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Written By: Taylor Simmons King of the Playground, John Pani of San Diego
Photographed By: Michael Wesley

Title: King of the Playground
The Expert: John Pani
Credentials: Founder of hospitality investment and management firm ELE

Q: Can you please explain a little about your background and how you came to be in the hospitality field today?
John Pani: After several years of grudgingly working my tail off in banking, I knew it wasn’t my life. At the time, I had been in the Bay Area for almost 10 years, and my girlfriend (now my wife) and I wanted to return home to San Diego. I moved back without a job—and without a plan. I ended up using my investment banking background to land a job working for John Moores’ real estate company, JMI Realty. I didn’t know where my career was heading when I joined the group, but I was ultimately involved in the development of some exciting hospitality projects. I really enjoyed the front-end work, concept development, design development and the process of bringing it all together. When the hotels and restaurants opened, I participated in the management of the businesses. It was a great learning experience. Eventually, I ended up in a position to purchase a small run-down hotel of my own and implement what I had learned. But something that came naturally and really flourished within me was the hospitality. More than any other physical improvement we implemented and the biggest game changer in our little hotel was the genuine hospitality we shared with the guest. For the first time in my career, I was really happy “working.”

Q: What is the inspiration behind Park & Rec?
JP: San Diego sunshine. The neighborhood. The physical venue. The natural setting of the venue is unique for San Diego. It is comprised of three separate buildings, two of which are small houses built sometime in the early part of the 1900s. They surround a couple courtyards. The architecture of these homes, the old brick floors in the courtyards, the open-air—it feels good. The first time I visited Bourbon Street was August 2014 when we started talking to the sellers. I immediately fell in love with the place. It was a mess—dirty and rundown, but I was excited. We are just celebrating what’s there. Celebrating the old architecture, the fun history of the neighborhood, and the great feeling of a small community you get when you walk through that part of San Diego. It’s basically intended to be like a house party. It’s the house where everyone in the neighborhood hangs out and has a good time. Simple. No gimmicks.

Q: How has it been collaborating with Trevor Easter and Anthony Schmidt?
JP: They amuse me. Almost everything that comes out of Trevor’s mouth makes me laugh. But seriously, they are both very smart, creative and they make good cocktails. I’ve enjoyed getting to know them, and I’m looking forward to watching the bar program develop with their guidance.

Q: Can you explain your company ELE and what it means to you?
JP: Experience. Live. Enjoy. ELE represents my desire to create experiences that people can experience daily and truly enjoy. As purveyors of hospitality, we have the responsibility to provide an overwhelmingly positive guest experience. This is very common in high-end hospitality and is often ignored or forgotten in our everyday hospitality experiences. I believe every interaction with a guest should be treated with great care and sensitivity. There is nothing more powerful than the human connection. Of course, it is important to deliver on the comfort of a bed, the cleanliness of a hotel room, or the savoriness of a meal. But nothing outweighs the genuine respect, appreciation and care that one shares with a guest. I hope guests at my establishments experience this care every time. It is the most critical aspect to all of my projects.

Q: Who has inspired you?
JP: Gandhi (laughs). This is a really a tough question because I feel like I’m supposed to say something very inspirational which seems cliché. Where I’m at in my life right now, I’d say my family inspires me. I have three young children and becoming a father has inspired and challenged me. Having children is unlike any emotional or mental experience I’ve ever had. The responsibility is ferocious. The heartfelt love is immediate and intense. Of course, they inspire me to be the person I would like to see them become. Fatherhood is the greatest challenge I have ever experienced. I am also constantly reminded of how simple things should be. They help bring it all back to the basics.

Q: What do you think has been the biggest challenge in your career?
JP: Walking away. I have been in a couple situations in my career where I knew in my heart that I was in the wrong place. Most typically for financial reasons, I remained in those places longer than I should have. As it relates to work, I believe you cannot underestimate the value of your individual happiness. A career should bring you joy. I did not consider that early in my career. I thought a career was about making money and rising to the top of some fantastical power pyramid. That’s all BS. Eventually, when I was able to get away from those unhealthy places, I found myself growing within, taking risks and pursuing things I wanted to see happen.

Q: When you were a little kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
JP: My earliest memory is probably a Major League Baseball player. I loved baseball as a kid. I had spent a lot of time at the former Jack Murphy Stadium (now Qualcomm Stadium) before I was 10 years old. I used to go to baseball games two to three hours before the game to watch the players walk into the stadium and get their autographs. My older brother and I would play catch while we waited, and during batting practice, we would chase down home run balls. Of course, during those years, playing baseball for a living seemed like a great idea. But I was pretty young, probably around 8 or 9 years old, when I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. That stuck with me through about my second year of college. I’m glad I changed my mind!

Q: What do you like best about the location of Park & Rec?
JP: I love University Heights. I have always appreciated the feeling of a small, intimate community—you get in that area. It is quiet enough to feel small, but active enough to draw you in and create interest. The tree-lined streets and the eclectic, older architecture is interesting. When I got involved in the project, one of the first things I did was research the history of University Heights, and it was fascinating. In the early 1900s, it drew in visitors from all over the country due to the development of a remarkable outdoor garden, playgrounds and an ostrich farm where you could ride the animals. At the time, it was a playful leisure destination. Park & Rec is intended to fit seamlessly into the neighborhood. We have intentionally renovated and highlighted the historic character of the environment and have created a destination that celebrates simple playfulness.

Q: How do you feel about your personal success?
JP: As it relates to my business and projects, I feel the greatest reward when guests of mine reach out to me and share their appreciation for an experience they felt was extraordinary. I probably receive a phone call, email or letter about once a month where a guest is overwhelmed by the hospitality they received, or the emotional connection they made with someone on our team. By the way they talk or write about it, you know how impactful it was, and how it made that moment special. It isn’t always easy to execute, so when people recognize our service as extraordinary, it feels good, and it re-energizes me and serves as a reminder to treat every guest experience with utmost care.

Q: Where do you see yourself in five years? Where do you see Park & Rec in five years?
JP: I’d like to see Park & Rec become an institution like its predecessor, Bourbon Street. Our approach to the development of Park & Rec was really to create a lasting destination. It is intended to be very simple. Simple drinks, simple food, genuine hospitality and fun. The basics. These are things we should be able to do every day regardless of what is trendy and hip at any particular point in time. As far as where I’ll be in five years, I want to be a good mentor to my colleagues and employees — someone that supports and cares for the people around him and encourages personal and professional growth. I would also like to continue to create environments where genuine hospitality is ingrained in the culture and execution of everything we do. Real, authentic service.

Q: What is the best advice you have received?
JP: Don’t eat yellow snow (laughs). But seriously, it probably all goes back to Sunday school. Don’t cheat, don’t lie, don’t steal. Treat others the way you would like to be treated. There are all kinds of good and bad advice out there, but I’d like to believe that if you are honest and good to the people around you, everything else will work itself out.

ELE Collective
930 W Ivy St
San Diego, CA 92101
619.990.2167 | www.elecollective.com