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 aligned with my passions and evoked personal joy. Thanks to this advice, I am where I am now.
As a part of our series called “My Life as a TwentySomething Founder”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brandon Berkson.
Twenty-five-year-old 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 joining us in this interview series! What is your “backstory”?
My backstory starts with a passion for hotels. I’ve been deeply fascinated by them since I was a kid — some eight-year-olds want to play soccer; some have no interest and would much rather force their younger brother to imaginatively “play hotel” with them (the latter one was me). I carried my love for hotels with me as I moved around the world, from San Francisco, where I worked at a boutique hotel, to Paris and London, where I completed university and held communications positions in travel & hospitality, and most recently to New York, where I landed at a travel PR firm.
When the pandemic struck, I was furloughed for several months from the travel PR firm in New York. Needless to say, I was devastated. Not just about my 9–6, but also witnessing the tragic decimation of my beloved hospitality and travel industry.
“When life gives you furlough, make lemonade.” My out-of-a-job despair galvanized me to make an impactful contribution to my greatest adoration in life — hotels. I knew two things: I wanted to stay connected to travel, and I wanted to support hotels during a time when they needed our love most. So, with this, I created Hotels Above Par. What started out as an Instagram page touting my favorite hotels eventually evolved into, what I describe as, “an expert-curated guide with under-two-minute articles for hip travelers.” Today, in addition to a website and articles written by several well-versed travel journalists, Hotels Above Par’s readership across all platforms stands at over 70,500.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company? What lessons or takeaways idd you take out of that story?
I’ve never been on the radio speaking my native tongue, English, but I have been on the radio speaking Spanish. 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 radio 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.
Leading a radio segment in Spanish and talking about travel — during a time when it was much-needed as we were all craving it — fueled me. When I was on a furlough and back in San Diego, it was something I looked forward to every week. It also brought a bevy of people to follow Hotels Above Par, which made me very happy.
The takeaway: Life is so unexpected and full of many amazing opportunities. Who would’ve thought AP Spanish in high school would have led to my own radio segment in that language?
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Whether it’s me or our network of prolific travel journalists writing articles for us, all Hotels Above Par pieces are around 300 words. This allows for the entirety of every article to be posted on both our Instagram and website.
The goal of these concise-yet-compelling pieces is to capture users’ attention in a world where there is an overabundance of content. With the internet and social media, we are constantly on to the next page or post, just after laying eyes on it for a second. I want Hotels Above Par to be the perfect digestion of travel content.
This lessened word count makes you get creative. It brought me to create our unprecedented “1, 2, 3 Destination Guide” series, which features one place to stay, two places to eat, and three places to visit in a certain locale.
Getting creative with short-form articles spawns from being diagnosed with ADD as a child. Ever since I can remember, it was always hard for me to pay attention and fully stick with something. Hotels Above Par was designed for the distracted. It was created for those who, like me, are always on to the next thing.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My mom is a professional coach — she’s brilliant. Among many other pieces of useful advice, she has always taught me “not to get stuck in the mud,” to be resourceful and solution-oriented, and that sulking and just talking about your problem isn’t going to do anything about it. So, when I was devastated about being furloughed, my mom’s advice was reinforced full-throttle, daily. I could either watch Netflix and be sad about it, or I could create something that would give me a powerful sense of fulfillment during this time when I was out of work.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
For me, creating my own business is beyond exciting. The goal right now is to grow Hotels Above Par and reach further milestones. I have such a deep passion for every part of the guide’s existence. It makes me so excited to be able to talk about travel and hotels every day. When travel comes back, I want Hotels Above Par to be the hip, ultimate, go-to source for trip recommendations.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I believe I have made a wholesome contribution to the current pandemic-decimated hospitality industry. Hotels Above Par was created to support hotels during a time when they needed love most. Our articles help keep hotels relevant and talked about. We might not be able to fully travel at the moment, but it’s incredibly fulfilling to celebrate hotels and let them know they are on our minds.
Additionally, these pandemic-ridden months have seen us sequester at home. While we’re travel-hungry, we can’t go on vacation. That said, we can scroll on Instagram and surf the internet, more than ever. Hotels Above Par provides that profound travel inspiration that we all need right now. It has been so rewarding to have people comment on our posts or send us DMs, saying how our guide sparks so much joy for them amidst a time when it’s hard to be positive about anything.
Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
Magazines and publications have been my biggest source of inspiration — I’m always reading them. There are two that you can always catch me diving into:
First, Monocle — it holds a persona that is artfully debonair and impeccably handsome, from its aesthetic to articles. I want our readers to feel Hotels Above Par has those same qualities.
Second, A Hotel Life — the publication has garnered such a community of hotel enthusiasts who celebrate the amazingness of hospitality every day. From its readers to expert contributors, there is such a collective sense of love for the industry. I want Hotels Above Par to have that same community.
Can you share 5 of the most difficult and most rewarding parts of being a “TwentySomething founder”. Please share an example or story 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 the past five months. In addition to that, I’ve dedicated my weekends to Hotels Above Par. Yes, I’m exhausted, but that’s the life of an entrepreneur. Plus, 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 — I stayed home, worked both jobs, worked out, and went to bed. I dedicated myself to work and building my brand. I woke up the first day of the following month and immediately checked our Google Analytics; HotelsAbovePar.com had grown 115 percent in website traffic. Then, I exhaled.
- You can still be a people person during a time when we can’t meet/see people. I love meeting other industry professionals and talking travel and hospitality with them. In PR, we often take journalists out for coffee and chat about story ideas. I find so much enjoyment in meeting new travel-obsessed people. So, when the pandemic struck, these interactions were put to a halt. I had to pivot these IRL like-minded conversations to the digital stage. And, let me tell you, since doing this, I have never in my life made more connections with industry professionals and journalists.
- Don’t let social media consume your life; it’s bad for your mental health. Like many other Millennials, I spend way too much time on social media. It’s a bit hard to set limits when you have an Instagram account that requires frequent attention. There are times where I am fatigued by just looking at my phone, however, I can’t stop doing it. While this attentiveness has helped my brand grow, it sometimes, just 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 feel so guilty about hurting other peoples’ feelings. With that, I feel I am 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.
- 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 aligned with my passions and evoked personal joy. Thanks to this advice, I am where I am now.
What are the main takeaways that you would advise a twenty year old who is looking to found a business?
- Identify your passion and find an opportunity within it. I guarantee you, what they say is true: “If you love what you do, then you won’t have to ‘work’ a day in your life.”
- Don’t be stubborn, being open to feedback will only make you grow as a person.
- Treat others how you would like to be treated.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
I would like to get coffee with Journalist Sebastian Modak, who was The New York Times’ 52 Places Traveler in 2019. Shortly after the article was published, I saw him speak at the NYT Travel Show about his year around the world — it was extremely inspiring.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Hotels Above Par is on Instagram @hotelsabovepar and online at HotelsAbovePar.com.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!