Stop apologizing about saying ‘no’ to things. I often have this guilt about hurting other peoples’ feelings and end up constantly apologizing for saying “no” to things. Creating my own business has brought me to firmly stand my ground, which has made me a lot stronger of a person. Know that it’s OK to prioritize yourself, to set expectations. It sometimes takes courage, but it’s a lot better than living a life from fear of saying no
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic,“ I had the pleasure of interviewing Brandon Berkson.
Brandon Berkson is the founder of Hotels Above Par, an expert-curated, photo-driven online guide of under-two-minute articles designed for the hip traveler who is short on time with an emphasis on high-end, design-forward boutique & independent hotels. San Diego born and raised and now based in New York City, Berkson splits his time as both the founder of Hotels Above Par and as a travel publicist. He has a deep-rooted passion for hotels and has worked in the hospitality industry in San Francisco, New York City, Paris and London.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was born and raised in San Diego, California. While other kids were watching football on TV and playing Call of Duty on their PlayStations, I was forcing my younger brother to play hotel with me (thank you Jake, I can’t imagine that was fun for you). I was drawing floorplans of the boutique hotel I wanted to open up when I was older. My spare time was spent cultivating a well-versed bucket list via magazines and the internet of hotels and destinations I was determined to visit in my lifetime.
In an effort to be a normal teenager, I put the blueprints aside and transferred that energy into trying to like sports. I remember getting so embarrassed that I could easily tell someone all the brands under, at what was during that time Starwood, but I had no idea who was the starting pitcher or first baseman for the San Diego Padres.
Even though I put my imagination on the hold, I, looking back at it now, had a teenage start in hospitality. Growing up, my parents worked in the restaurant business — I like to think this was my first foray into the hospitality industry.
After I left home, I ditched the sports thing and refocused my efforts on hotels and travel, leading me on a journey that started at the front desk of a boutique hotel to international travel & hospitality communications positions around the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“When life gives you furlough, make lemonade.” I was presented with an opportunity when I was out of work for several months due to the pandemic, to feel sorry for myself or use my idle time to stay connected to my passion and help my beloved travel and hospitality industry by shining a light on different hotels. I made the best out of an unfortunate situation, and it’s one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I’m always delving into the magazine world, whether by a pool or at home curled up in bed. I love design and travel publications. When I created my brand, there were two main sources of inspiration I wanted to pull from. Two publications I incessantly read are Monocle and A Hotel Life; both have artfully contributed to my personal style and outward perceptions toward different modes of creativity. I’m the first one to show up at the newsstand when the coming month’s issue of Monocle is published. From its aesthetic to articles, Monocle holds a persona that is effortlessly debonair and impeccably handsome — qualities I want our audience to feel when reading Hotels Above Par. I admire A Hotel Life for the community it has garnered of hotel enthusiasts who celebrate the amazingness of hospitality every day. A Hotel Life has such a collective sense of love for the industry, and I want Hotels Above Par to have that same type of community with an unshakeable spirit.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
When I was 19, I got a job as a front desk associate and bellman at a hotel in San Francisco. I loved it; for me, it was so cool to be at the forefront of someone’s first impression of a city. I then moved to Paris and London where I completed my schooling and worked in travel & hospitality communications. It eventually led me to New York where I landed my dream job at a travel PR firm with an expansive portfolio of lauded hotels around the world.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
I was devastated by the economic and social disruption of the pandemic; not only about being out of work, but also for a world I was so passionate about, the hospitality industry. Since we had to stay at home and quarantine, for the safety of ourselves and others, it unprecedentedly floundered at a rapid rate.
My out-of-a-job despair galvanized me to make an impactful contribution to my greatest adoration in life, hotels. I knew I wanted to stay connected to travel, and I wanted to support hotels during a time when they needed our love most. And from that, Hotels Above Par was born. What started out as an Instagram page touting my favorite hotels eventually evolved into an expert-curated guide with under-two-minute articles for hip travelers.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
In March, while the world was exploding, I, just like so many of us, was glued to watching the news. I remember being so sad about my loss of a job. My mom turned off the TV. In accordance with her commanding philosophy that being “stuck in the mud” and feeling sorry for yourself will get you nowhere, that it’s crucial to be resourceful and find your way out, she provided that wake-up call I needed. She knew how much I wanted to support hotels and stay connected to the industry. So, with that, she told me to get up and make the best of this situation. I went straight to the drawing table and put together my ideas for Hotels Above Par.
How are things going with this new initiative?
I am fortunate to share things are going great. Starting as just an Instagram page in April 2020, we now have a website and newsletter. Collectively, Hotels Above Par has over 75,000 readers across all three platforms. We have had a treasure trove of travel journalists — all of whom I so revere — contribute to the guide through articles and informative Instagram Lives that pinpoint the status of the hospitality industry.
Due to this fast-growing readership, we have expanded beyond hotels to include travel-related gift guides and destination content. In fact, we launched our unprecedented “1, 2, 3 Destination Guide,” which features one place to eat, two places to dine, and three places to visit in a certain locale. When we start traveling again, I’m hoping our fan base will swear by this series.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am incredibly grateful toward my mom who never, under no circumstances, lets me get stuck in the mud and always encourages me to find a way out. Additionally, the two top heads of the travel PR firm where I work in New York — they’ve taught me so much of what I know today.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
Hmmm… the most interesting thing that’s happened — along with creating a guide that went viral — is having my own weekly radio segment. The most interesting thing of it all? It wasn’t in English. Those who know me are aware that my second passion in life, after hotels, is languages. I speak four, Spanish being one of them. Back in May, I was contacted by a friend at leading Mexican network, Radio Formula MX. She heard about Hotels Above Par and loved the concept. She knew I spoke Spanish and offered me the opportunity to speak about travel and hotels on the Baja California / Southern California station’s morning show. What was supposed to be a one-time thing ended up as a seven-month-long weekly segment broadcasted to over ten million listeners, from Los Angeles to Ensenada.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Hard work pays off. Between my PR job (I returned back in September 2020) and Hotels Above Par, I’ve been working 12-hour days for the last five months. Not to mention I’ve also dedicated my weekends to Hotels Above Par. While yes, I’m exhausted, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else and would encourage other entrepreneurs to stay the course. There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing your brand grow as a result of all that hard work. I remember there was a month where I literally didn’t have a second of spare time, and I fell into a routine of staying home, working both jobs, working out, and going to bed. I dedicated myself to work and building my brand. I woke up the first day of the following month and checked our Google Analytics; HotelsAbovePar.com had grown 115 percent in website traffic. Then, I exhaled.
- Don’t let social media consume your life, it’s bad for your mental health. Like many Millennials, I spend way too much time on social media. It can be challenging to set limits when you have an Instagram account that requires frequent attention. There are times where just the thought of looking at my phone sounds draining; however, I can’t fully ignore it. While this attentiveness has made my brand grow, it sometimes, like many people my age, affects my mental health and the ability to stay present. I’ve recently set limits to my social media consumption and am proud of my progress. That said, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
- Stop apologizing about saying ‘no’ to things. I often have this guilt about hurting other peoples’ feelings and end up constantly apologizing for saying “no” to things. Creating my own business has brought me to firmly stand my ground, which has made me a lot stronger of a person. Know that it’s OK to prioritize yourself, to set expectations. It sometimes takes courage, but it’s a lot better than living a life from fear of saying no
- When stuck in the mud, be resourceful and try to find a way out. Instead of sulking when I was furloughed, I listened to my mom’s advice and created something that was aligned with my passions and evoked personal joy. Thanks to this advice, I am where I am now.
- Your ADD, which you thought was your greatest weakness, was actually your secret weapon. Hotels Above Par’s around-300-word article format is designed for the easily distracted. Since I was a kid, I’ve always struggled with paying attention. Our format makes things quick and easy to read. In a world where there is an overabundance of content constantly competing for attention — from the ease of checking out a new website that popped up to readily scrolling to the next post on your feed — Hotels Above Par is that non-committal, digestible read for our active technology-stimulated minds.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
There seems to be negative news everywhere we turn. I channeled all the world’s intensity, combined it with my energy and drive, to create something that aligned with my passions. When things do return back to normal, I want Hotels Above Par to be one of the leading go-to travel guides. Do something you love and that motivates you. It will fuel you.
Do something that’s fulfilling and involves giving back. For me, it’s supporting hotels and keeping them relevant during a time when they are struggling.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Treat others how you want to be treated. It goes a long way, especially if you’re in a position of power.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
I would love to have lunch with Sebastian Modak, The New York Times’ 52 Places Traveler in 2019, and learn more about his globetrotting adventure. I saw him speak at The New York Times Travel Show — it extremely inspiring to hear about his year around the world and lessons learned along the way.
How can our readers follow you online?
Hotels Above Par is on Instagram @hotelsabovepar and online at HotelsAbovePar.com.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!