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Room at the top
The Patel-Motel phenomenon is a bittersweet story of immigrant struggle and success.
The United States motel industry throws up some interesting statistics - one of every two motels is owned by Indian-Americans;70 per cent of these Indianowned motels are run by Gujaratis;and three-fourths of all Gujarati motel owners share the surname Patel. Sociologist Pawan Dhingra has examined the Patel-Motel phenomenon in his recent book, 'Life Behind The Lobby: Indian-American Motel Owners And The American Dream'. In an email interview with TOI-Crest, Dhingra, a professor at Tufts University, Massachusetts, discusses how people from a single Indian state came to dominate this industry, and their role in shaping contemporary America.
How integral is the motel industry to the US economy?
Motels are a quintessentially American industry in many ways. The term motel is a shortened version of motor-lodge, which refers to lodgings on the side of the road. The notion of packing up the kids in the car and going on a family vacation is an American tradition that became popular as highways were built up and leisure became a commodity. So, motels are not just part of the economy but part of the American identity.
How did Gujaratis come to dominate this industry?
The history of the Gujaratis' role in the industry dates back to the 1940s, in San Francisco. There they ran residential hotels, which were inexpensive and catered to a population that was more financially insecure. These early immigrants sponsored relatives who arrived in the 1950s who joined the hospitality industry and started running motels. The first motel run by an Indian was the Mart Motel in San Francisco, which today is a Rodeway Inn franchise. Then in the 1960s and 70s, many more Gujaratis arrived, from East Africa and Britain. Many of these individuals were trained in engineering and other fields. They joined the motel industry after a few years because they knew someone already in it and thought it would provide more opportunities than their trained line of work. Other immigrants joined motels right away because they were sponsored by motel owners and were looking for a small business to run. What made the dominance of the industry easier was that they were looking to join motels at a time when more motels were for sale.
Why are most motel owners Patels?
Most of the first owners in San Francisco in the 1940s and 50s were Patels, and they sponsored their relatives to come to the US. This meant that more Patels were joining the industry. Also, those from East Africa who immigrated to the US were often Patels. They had been business owners there and wanted to pursue business in the US, and so many opened motels as well.
Were cultural differences a hurdle?
There have been a few cultural hurdles. Language is one. Luckily in the family, there typically is at least one person who speaks English well enough to run a motel. Owners also have found ways to make their ethnicity less extreme to the customer. For instance, they often change the names on their business cards to short American names. This makes it easier for guests, staff, and vendors to talk to the owner. Owners rarely display ethnic or Hindu items in their lobbies since they feel it has no place in the business. In these ways owners though not ashamed of their ethnicity are not making themselves stand out more than they need to.
Have the attitudes and lifestyles of Gujarati motel owners changed over the years?
AAHOA has helped professionalise owners and strengthened their role in the industry. For instance, hundreds of vendors attend their conventions. AAHOA has an increasing voice in politics. Over the years, Gujaratis have entered higher and higher budget establishments. Now it is common for Gujaratis to own high-end motels and even full-scale hotels. This was not the case 20 years ago. Such families live in homes separate from the motels, in residential areas. At the same time, Indians still run the budget establishments, and those families often live in their motels. So, in some ways things have changed and in other ways they have stayed the same.
Are the children of Gujarati motel owners keen on taking over the family business?
Yes and no. Many who grew up in the motel swear they do not want to come back into the business after they go to college (and practically all children of motel owners go to college - a remarkable achievement by the families). They get jobs in the white-collar workplace, such as being engineers or in the sciences. But they encounter a glass ceiling or feel that they could make more money and have more freedom if they owned their own business instead of working for someone else. So they gradually come back to the motel industry. They have the resources of their families and community to draw from to help them succeed. And they will own places that often are a bit higher status than that of their parents, so they feel that they are moving up the ladder and improving upon what their parents have established. Other children know from an early age that they want to stay in the industry. Some may go to hospitality school or business school with the intent of expanding the family operations. And now it is common for those raised in the US to enter fields that are related to the industry, such as real estate, banking, furniture development, and law. So even if they are not running motels, they are part of the industry more broadly. Of course, a number of children grow up and leave the industry entirely and do not come back, but a very good number do eventually become part of the industry.
How significant is the role of Gujarati motel owners in helping shape America?
This is a key part of the story that is under-appreciated. Without Gujaratis taking over small motels across the country, these places would have been abandoned and boarded up. In effect, Gujaratis have saved many business districts from having vacant properties. Moreover, there has been a major growth of newly constructed motels over the past 15 years, and Gujaratis are responsible for about half of that new construction. So Gujaratis have helped create thousands of jobs in the US.
How do you see the future of Gujarati motel owners shaping out?
The sluggish economy has been very difficult for owners. People have been selling their properties at a loss and facing bankruptcy. They have cut staff and now are working more and more hours themselves. Some have found creative ways to recoup lost income, such as starting a shuttle service to an airport that they drive themselves at odd hours. During the dark years of the recent recession, many owners wanted to get out of the industry entirely. They hoped that franchise companies would lower fees. Now that the economy has turned around, owners who weathered the storm are more optimistic about the future. Still, the troubled economy has made Gujaratis rely on their proven tactics all the more, of finding ways to serve the customer while keeping costs down.
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