It was protrusive in the early 1940s, when Indian immigrants started contributing to the
evolving hospitality industry in the US, which now their children and grandchildren have turned
into an empire. No wonder, now nearly half the country’s motels are owned by Indian-
Americans. A majority of these owners are from India’s western state of Gujarat.
According to Pawan Dhingra, the author of ‘Life Behind the Lobby: Indian American Motel
Owners and the American Dream’, it was during the early 1940s, when Indians from Gujarat,
especially the Patels who first arrived in the US, with virtually no experience in hospitality
started contributing to the evolving hospitality industry. According to the author, the US was an
attractive option to them for two reasons – When India got independence from the British in
1947, the newfound freedom and unrest (partition) within the country made them access
options overseas. In addition to this, the US Nationality Act of 1940 had revised laws regarding
American citizenship and naturalization, thus obviously opening more opportunities.
The 1940s was also a time when native-born hoteliers were looking to get out of their motel
business because they were either becoming too old to run the day-to-day operations, or their
children weren’t interested in it. The Patels could not afford hotels, but small motels—usually
financed through their savings or loans from their extended family—were within their budget.
Interestingly, the first famous Gujarati hotelier in the United States was a man named Kanji
Manchhu Desai, who joined two Gujarati farm workers in California in 1942 to take over a 32-
room hotel in Sacramento, California, after the property’s Japanese-American owner was
forced to report to a World War II internment camp. According to Mahendra Doshi, a
California-based historian who is working on a book about early Gujarati hoteliers in the United
States, Desai moved in 1947 to the Hotel Goldfield in San Francisco, whose doors were always
open to new immigrants from Gujarat. He encouraged them to enter the hospitality business:
“If you are a Patel, lease a hotel”. Many followed his advice. “They would give each other
handshake loans—no collateral, no payment schedule, just pay when you can,” Doshi explains.
Once a family purchased a motel, they would live there, and the family members would do all
the tasks needed to run it, from cleaning rooms to checking in guests. That helped keep costs
down, and profits went toward acquiring new motels.
As a new immigrant to the United States in the early 1970s, more Patels migrated to the United
States, this time from East Africa and Britain. Since they had an established motel clan, the
hotel industry had become more easily accessible to them, and more people got into the
business. Owning a motel back then was gritty, unglamorous work, involving long hours,
something that the Patels were willing to do. There were no easy bank loans then. They would
live and work in the motel with their immediate family and later started sponsoring visas for more of their family back home to help them run their motels. For many second-generation
Gujaratis who were raised in a motel run by their parents, life was hard! However, by the 1980s
Gujaratis had come to dominate the industry. Today, the remarkable thing is how Patels have
refused to recede from the hotel scene, or just pass their property on to the next generation.
Currently, the new waves of Patel moteliers are still making their way to United States, backed
by the security of their extensive familial network. There are fabulous new stories of grit and
perseverance, which demonstrates how Indian-Americans are now running nearly half of all the
US motels with good success.