In India: A Portrait, a new book by Patrick French, I found this curious travel tidbit: A potel is a motel run by someone from the Gujarati community of Patels; Indians now control around half of all U.S. lodging properties, and the officers of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association are Hemant D. “Henry” Patel, Tarun S. Patel, Chandrakant I. “C.K.” Patel, Ashwin “Ash” Patel, Alkesh R. “Al” Patel and Fred Schwartz.
Fascinated, I did a little more research and discovered that there are 3 million Indian-Americans, 50,000 of them called Patel. The name is especially common in the Indian state of Gujarat, originally meaning village headman. But how did Patel come to be synonymous with hotel ownership in America?
Chandinand Rajghatti, a writer-editor for The Times of India, told the story in one of his Indiaspora columns from 2004. The trend took shape in the early 1970’s when dictator Idi Amin expelled some 70,000 people of Indian background in an effort to make Uganda homogenously black African. Many of the refugees landed in England and the U.S. where they entered the lodging industry at the lowest level, as in Mississippi Masala, a 1992 film about a forbidden love affair between a black carpet-cleaner (played by Denzel Washington) and the daughter of an Indian immigrant from Uganda (Sarita Choudhury) who works in the housekeeping staff in a small motel.
From there an article in USA Today picked up the story. Gujaratis have long had a reputation for hospitality, making them naturals for the hotel industry. A willingness to live on the premises and do the hard, menial work of motel-keeping instead of paying staff, made them prosper especially in limited-service, budget accommodations. Gradually, though, Patels moved up, buying into major hotel chains like Marriott and Sheraton. For instance, Philadelphia-based Hersha Hospitality Trust, begun in 1984 with a single motel, now has 78 properties--including Hiltons, Hyatts and Wyndhams--accounting for over 10,000 rooms.
The high-tech savvy of Indian-Americans is well know; in iIndia: A Portrait author French notes that they are responsible for one in every 6 Silicon Valley start-ups. But their domination of the hospitality industry came as good news to me in these hard-pressed times, with the gap between the rich and the poor looking ever more uncross-able. Talk about a good old American success story.