew up in a small village that lacked the modern-day necessities such as electricity and running water. During his younger years his father worked as an elementary school teacher, but when Lall was a teenager his father moved the family to Zambia where he opened a clothing store. There, his father would sometimes have Barry provide assistance as a salesman and occasionally even leave him in charge of running the storefront. Rather than feeling burdened by this, Dr. Lall said that it was during this time that he first felt a spark of interest in the freedom and excitement that accompanies entrepreneurship. However, the instability his family felt growing up led Lall to believe that the best careers were the ones that were in high demand and could provide job security such as that of a lawyer, engineer or physician. Lall felt a desire to take care of human beings and so he decided to pursue a career in medicine, earning his pre-med degree in England before attending medical school in Scotland and moving to the United States for his medical internship.
Lall settled in the United States with his family and worked hard to provide for them a good life. Within his career he enjoyed the problem-solving nature of diagnosing and treating causes for a patient’s ailments, but found the overall environment did not bring any joy or satisfaction to his life.
“During my internship after graduating from medical school, there were many days when I shed tears from being mentally and physically exhausted about having the responsibility of taking care of human beings,” said Lall.
He began toying in his head with the idea of a career change, and one fateful day in November 1989 he stumbled upon an ad in the local paper for a small 12-room motor lodge on the coast of California that for sale. The beach motel was rundown and hadn’t been updated in years, but in it Lall saw just another set of problems that he could diagnose and then solve. Although initially wary, his family saw how unhappy he was in his current career and how excited he was about the possibility of following his dreams, and so they backed his decision and let him know that they were willing to make the necessary sacrifices in order for him to reach them.
Lall’s people skills and diagnostic abilities that he developed during his time as a physician translated well to his new pursuit of hotel entrepreneurship, and he set to work replacing the windows, painting the walls, re-landscaping the grounds and adding new carpet and furnishings to the formerly dilapidated motel. However, there were also a whole new set of skills that Lall had to teach himself on a daily basis, but for him it was all a worthy way to spend his time.
“There was a lot of laughter, joy, and fun and although there might’ve been difficult days, it never felt so burdensome whether I was helping clean a room, or waiting on tables pouring coffee, or taking guests to the airport. I felt that this was all stress-free and fun. Those early days bring back very good memories of all the self-learning that I did, including learning how to audit a cash register, count money, and even using Excel software. I had no exposure to that in the medical world.”
Dr. Lall and his family soon moved to Tucson, Arizona where he had purchased a Days Inn with 117 rooms and a restaurant, trading their spacious home overlooking Mission Bay in San Diego for three guest rooms on the property so that he could fully dedicate himself to revitalization efforts. He soon learned that many of the skills he honed during his time in the medical field were directly applicable to both running a hotel and hotel investment, and by 1998 had incorporated his own business, Pinnacle Hotels USA. Having learned the ins and outs of what makes a hotel successful, Lall developed a specialty in focusing on identifying hotels that require a turnaround.
“I thrive on finding hotels that are underperforming for a variety of reasons, for reasons that can be fixed,” said Dr Bharat Lall. “If the hotel is underperforming because of a poor location, that is something you can’t change. So that is not a variable that you want. No, you want to focus on factors that can be improved upon. I think for me finding that diamond in the rough is what I like doing. And that’s challenging and requires a lot of patience and discipline.”
For Lall, when it comes to being a good businessperson, he believes people often try to over complicate simple ideas. In order to be a good hotel operator, he believes that being a good listener is key. Just as listening during his time as a physician helped him better understand his patients, Lall has found that listening and communicating well is all about adjusting your communication levels to the person you are talking to while having the confidence that allows them to gain your respect.
“A lot of it was just practical experience, even talking to people. Just because you see so many patients over years, that alone for me was important. For a lot of my peers, my colleagues, they didn’t care about that. As soon as the patient walks in, they’re writing their prescription to get them out. But for me, I took real interest in my patients and their families, and talked to them, and listened to them. And so I think that gave me a lot of confidence, and when you communicate with confidence it makes a real difference to the message you are trying to convey.,” said Lall.
Decisiveness was another skill that directly translated from working as a doctor to working as a hotelier. Comparing it to the medical world, Lall said that if a patient comes in with a complex issue but faces no danger of getting worse, he could take his time diagnosing them, ordering lab tests and whatever else he needed to figure out when consulting with them. However, if the patient went into cardiac arrest, he would have had to jump right in and immediately take action, doing whatever it takes to revive the patient and remove them from immediate danger. For Lall, this taught him to carefully consider how to approach each situation, remembering that some issues such as flooding in the hotel need to be treated with immediacy, while others can and deserve more planning and forethought.
Hotels in many ways are like the human body. They have different departments which all must function in a coordinated and harmonious manner to produce the most efficient results.. Through using what he learned from his time in medicine toward his career in hotel management, Lall was able to better position himself for success and ensure that his passions fully lined up with his actions.
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