Over the past 30 years, members of the large Patel community, a sub-caste of Hindu traders in India’s complex caste system who are based in the western state of Gujarat, have come to dominate the American motel business. More than 40 percent of the motels in the United States are owned by Indian Americans, and 70 percent of them are Gujaratis. Of those Gujaratis, three-quarters are named Patel.
This successful niche has been secured by a combination of hard work, networking and mutual financial support, according to Patels in various parts of the country who are active in the 15,000-member Asian American Hotel Owners Association.
Several said they or their parents started out working in a small, nondescript motel in the American heartland, as depicted in the 1991 film “Mississippi Masala,” then purchased it with help from other Patels, and gradually moved up to own several better and larger establishments.
“About 40 percent of the Patels know each other, through friends or family, so when you buy your first property, there is someone to help you with the down payment, someone to be a partner,” said Gary Patel, 41, who started out 14 years ago working “24/7 in a small motel" with no help but his relatives. He now owns a Hampton Inn in a Michigan town and is a regional director of the owners association.
Like several other U.S.-based Patels interviewed Wednesday, he said he was not familiar with the details of the ongoing unrest in India, where some groups of Patels have held protests demanding more rights and benefits under the nationwide system that sets aside quotas at universities and government jobs for applicants from castes designated as underprivileged.
“I don’t know what the full story is in India, but I know that some people see Patel as a high-rise surname, where families can send their kids to top schools,” he said. “But that is not necessarily true. A lot of Patels can’t get government jobs and placements. People may think they are in category A, but they may be in category B or C. They want to be treated the same as everyone else.”
Gary Patel and others said the motel niche worked well for new immigrants who did not have college degrees and could not find professional jobs but were frugal, willing to start at the bottom and did not mind living in a motel room in the middle of nowhere.
Not all Indian-origin motel entrepreneurs are named Patel, but most come from Gujarati Hindu trader families. The first Indian motel owner in the United States, Kanjibhai Desai, was a Gujarati immigrant in the 1940s who ran a youth hostel in San Francisco, according to Pawan Dhingra, a sociologist at Tufts University who published a book in 2012 on the Indian-owned motel phenomenon.
Others followed, many of them farmers who wanted to be independent and could rely on family support, Dhingra wrote. By the 1980s, Gujaratis had carved out a permanent niche in the motel business and were moving up to classier hospitality levels.
“Pretty much everyone started out like that, and after 30 or 40 years, some end up owning Holiday Inns and Hiltons,” Gary Patel said. “Now I have a nice property with a staff, but I still work hard and I still answer the phone. People helped me, but it’s not like anyone gave me a million dollars."
Many second-generation Patels in the United States, building on their parents’ success, have moved away from the motel business, gone to college and entered professions such as law and medicine. But others have stayed in the business, partly out of loyalty and partly because it is a familiar environment in a burgeoning field.
Vinay Patel, who operates a full-service Holiday Inn in Sterling, Va., is the Washington district regional director of the owners association. He is a second-generation immigrant who went to college but came back to the industry where his parents started as “mom and pop” owners of a small motel in the early 1980s, with help from other Patels who had come before.
“My story is a common one. When my parents moved here, we stayed in someone else’s house at first. People took care of us, and you could borrow $3,000 here or $5,000 there,” he said. “They built one hotel and sold it, then built another and sold it. Now my wife and I have done the same thing. We started at a 15-room motel and did the front desk and the housekeeping and the laundry. We kept building and selling and buying larger ones. Now people and relatives come to stay with us until they find a motel.”
Vinay Patel said he was not aware of any specific problems faced by Patels back in Gujarat, but he noted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a former leader of the state and has focused on developing it. “It is a thriving state in a vibrant democracy,” Vinay Patel said.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated in the headline that an influential clan in India owns one-fifth of U.S. motels. This version has been corrected to say that the group owns approximately half of U.S. motels.