Community activist, hotelier and entrepreneur Elvin Lai is Pacific Beach’s new honorary mayor

Elvin Lai is the 2021 Honorary Mayor of Pacific Beach.
Elvin Lai is the 2021 Honorary Mayor of Pacific Beach.
(Joel Zwink)

Elvin Lai might just be the busiest man in Pacific Beach.

As the fourth-generation owner/operator of the Ocean Park Inn hotel on Grand Avenue, Lai has firmly entrenched himself in the PB community. He implemented the Pacific Beach Clean & Safe program through Discover PB, serves on the San Diego Foundation COVID Relief Fund executive committee and was recently appointed as the 2021 board chair for the San Diego Convention Center Association.

In April, he’s unveiling a redesign of the hotel based on Pacific Beach’s classic surf culture.

And — fun fact — Aug. 31 will be Elvin Lai Day in San Diego, an honor bestowed by Mayor Kevin Faulconer after Lai’s term as president of the San Diego County Hotel-Motel Association ended.

All of this adds up to Lai being recognized as the 2021 Pacific Beach Honorary Mayor — a title earned despite the fact that Lai and his family don’t even live in Pacific Beach (they live in Carmel Valley).

Elvin Lai with his wife, Nan, and their daughter, Aanya.
Elvin Lai with his wife, Nan, and their daughter, Aanya.

“This is the first time that a business owner who is not a community resident was honored with that role,” Lai said during a phone interview. “So it’s outside of their usual scope.”

The honorary mayor position is established by the Pacific Beach Town Council as a way to highlight members of the community who are working toward the betterment of the community.

Town Council President Marcella Bothwell said she nominated Lai because she wanted to bring groups together to work on community goals.

“Elvin is a dedicated member of Discover PB and is an example where the Pacific Beach Town Council and Discover PB can work together on, for instance, the Discover PB Clean and Safe Program,” Bothwell said.

Lai’s lineage in Pacific Beach dates back to the 1960s, when his grandfather and great-grandfather invested in the Ocean Park Inn property. His father, Phillip Lai, eventually took over, running it until his death in 2003 at the age of 47.

Elvin Lai was just 20 years old at the time of his father’s death. He’d grown up around the hotel property, working there as a child and throughout high school. He had graduated from the University of San Diego with a bachelor’s in biology, minoring in chemistry.

When his father passed away, Lai said it took him about a month to decide that he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“You definitely have to grow up overnight. Luckily, my science degree was useful in business, surprisingly. There are a lot of similarities there,” he said.

For Lai, a sense of community had always been important. And so, at such a young age, Lai knew that in order to succeed, he couldn’t do it alone.

“Luckily, I had the wherewithal to put a board of directors together of my dad’s closest friends and his business advisers, like his financial adviser, his CPA, his friends. And they kind of just guided me those first couple years,” he said. “People have changed on that board of directors throughout the years, but that was instrumental in really figuring out the landscape. I definitely knew I didn’t know anything.”

In April, the property will celebrate 30 years as the Ocean Park Inn, just in time to debut a reimagining of the hotel. The hotel shut down during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic. It reopened, then shut down again for renovations.

The idea for the reimagination had been on his mind since 2007, he said. It just took some time to convince his business partners/relatives that it was worthwhile.

“I’m glad it took that long because we were able to really identify what Ocean Park Inn is to us as a family, but more importantly, what Ocean Park Inn is to the community,” he said.

The interior reflects the local surf culture.

“When you go through all the hallways, it’s a walking tour of PB. We have these huge wallpapers of these different streets, of the pier, of different areas of Pacific Beach,” Lai said.

They’ve incorporated works from local artists and added unique touches, like having Randall Engstrom, the owner of Randall’s Sandals, doing sandal art in the lobby.

“It’s just pulling in individuals and kitschy things that we have in PB,” Lai said of the hotel’s aesthetic.

While gearing up for a major unveiling of a renovated hotel might be enough to keep some people busy, Lai has also found time to participate in other community initiatives. Establishing the PB Clean & Safe program is something of which Lai is particularly proud.

According to its website, the program was established to “help homeless individuals by providing jobs and upward mobility, and also decrease complaints associated with inappropriate behavior.”

“It all started with a homeless town hall that I did at the Town & Country Hotel,” Lai said. “I did it because I wanted to better understand how to help my community here in PB and my hotel in PB. Being a beach community, it’s very prevalent. And through that, we really learned that it was a small population of the unhoused that was really causing the problems. A majority of the people have just mental disabilities and a lot of them just want a hand up, and so how do we do that?”

“We found that when an unhoused person went straight into the workplace, they had spent so much time being unhoused that it was a hard transition,” Lai said.

The Clean & Safe program aims to help unhoused people with that transition by providing training and jobs.

Lai’s dedication to the community is something he says he gleaned from his father, who imparted a strong work ethic in his son.

“My father always taught me the importance of playing chess. What he told me was, ‘Do you want to be the chess player or the chess piece? Both are very important. What do you want to be?’ I want to be the chess player, I want to be the man moving all the pieces,” Lai said.

Lai said it took him a few years after his father’s death to understand what that meant.

“I can’t ask him what he meant by it, but what I took from it was I need to make sure my competitors are doing well. If my competitors aren’t doing well, I’m not doing well. If the local businesses aren’t doing well, I’m not going to do well at the same time.”

In his spare time, of which there admittedly isn’t much of, Lai likes to spend time with his wife, Nan, and their 3-year-old daughter, Aanya.

“You know, when you love doing something, it doesn’t feel like work, right? But there has been a balance that I need to do because my three-year-old daughter at home needs time too. She loves painting my nails and cooking with mom, but I need to figure out how to balance that,” Lai said.

One thing is for sure: Lai’s father would certainly be proud of the community activist and entrepreneur his son has become.

“I really do love PB. I love the people here, the community. PB has so many active community members that it’s really a power to be reckoned with. We have the business community and the residents that are super vocal on whatever issue it may be,” he said. “We flood email inboxes with issues. When there’s a call to action, we show up. I know there are other communities like this, but I’m really proud of what PB has always been and has become.”