A Motel of One's Own

A sociologist dissects the American Dream of Indian immigrants, who now own more than half of all budget lodging in the U.S.
Pawan Dhingra
“These immigrants came with limited resources and ended up for the most part finding economic security and most importantly, enabling their children to advance in this country,” says Pawan Dhingra. Photo: Kelvin Ma
November 27, 2012

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If you’re staying the night at a Super 8 in Sioux City, S.D., or an Econo Lodge in New Jersey, the odds are that the motel owner not only has the surname Patel, but his family comes from the state of Gujarat on India’s west coast. That’s because Indian Americans, especially Gujaratis, now own about 60 percent of all budget motels in the United States—valued at well over $100 billion dollars—impressive considering they started buying low-end motels only about 50 years ago.

Pawan Dhingra, professor of sociology in the School of Arts and Sciences, had long heard about this remarkable business story. Clearly these immigrants were successful entrepreneurs, making their own American Dreams. But how, he wondered, did these Indian Americans build a sense of community? How do they relate to their customers, and how do they live in parts of the country where immigrants stand out and are sometimes not welcomed?

He answered those questions in his new book, Life Behind the Lobby: Indian American Motel Owners and the American Dream (Stanford University Press, 2012), which examines their experiences. Dhingra sat down recently to talk about his research with Tufts Now.

Tufts Now: How would you describe these motel owners?

Pawan Dhingra: They have created what likely is the largest ethnic enterprise in U.S. history. They own about half of all the nation’s motels and hotels, with a concentration in lower- and middle-budget motels. In a sense, they appear as the American Dream incarnate: self-employed, self-sufficient, boot-strapping immigrants.

They own almost two million rooms. Seventy percent of the owners share the same surname, Patel, although they are not all related. Most come from Gujarat, and a majority from within a 100-mile radius of the central region of the state. Patels alone own about one-third of all the nation’s motels.

How did this phenomenon get started?

In the 1940s, some immigrants from Gujarat came to San Francisco and realized jobs were limited, given their skills. They would live at residential hotels, where they could stay for months, because it’s what they could afford. Then they began to think, Maybe we can run one of these: it’s a lot of hard work, but it’s not complicated and doesn’t require a lot of English-language skills.

As more Patels came to San Francisco, they learned through their village connections about the hotel business. The properties were affordable, and there was little competition, because most of the places were run down. In addition, you could live there for free. Your expenses are low, so you don’t have to make as much money as in other businesses. This population was eager to work on their own, to be self-employed.

How did you get to know the motel owners?

One way was through word of mouth: I’d meet one owner, who would tell me about someone else, and there was a domino effect. I also went to places where a lot of owners go, say, a local temple. A lot of male owners play volleyball, which is a common pastime in Gujarat. They do it here, too, so I went to games. In addition, there are major conventions of Indian motel owners, and I went to those. There is an annual national convention of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, for example, which attracts major speakers like George W. Bush, Al Gore and Bill Clinton.

It appears they are very successful. Is that true?

These immigrants came with limited resources and ended up for the most part finding economic security and most importantly, enabling their children to advance in this country. Pretty much every child of an owner I met who grew up in the United States had the opportunity to go to college, which is pretty remarkable.

What are the challenges?

There are more complications than you imagine. For example, customers may not want to rent from an Indian; owners have a lot of stories about this. A customer drives in, sees an Indian behind the desk and drives away, or a customer does come in, but finds an excuse not to stay. So the owners would have to hire a white desk clerk or someone from the local population, but not an Indian, so as not to convey to the public this is clearly an Indian-owned motel.

A lot of owners have apartments behind the motel office. If I’m in my apartment, which is basically one thin wall away from the lobby, and I’m cooking, you’ll smell the food. So families would cook Indian food when fewer people were checking in, or they would run big fans. In other words, they found methods to limit the ways they are different. Some would even change their names.

In the 1980s and ’90s other motel owners put up signs that said, “American owned and operated.” You wouldn’t see that at a big franchise, such as a Comfort Inn or La Quinta, but they were there. After 9/11, the signs went up again for awhile.

How do the Indian American motel owners maintain their cultural identity?

In urban areas, it’s fairly easy to maintain their culture, because they are around many other immigrants. They build up associations, religious centers and cultural groups, and they have more food options. They get together on weekends.

But many of the motel owners are off interstate highways or in small towns. It’s remarkable that this group has been able to maintain very strong ties to their culture despite being in, say, rural Pennsylvania. Because the parents live where they work, the kids aren’t in after-school programs; they’re always at the motel. So the parents have more opportunities to speak to them in their own language, listen to their music and eat their own food.

The families are very committed to getting their kids together with other Indian kids and sometimes go to other motels to visit Indian families. They travel back to India when they can. They talk about religion and what it means to be Indian in America. The kids show off dances; a lot of matchmaking goes on.

Do the children of these immigrants want to continue in their parents’ businesses?

Being self-employed is a big part of the ethos of this group. Even if someone grew up hating the motel, he may say, “I majored in physics, got a job as an engineer, and five years later, I’ve hit the glass ceiling.” He may feel as if he’s never going to be in control of his own destiny. So he decides that self-employment is for him and owning a motel is the obvious path to take, because his family can teach him what to do. He grew up in the business, and he has connections.

Have these motel owners truly achieved the American Dream?

On the one hand, they have attained a remarkable achievement: owning a business, helping their children get an education. But if you go below the surface, you realize their success is not what you think of as the American Dream. That scenario doesn’t include hiding your background or covering up who you are, yet that’s part of their story. Is that really the American Dream? Not really, but certain outcomes, like economic security and educational achievement for kids, are part of that dream.

Are the children of the owners assimilated into American culture, like the second generation of other ethnic groups usually is? Or is it different because these families are living more isolated lives in their motels?

The children are well assimilated into American culture, if by that we mean they speak English fluently, dress as most Americans do, know the pop culture that many people of their age and gender know and so on. But they have done this while also knowing their ethnic language, maintaining ties to their families, being familiar with Indian popular and traditional culture and the like. One unexpected element among the second generation is a different approach to running the business than their immigrant parents, which the second generation attributes to growing up in the United States. Tensions can arise within families, as the second generation takes a riskier approach to business growth than parents often do, and they have divergent attitudes towards spending and cost control.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu

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