After nearly a decade in the area hospitality industry, a Rotterdam man has set out on his own, starting a hospitality transportation company to get groups of people to and from hotels, airports and events.
Tech Valley Hospitality Shuttle launched at an interesting time in the transportation industry, shortly before the arrival of the ride-sharing services in New York, but Trent Griffin-Braaf isn’t worried about their presence because he doesn’t view them as competition.
“We’re not an Uber or Lyft,” he said.
The business model is similar only in that Griffin-Braaf tries to keep his vehicles and drivers ready to go on demand on short notice. But rather than having passengers summon his vans with smartphones, he’s partnering with hotels, restaurants and corporations hosting business travelers to get groups of people to and from events and accommodations.
The idea sprang from his years in the hotel industry, when he realized many hotels in the Schenectady area didn’t offer a shuttle service of their own, and he saw a chance to start his own business.
He and his nine employees are all drivers; the fleet consists of two large 12-passenger vans and a smaller Honda Odyssey, and he expects to add a fourth vehicle soon.
One of the larger vans, a Sprinter, is upgraded for comfort and functionality, with WiFi, TV screens and a sound system. That’s good for another direction he’s expanding toward — tours. Tech Valley will take tour groups wherever they want to go but also has offered tours of its own, such as to area breweries, so that participants can sample all they want and not worry about driving.
Griffin-Braaf isn’t totally ignoring the Uber/Lyft model. He’s commissioned his neighbor on State Street in Schenectady, Transfinder, to develop an app so customers can track their van in real time as they’re waiting for it to arrive, just like the popular ride-sharing apps.
“We’re just trying to stay in the now,” he said.
It might sound like a simple matter of buying a few vans, doing some networking, and launching a website, but Griffin-Braaf's road to owning his own business included many wrong turns, two stints behind bars and a long-fought effort to build — not even rebuild — his own life before he could build a business. He recounts it with regret but without shame, and offers it as an inspirational and cautionary insight when he speaks to others having troubles in their own lives, including at the City Mission.
THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL
The New York City native grew up in Schenectady. He put his business here because he sees a lot more potential in a city that already has progressed far beyond what he remembers from growing up in the 1990s.
“I want to be part of the thriving Schenectady,” he said. “I remember when no one wanted to come to Schenectady.”
Griffin-Braaf didn’t come to Schenectady by choice — he was happy enough living in New York City. But his father passed away and his mother, who had been managing a drug habit well, stopped managing it well. Mother and child moved to Schenectady when he was 8, and the boy lived with his grandparents for a time while his mother regained control of her life.
He majored in basketball at Schenectady High School, but even that didn’t work out so well.
“Unfortunately, I stopped growing at 5-[foot]-8, so there went my hoop dreams,” he laughed. Barely earning a diploma in 2002, even with summer school credits, he went to SUNY-Morrisville and flunked out in his first semester.
Back in Schenectady with no clear path forward and a lot of the wrong friends, Griffin-Braaf began selling drugs. The only bright spot in that period was that he followed the dealer’s golden rule: Don’t use what you sell. He never developed the drug habit that had nearly destroyed his mother.
But he did get arrested for two sales in Clifton Park and, in 2005, was sentenced to four to 12 years in prison, at which point he resolved to turn himself around. With good behavior and a lot of hard work in classes offered behind bars by Marist College, he was out in just three years.
“I knew I didn’t want to back to prison,” he recalls.
But knowing that wasn’t quite enough.
“It was hard, I couldn’t really get a job.”
Griffin-Braaf fell back into drug dealing and within a year was arrested again, leaving a pregnant girlfriend without support for six months while he was jailed awaiting trial on charges that ultimately were dismissed on a technicality.
Missing their first daughter’s birth was what finally, truly turned him around, he recalls now.
“Those six months in jail were harder than the three years in prison when I was just a young knucklehead,” he said.
THE CLIMB BACK
With the felony conviction popping up on every background check a prospective employer would run on him, it was impossible to land anything more than temp work. So he swallowed his pride and temped, but didn’t lose the ambition to build toward something better.
The break came through another technicality. Background checks showed a felony conviction for “Trent Griffin-Braaf” … so he dropped the hyphen on job applications. No one found “Griffin” to be an odd middle name, apparently. And no “Trent Braaf” had a felony conviction, apparently.
He got his first permanent job as a part-time houseman, the hospitality industry’s go-to guy for whatever needs to be done, at an East Greenbush hotel, then a full-time job in the same role at an Albany hotel.
“It was the first job that I’d seen a career path in,” Griffin-Braaf recalls. Filling in at the front desk was a form of on-the-job training, and one evening he found himself the only person with any authority in the building.
“I realized I was running the hotel and I said, ‘I could do this,’” he said.
Subsequent jobs gave him titles and experience he needed, and a few frustrations here and there on missed promotions. But he singles out the Belvedere Inn in Rotterdam as a work experience and a learning experience above all the others. The Mallozzi family, owners of the Belvedere, served as mentors for him and in return he did all he could for their hotel, he said.
“Now that I’ve reached this goal I have to live up to it,” he remembers thinking upon becoming general manager.
(Bobby Mallozzi is equally complimentary toward Griffin-Braaf, calling him a team-builder who made marked improvements at the hotel. “We’re super proud of him,” he said of the former employee’s decision to leave and go into business for himself.)
The Belvedere also got Griffin-Braaf thinking about his own goals again.
“All the minor victories I had in life set me up for, ‘Why don’t you do this yourself, and do something for your family,’” he said.
Tech Valley Shuttle Service was born, and born with a foot in the door, thanks to its owner’s connections in the area hotel industry.
“Right from the jump, eight hotels said, ‘If you do it, we’ll use it,’” he recalled. He counts more than 20 such relationships now.
In a few weeks, he’ll officially cut the ribbon on the office he already occupies on downtown State Street.
Now 33 years old and married to the girlfriend who stood by him through it all, the dead-end decline and the years-long climb back up, he hopes to help others avoid the mistakes he made, including by speaking at the City Mission.
“If I can help somebody to avoid walking down the same path and making the same decision, I want to help them understand, time is of the essence, don’t squander your time doing nonsense.”
Trent and Lacey Griffin-Braaf have two daughters now, and live in Rotterdam.