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Last Updated: Friday, 10 October, 2003, 07:28 GMT 08:28 UK
America's Patel Motels
By Chhavi Dublish in Connecticut

Drop by at a highway motel in the US and in most cases, behind the reception you will find a distinctly Indian presence.

At a motel
Manning the motel: Indians have adapted to American expectations

The "Patel motel" phenomenon, as it is popularly known, has made a major impact on the American hospitality industry.

As many as 60% of mid-sized motels and hotel properties, all over the US, are owned by the people of Indian origin.

Of this nearly one-third have the surname Patel - a popular one among Indian Guajaratis.

Rajiv Bhatia, President of Knights Franchise System, owned by Cendant Hotel Corporation, traces the path of Indians in the hospitality industry.

"The trend started in the early 1940's, though the real growth took place in the 1960's and 1970's."

"Indians came not only from India but a sizeable chunk of [them] arrived from East Africa during the late 60's and early 70's, where political unrest drove out the Indian business class, which started looking for new lands and new business opportunities."

Roots and riches

At the time, the motel industry in US was going through a lull.

The new arrivals immediately took to it, and it soon proved to be a relatively stable business, which had the added benefit of providing accommodation and jobs for the entire family.

The immigrant sector bought obsolete, undervalued properties and converted these into decent motels by investing money and by employing family members so that labour costs remained minimal.

Morning clean
Entire families were often brought over from India to help out

Having started off owning small properties, the forward-minded group soon looked towards expansion.

This was done by careful reinvestments, and by calling forth family members and friends from back home, who provided a ready supply of loyal workers.

Dinu Patel, a Connecticut based hotelier describes how he started off: "I bought my first motel in 1981 as a side business, and in four years completely switched to this business."

"Then I called my three brothers from India, first came the youngest and then the other two and now we own a total of 22 properties spread out all over the country."

Problems after 9/11

However, the path of success has not been a smooth one.

For a long time, Indians have faced flagrant discrimination.

Mike Patel, a founder and former chairman of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), says the community used to face racial bias from the locals, especially in far-flung towns.

Incidents of bias were typically minor but irritating and time-consuming. Indians experienced difficulty with inspections, getting permits and daily help.

Check-out time: Business has boomed for the motel-owners

CZ Patel, owner of 12 properties, bought his first property in 1980 as a sideline, but the decision to become a full time hotelier was not an easy one because of the day-to-day difficulties of running a motel.

Patel explains, "Myself and my wife had a tough time getting local help and had to do everything on our own, from daily maintenance to menial jobs."

Sometimes the racial bias also came from the motel's customers. Some would leave as soon as they saw a brown face behind the counter, drumming up weak excuses.

CZ Patel said, "It was obvious that they had come in seeking accommodation but were put off by our accents and our skin color."

After 9/11, there was a certain increase in racial bias as some American motel owners began to display signs of "American-owned motel" in their windows.

Moreover, some motel owners also complained that their children were taunted at school.

Currying favour

Another hurdle that the new hoteliers had to overcome was a perceived lack of professionalism.

Mike Patel says that this, coupled with the ignorance of both Indians and Americans to each other's culture, proved a major drawback.

Another day, another dollar: CZ Patel outside his motel

Americans were used to a professionally-run business, and in their view, many Indians failed to fulfill that requirement.

Cooking curry behind the counter or letting their children play in the reception struck the Americans as most unusual, and certainly did not fit in with their definition of professionalism, says Mike Patel.

The AAHOA has tried to instill fresh values and basic hotel management skills in its members.

The organization has flourished, as its members have gone from operating a lone, low-budget motel, to owning and managing multiple properties, franchise operations, real estate brokerages and hotel-construction firms.

The growth is expected to continue, with the number of Indian hotel-owners also set to rise.

They put their success in the hospitality industry down to having kept up a tradition of family and community support.

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