If the walls could talk at the new Holiday Inn Express & Suites in Niles, it would tell the incredible story of the family behind Lakhani Hospitality that owns and operates a small portfolio of hotels in the Chicagoland area. Chief Operating Officer Sheila Lakhani Gilani proudly tells the story of her father, Mansoorali, who left his home in Pakistan at the young age of 19 with just a few dollars in his pocket. He worked his way from factories and driving taxicabs to managing refueling stations and Subway restaurants before realizing his family needed something even more to carry them into the future. 

“He’s always had a vision … he wanted to build an empire for his kids and do something where we could carry on his name,” says Sheila. So, as she pursued a graduate degree in hospitality and tourism in 2004, the father and daughter decided to team up on their first hotel, the Holiday Inn Chicago North Shore in Skokie, thereby establishing their eponymous hospitality company.

ILM+E: Why did the family decide to operate hotels in the suburbs rather than the city?
SLG:
Our first hotel in Skokie was just about three minutes from our house, and it quickly became our flagship. We know the suburbs and we feel like that knowledge helps our sales team to cross-sell properties. The city is a nice place to do business but you can lose yourself. On the other hand, you can have great presence and great identity when you work with small suburbs, including city officials and chambers of commerce.

ILM+E: How important are meetings and events for your business?
SLG:
The Holiday Inn in Skokie now has one of the largest continuous ballrooms on the North Shore [with 10,000 square feet]. It’s become a highly preferred hotel for meetings and events and social gatherings like weddings. At our new hotel in Niles, there’s also a focus, which is rare for an Express property. We have a small board meeting room for 14-16 people and a 1,500-square-foot meeting room that breaks into two. It’s super modern with many built-in displays.

ILM+E: Is there anything special you offer to planners?
SLG:
We have complete meeting packages and half-day packages and can act like a one-stop shop. We’re really good about customizing packages too. We also have expertise. Our Catering Director Toni Mengarelli has been with these properties more than 40 years and is a wonderful asset to our company. Our clients love her and come back to her for all their family events. It’s really great to see how much of a community you can build. lakhanihospitality.com

Originally from Ontario, Heather Odendaal got her start in event planning early, serving as her high school’s head of social events. She ended up on the West Coast, courtesy of her studies at the University of British Columbia, and launched her career in Whistler, working for the resort in marketing and events. Today, she’s CEO of Bluebird Strategy, a boutique event planning firm, and CEO and founder of WNORTH, a global community of women who have their sights set on the C-suite.

 

You may not have seen her name among Chicago’s James Beard award nominees or caught in the buzz of another trendy eatery opening, but the ripples of Rita Dever’s culinary creations have made an impact far and wide. After cooking around the world, the Pacific Northwest native put down roots as Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises’ (LEYE) associate partner and corporate chef where she collaborates in the company’s test kitchen to innovate new dishes for all LEYE restaurants.

 

Denver native Keisha Makonese’s passion for planning events dates way back. Her latest gig as director of sales and corporate events at Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum began nine years ago. In this role, Makonese helps oversee an average of 150 private events at Wings Over the Rockies each year, from making meetings for 20 people to annual dinners for 2,000 fun and interactive experiences.