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March 2006
Always Out Front
By Ellison Clary

Mohammad Jenatian has a history of being out front. He was out front promoting the building of the Charlotte Convention Center; he was out front promoting the city’s support for the building of the Westin Hotel; he was out front promoting the construction of the Charlotte Bobcats Arena; he was out front promoting the creation of a unified Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority; and most recently he’s been out front promoting Charlotte for the site of the proposed NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Jenatian was characteristically out front in 1994 when he first launched his present position as president of The Greater Charlotte Hospitality and Tourism Alliance (HTA). He had been vice president of sales and marketing with SREE Hotels (17 properties in North and South Carolina) when he helped establish the HTA, merging the Charlotte Hotel & Motel Association, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Restaurant Association, and the local chapter of the American Culinary Federation, to bring together the dominant but seemingly disparate forces in the hospitality and tourism trades.

The association didn’t have money to pay an executive, but Jenatian had experience working with the Chamber, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the Auditorium-Coliseum-Convention Center, so he took the HTA helm.

“We started meeting with no members,” Jenatian remembers. “It was just a group of us who were leaders in the industry around Charlotte.” Even after the official merger Jenatian says, “We were doing well to attract 20 people to our meetings.”

Today, with Jenatian still at the helm and many successes under his belt, the HTA represents more than 800 businesses in the greater Charlotte area including hotels and motels, restaurants and attractions such as Paramount’s Carowinds. Members’ annual dues range from $295 to $5,000 for a “corporate partner.”

Hospitality and tourism has grown into a $3 billion business in Mecklenburg County, and Jenatian calls HTA “the voice” of that industry. The HTA message, he says, is that tourism has been great for our entire region and must be recognized and embraced by decision makers for the huge economic catalyst it is now and can continue to be.

“When the hospitality industry is doing well,” Jenatian smiles, “everybody benefits. We’ve got members like SouthPark Mall: They know our mission to increase tourism revenues in Mecklenburg County ultimately means more business for them.”

The hospitality and tourism industry employs more than 60,000 people in Mecklenburg County alone, says Cindy Curry, group sales manager of Paramount’s Carowinds who recently completed a two-year term as HTA chair. She praises Jenatian for getting across the message of tourism’s economic benefits and specifically for helping her theme park become better connected.

“Mohammad has tenaciousness,” Curry says, “and a passion for the industry.”


Engineering a Future

Passion has served Jenatian well. He leaned on it when he landed in the United States in 1976. He was a 17-year-old aspiring college student, happy to have been able to leave his native Iran to pursue his dream of attending college. Revolution and war with Iraq were looming for young men like him, fresh out of high school.

He gravitated to the Charlotte area to attend classes at the English Language Center at Sacred Heart College, now a part of Belmont Abbey College. Then, after graduating from Gaston College, he enrolled in Civil Engineering at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

“The main reason a lot of people like me get into engineering,” he says, “is you don’t know any English, but you’ve got a strong background in math. Numbers are the same in any language.”

To finance his studies, Jenatian had to work. But the revolution in Iran, the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the American hostage crisis in Tehran took a toll. With his nationality and first name, Jenatian was an easy mark for those who wanted to vent frustration.

He remembers how grateful he was when he applied for a job at a Days Inn Hotel and someone asked: “When do you want to start?” Soon, he was logging 40 hours each weekend in the hotel business.

From driving a hotel courtesy van, he worked his way up and ultimately became a hotel manager. Meanwhile, he progressed as best he could toward his Civil Engineering degree, which he finally completed in 1986. By then though, he was hooked. The hospitality industry had a firm grip on him.

When Jenatian left his native Isfahan, Iran, he was glad to leave behind the threat of being caught up in revolution or drafted into war with Iraq. But tourism wasn’t what he’d mapped out for himself.

“I was thinking I would go to school for four years and get a Civil Engineering degree and go back home,” Jenatian continues. “By the time I finished my degree,” he shakes his head, “conditions back home were not what anyone would want to go back to. More importantly, I already had a life over here.” He and his wife, Donna, have been married for 14 years and have a daughter Madison, six, and son Connor, one.

Now 46, Jenatian appreciates the family he can see each day. His mother and father are deceased. He’s been back to Iran just once, for six days in 1979. The only other time he’s seen any of his Iranian family was about seven years ago when his brother, one of his four sisters and two brothers-in-law met him in Istanbul, Turkey.

Jenatian realizes his good fortune at having a loving family and a successful career in the United States. He credits much of it to that person in the hospitality industry that gave him a job when he was a struggling student from Iran and had limited English skills.

He’s seen the hospitality industry help others further their dreams, as well. “There are a lot of doctors, lawyers and bankers out there that worked in the industry in order to go to school and pay their tuition, as bartenders, as waitresses and such,” he says.

“A lot of what I’ve done over the years is payback to the industry,” he says, “And it’s payback to the community.”


Politically Astute

Jenatian’s introduction to the politics of the industry began during the ’80s when Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL Ministry collapsed under the weight of massive scandal. The Bakkers had abandoned the PTL campus in disgrace and the multitudes who visited Charlotte had no reason to return. The industry was faced with the enormous challenge of coping with and replacing such a major economic generator, which had been bringing thousands of people to Charlotte every week.

“When PTL went away,” Jenatian says, “it was almost like taking Disney away from Orlando, at least for the small number of hotels we had in Charlotte.”

Jenatian calls the loss of the PTL a major defining circumstance for the industry and for Charlotte. He, along with other leaders in the industry, got out in front to address their challenge and campaigned and ultimately convinced elected and civic leaders to support building a new convention center in Charlotte. The major issue was how to pay for the proposed $180 million convention center and how to convince law makers to support any funding legislation.

Jenatian is extremely passionate about the convention center, mainly due to the fact that he ended up being the point person to convince his industry to support required tax increases (a three percent occupancy tax and one percent food and beverage tax), and to lobby on behalf of the industry at the local and state level.

A monument to his conviction, the 850,000-square-foot Charlotte Convention Center on South College Street has steadily drawn business since opening in late 1995. Jenatian is totally committed to getting a great return on the industry’s investment and has not shied away from advocating for changes necessary to maximize the center’s business opportunities.

Based in the Merchandise Mart, Jenatian keeps his staff small but gives the HTA impact. One of the primary objectives of the HTA in the beginning years was to change and improve the structure of conventions and visitors marketing and sales for Charlotte.

Jenatian and the HTA pushed tirelessly to create the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA). That organization combined the marketing capabilities of the prior Convention and Visitors Bureau with the management responsibilities of the Auditorium-Coliseum-Convention Center under one roof with a chief executive, Tim Newman, responsible for keeping the Convention Center hopping.

Newman, tourism guru and former leader of Charlotte Center City Partners, praises Jenatian: “Mohammad’s is the voice we look to for representation of the private sector in the hospitality industry,” Newman says. “He cares very deeply about growing our industry.”

Newman, Jenatian and others continue rigorous efforts to convince NASCAR that its racing Hall of Fame belongs on property adjacent to the Convention Center. Jenatian remains confident Charlotte’s enticement package, which includes revenue from a contemplated higher hotel-motel room tax, will see the checkered flag.

The racing museum would be another attraction on a growing list of reasons for people to visit Charlotte. Meanwhile, Jenatian and his HTA members take pride in the $34 million a year they generate in hotel-motel and food and beverage taxes.


Destination Charlotte

“Charlotte has become a travel and tourism destination,” says Mayor Pat McCrory. “I give a lot of that credit to Mohammad. He’s formed partnerships to build the necessary infrastructure to help people, from the taxi driver to the waitress to the hotel owner.”

The HTA has an impressive list of priorities for 2006 that includes a five percent increase in hotel occupancy rates (up to 65 percent) and a $15 hike in average daily rates (goal of $75). It also wants a four percent hike in food and beverage revenue, with a goal of $1.75 billion. Achieving these numbers will result in $12 million more in sales taxes and more than $6 million more in occupancy and food and beverage taxes, the group estimates.

And just as they have in the past decade, Jenatian and the HTA continue to be out front – either initiating or playing a proactive role every major travel and tourism-related project in Mecklenburg County. Some of those projects include: center city stadium for the Triple-A baseball Charlotte Knights, completion of Charlotte’s River Walk as well as Sugar Creek Greenway, a U.S. National Whitewater Center, an Arts and Cultural Facilities complex and an uptown park. And the HTA has long been a champion of public transit and light rail projects as well.

At the state level the HTA has taken the lead in building relationships with statewide elected officials, with the goal of increasing their awareness regarding the tremendous economic and employment impacts of the hospitality and tourism industry in North Carolina. HTA’s philosophy is that the increased awareness and partnerships with these decision makers, such as state representative Beverly Earle, is the key to gain their support in embracing growth and development of this massive industry, which currently generates over $13 billion in annual revenues for the state.

Earle calls Jenatian “probably the best advocate the tourism industry has.” She, too, mentions his passion, compliments his affability. “He just has the kind of personality that people like and want to work with.”

Jenatian, who cites building relationships as the biggest accomplishment of the HTA, readily admits to a preference for action. “If I don’t like something, I’m going to do something about it,” he vows. “That’s what I’ve been doing all my professional life.”

He expands on that thought, again revealing his passionate nature.

“I have zero tolerance for people in this country who give you all kinds of reasons why they’re not successful, not wanting to take advantage of the opportunities that this country offers everybody,” he says. “I can tell you I have been able to capitalize on those offers.”

Right now, Jenatian’s thoughts are on putting together a comprehensive marketing plan to showcase the NASCAR Hall of Fame. And what about the fact that we don't have it yet? (The decision on which city wins is due in before the end of this month, authorities say.) Jenatian doesn’t waver in his characteristic bravado one bit: “I’m not worried about that. I’m going full speed on it.”

“I enjoy where I am,” he adds with a wide grin. “I love my job. The HTA makes a positive difference for my industry. What we do has community-wide impact.”

Jenatian’s honorific as the city’s “hospitality czar” seems to be well earned.

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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