Inside one of Orlando's most iconic, but aging, hotels, crews in orange hard hats are gutting the building. They're ripping up carpet, tearing down wall coverings and yanking out bathroom fixtures. The lobby is dark, meeting rooms are bare and the floors tacky from the remnants of glue.
It's all part of the renovation of the old downtown Orlando Marriott — a project meant to turn the property into a showpiece.
Orchestrated by a 30-year-old developer, the work is a floor-to-ceiling rehab of a hotel that opened in 1986 as the Omni International. Located across from the Carr Performing Arts Center and next to the old downtown Expo Centre, it was one of Orlando's earliest efforts at downtown revitalization.
But by early this year, when the hotel sold and closed, it was ready for a major refresh.
"This place had been neglected," said Marco Genio, president of the construction management team overseeing the work. "When we're done there'll be a massive change in the way it looks."
The hotel is now in hands of Alena Hospitality, a 2-year-old company run by Nik Patel, a former bank vice president. Since 2012, Patel's company has snatched up two other hotels in Central Florida — one near UCF and one near Disney — plus one in Illinois and another in New Jersey.
His strategy for each is essentially the same: Buy underperforming hotels in good locations, pour money into renovations and reopen under a new flag.
The last step in Patel's formula remains untested. None of Alena's renovated hotels has reopened yet, though its property near UCF — a DoubleTree by Hilton — is scheduled to launch next month, followed quickly by the hotel in Lake Buena Vista.
The downtown hotel — which will become the Renaissance Orlando — cost Patel $14 million, according to records provided by the city. He paid another $3.25 million for the land it sits on. The remodel is expected to cost about $17 million, according to city records, and Patel is hoping to open by the end of May 2015.
"We're doing a nice overhaul," he said, sitting in his office off Sand Lake Road. Guests, he said, will get "that new hotel experience."
Orlando officials hope the work will bring upscale accommodations to the so-called Creative Village. City spokeswoman Heather Fagan said the hotel, most recently run as a Sheraton, will add downtown meeting space, "promote business activity … and increase opportunity for downtown restaurants and merchants."
Patel said he has financed his purchases with his own money — "several million" he told an industry publication last year — and with cash from investors.
The buying spree — and Patel — have made a splash in Central Florida.
In 2013, Patel was named one of Orlando Business Journal's "40 under 40" and the New Entrepreneur of the Year by the Indian American Chamber of Commerce Orlando. Facebook photos show him hosting a fundraiser for Florida Gov. Rick Scott and posing with state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.
But there are inconsistencies in Patel's personal narrative.
Until last week, his corporate biographies — on his two company websites — said he graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in business administration. But university officials said that's not correct. Patel, they said, was a student but never earned a degree.
Asked about that last week, Patel, accompanied by Alena attorney Rusty Huseman, said he didn't write his bios and was unaware they were inaccurate.
"I need to get that fixed right away," he said to Huseman. "Can you make a note of that?"
The company's website was changed after Patel's interview with the Sentinel.
Likewise, Patel has described himself as a "part owner" or "former part owner" of the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies — an impressive calling card that's been highlighted in multiple news stories and was featured on his LinkedIn page. Patel said his stake in the club amounted to a $250,000 investment made through a friend who was part of a group that briefly held a small interest in the team.
A Grizzlies spokesman, however, said the team reviewed its records and "could find no record of Mr. Patel ever being part of a Memphis Grizzlies ownership group."
Patel removed any reference to the Grizzlies from his LinkedIn profile after talking with the Sentinel.
In addition to running Alena, Patel is CEO of First Farmers Financial, a specialty lending company, and one of the owners of Mingos, a downtown restaurant. Patel's first foray into restaurants — a business called Heat — opened in 2010 and lasted less than year.
Patel said he lost $1 million but called the venture "probably the best learning experience I ever had."
"The most expensive degree you can get," he said, "but you live and learn."
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