Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

How a family planted deep Greenville roots to grow a hotel empire

Krys Merryman //February 28, 2023//

How a family planted deep Greenville roots to grow a hotel empire

Krys Merryman //February 28, 2023//

Listen to this article

City leaders have credited the Hyatt Regency on N. Main Street for anchoring the comback of downtown Greenville. The hotel is part of the Auro Hotels portfolio. (Photo/Provided)When DJ Rama’s father and uncles came to Greenville in 1976 — always looking for opportunities — they had no idea they would be creating a legacy.

DJ RamaFast forward 47 years, and Auro Hotels, which is headquartered in Greenville, is an international company with offices in Atlanta and Surat, India, and develops, owns and operates nearly 40 hotels across the Southeast.

There is no doubt that Auro Hotels has transformed downtown Greenville — playing a key role in the city’s revitalization — and has given the hospitality and tourism scene a boost.

Rama, president and CEO of Auro Hotels, shared a Sanskrit saying Atithi Devo Bhava, which translates to “guests are to be revered and treated as family,” and embodies the Rama’s hospitality philosophy.

“Why we are so passionate about the hospitality and tourism industry takes me back to our roots,” said Rama. “The values my father and grandfather taught me is to take care of guests and give them shelter.”

One of the newest downtown hotels in downtown Greenville is actually two hotels under one roof, Springhill Suites and Residence Inn. (Photo/Provided)After being raised in the Camelot motel on Augusta Road starting in 1976, he said a passion for the industry is in his DNA.

“It’s not about having a manual but having a heart and creating a soul and culture of a company as owners and developers,” he said. “And that is reflected in the way we treat our associates at the corporate office down to how we take care of our guests in each of our hotels.”

Through hard work and perseverance, the company’s first hotel was acquired in 1973, while the first hotel they built — one of the first Hampton Inns — was in 1986 in Augusta.

After the success of building their first hotel, Auro later acquired land in Greenville to build the Fairfield Inn on Pelham Road in Greenville in 1994, said Rama. This was the start of a long-term partnership with the Marriott brand of hotels.

Rama said the company began a special relationship with Marriott around the time he took his first job after college with Marriott Corporate.

“To become a franchisee, they wanted us to start at the bottom, as with anything, but later, the Fairfield Inn franchise led us to our first full-service Marriott hotel on the Parkway,” said Rama. “This acquisition was an important step in our growth. We of course love other brands like Hilton and Hyatt but have a special bond with Marriott due to the history, and we want to grow that moving forward.”

Now, 72% of Auro’s hotel portfolio is made up of Marriott-branded hotels.

When it comes to Greenville, what Auro discovered was the quality of life and nature that is unique here, said Rama.

Within a 50-mile radius, Auro has acquired many hotels in the Upstate, but over time, downtown Greenville became their bullseye — so they sold some properties in neighboring cities and focused on Greenville growth.

“Greenville has been at the heart of our expansion in the hospitality industry,” said Rama.

In downtown Greenville alone, Auro has built the AC Hotel on Main Street in Camperdown, and the Residence Inn/SpringHill Suites by Marriott on Spring Street, as well as a total renovation of the Hyatt Regency.

“The hospitality scene here calls for a high design profile, and that’s what I’m most passionate about,” said Rama. “The design of our downtown hotels really brings the scene up a notch.”

Sid Wall, executive vice president for Select Service Operations, who oversees the Residence Inn and SpringHill Suites, and AC Hotel in downtown, said when you look at the reimaging of these hotels, it goes back to everything Auro does in the industry.

“It’s about welcoming people into our homes, which is our hotels,” Wall added. “You can see it in every hotel detail. DJ has executed flawlessly to make people feel what Greenville is about when walking into one of our hotels. We welcome them in a way they have not been welcomed before. It’s special, but it’s a process that has been developed over the last 47 years. It’s a lot of work, but we are all very proud of it.”

Auro has invested close to $300 million in downtown Greenville, with more than 1,000 rooms in the city and 740 employees.

“We love Greenville, because we have found that the city has diversified industries that have allowed us to survive all the headwinds such as recessions,” said Rama. “Being a business owner in Greenville has given us a deep foundation and love for this community.”

So much so, Auro donated more than $1.25 million to local charity in the last decade, and contributed $500,000 for the construction of the Unity Park Auro Bridge.

“This symbolizes that we welcome everyone here,” Rama said. “Unity Park itself represents that.”

He said when the bank lent them money in the 1970s, they gave his family a chance, even when there was open discrimination at that time.

“Unity Park is a full circle moment for us as a minority owned business,” he added. “We had a small hand in it, but we are really proud of how far we have come.”

History in the making

When former Greenville Mayor Max Heller started his term in 1971, he brought his vision of European and Austrian flair. He did a lot of the legwork to get a hotel in Greenville that is said to be the start of its revitalization. That’s when the Hyatt Regency was born in 1982 through private-public partnerships. Creating a downtown that was walkable with tree-lined streets was a part of Heller’s vision.

Rama said his father used to bring him to the Hyatt to learn how to eat with a fork and knife when its restaurant first opened. So it was another full circle moment for the family when they purchased it from the Hyatt family in 2009, said Rama. That purchase included an office building, the 330-room hotel, and a park.

“People used to take a U-turn at Bertolo’s, so we made that area an approachable public square with plentiful seating, a stage, restaurant and patio, so people would embrace this block instead of turn away from it,” said Rama. “We revitalized the north end of Main Street, bringing it back to life.”

They activated NOMA Square with community events to bring people together, furthering the positive impact on Greenville’s economy, Rama said.

“It was a regeneration of growth in Greenville,” he added. “There was a lot of pressure to make sure they preserved its original vision and the re-grand opening in 2012 was a very touching moment for our family.”

As a 100% privately held company, Wall said you cannot overstate the family feel of Auro.

“From past to present and in the future, that’s an important part of who we are,” he added.

Rama said Auro believes in Greenville city leaders and will continue to invest in the community.

“We clearly saw people flock here during COVID, and we believe that’s due to finding a sense of place here,” he added.

Although they are still working on the details, Auro also plans to create a 9,000-square-foot event space on Main Street below the AC Hotel, where they will host live music and other entertainment.

“By creating this music corridor, we will add to the energy of Main Street,” Rama said.

Auro also intends to develop two more 200-room hotels, which will be positioned as upscale lifestyle hotels. These concepts are still in the early development stages.

From the Upstate to the Lowcountry

With Greenville as their home, Auro always wanted to enter the Charleston market, but it felt unapproachable because of how expensive it is, Rama said.

Eventually they had had an opportunity to acquire the Charleston Riverview Hotel on Lockwood Boulevard which led to the purchase of the Courtyard on the Ashley River. Later, in that same area, they acquired the Residence Inn and SpringHill Suites on Ripley Point, and now own the North Charleston Marriott and TownePlace Suites North Charleston.

“It was a domino effect,” said Rama. “Once we enter a market we want to keep growing there.”

The Ashley River is a special place for Auro, too, he added. The Marriott Courtyard design reflects the water and scenery of Charleston.

They were inspired by the river as they have a dock there, and all the watercolors in the lobby are unique with touches of mosaic art pieces, which are also reminiscent of the river.

“We reinvent properties based on the surrounding public spaces of each hotel, and that is also reflected in the guest rooms,” Rama said.

In both the Charleston and Greenville markets, Auro is the largest hotel owner in terms of number of rooms, said Rama. There are close to 1,200 rooms in Charleston among all their hotels — with more to come — and approximately 1,100 in Greenville, with close to 400 more in the works.

When Auro acquired the dilapidated Lockwood Boulevard hotel, they renovated it to become the Charleston Marriott. They then worked in partnership with the city, which was redeveloping the area, to build an addition creating one of the largest ballrooms/convention spaces in downtown. It is named after former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley — who served 40 years in office.

“He took us in with an open heart and said, ‘Let’s revitalize,’” said Rama. “He was the pillar of Charleston, so we displayed photographs of him and commemorated him in our ballroom. Offering the city a large space to gather, which is similar to the Hyatt Regency in Greenville.”

Rama said by taking ownership of the hospitality and tourism industry in each market, it allows them to attract great staff and leaders while bringing the best service to their guests.

Whenever they develop a project, they study the marketplace of each city and incorporate local stories into a design story board for their hotels. Case and point: the Residence Inn/SpringHill Suites, a dual-branded hotel, is nature-inspired, just like Greenville itself. The AC Hotel in Greenville pays homage to the textile industry, local arts and culture, and the Greenville News that was formerly located on the site of the hotel. This philosophy holds true with the Courtyard at Ashley River as well.

“Our mission is to create a story when guests visit, so they can connect to each place they are visiting,” said Rama.

Down to the signature scents of each hotel, all the senses are meant to be engaged for the ultimate experience, Rama said.

Notable partners in Auro projects are BE&K Building Group, which has built many hotels with them, and McMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture, as well as several other local partners.

“We appreciate South Carolina being a user-friendly state for business, and for the work that is done here attracting tourism,” said Rama. “Having a vision for the future ensures the state stays strong for a great future for our children.”

Auro wouldn’t be what it is today without having treated their associates like family. Rama said the next generation will continue to lead the company, hopefully well into the future.

“We will stay true to our roots and original values,” he said.