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A warrior against one of the hospitality industry’s ugliest fits of prejudice died last week, likely dimming recollections of a time when innkeepers could be openly disparaged if their skin color and accent signaled a particular immigrant background. Success failed to protect that large incoming group from being disparaged as inferior and disreputable in the politest of conversations, be it small talk during a conference’s cocktail reception or the asides of a keynote speaker. It was perfectly acceptable to slight the Patels, just as you could crack jokes about someone who was presumably gay or exchange leers with another man if an attractive woman walked past.
This wasn’t Mississippi in the 1950s. We’re talking the Southeastern United States in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. At the time, the backroads were dotted with motels that had sprung up post-World War II to serve America’s suddenly mobile middle class. Typically some sort of breakfast joint shared the pad. Many of the properties had fallen into disrepair as glitzier national brands like Holiday Inn and Ramada advertised their better accommodations at a comparable price.
For reasons that are still not clear, a wave of immigrants from the Gujarat state of India started emigrating to the United States in the 1980s in search of opportunity. Many used the surname “Patel,” a onetime honorific in their homeland that signified the bearer owned property. Whether through serendipity or one success fostering ample word of mouth, many were drawn to the moth-eaten motels that no one else wanted. They bought the properties for a song and literally rebuilt the inns to make them economically viable again. Through a heavy investment in sweat equity, they generated the cash flow to buy more places and fix them up, too.
By the early 1990s, the Patels and their immigrant countrymen were estimated to own 70% of the nation’s budget-priced hotel rooms. With that kind of market share, many of the nation’s big motel chains realized they either had to cede the market to these foreign-born invigorators, or try to bring them into the fold as franchisees.
Much of lodging’s old guard moved with what at best can be called resignation. It was often thinly veiled discrimination. Suppliers were reluctant to extend credit. Patels with six or eight hotels to their name would wait hours to see a banker, only to be flatly turned down. Chainmates groused that the public’s impression of their brand was being dragged down by the standards of the Patels.
Enter an industry veteran named Mike Leven, president at the time of Days Inn, then one of the nation’s largest chains of economy priced hotels. He was a shrewd businessman, but he had a soul and a belief that the right thing to do could also be the most lucrative. Growing up in New York, he’d seen signs flatly stating that he was unwelcome at establishments in mountain getaways upstate because he was Jewish. Now he was hearing franchisees and corporate staff disparage the Patels as shifty and dirty, facts notwithstanding.
Leven compared the Patels’ property inspection scores and other measures of their performance as franchisees and compared them to the grades for the system as a whole. The exercise revealed incontrovertibly that the Indian immigrants were outperforming their non-Indian counterparts by whatever gauge was used, and told the whole field of operators as much. He also signaled that he would run the chain accordingly.
Days Inn was a big franchise chain, but only one. By then, many Patels owned multiple properties in a market, necessitating them to give different brand identities to their properties. And not all of those systems were as enlightened as Days.
Leven worked with the immigrant operators and a former publisher of mine, Jerry Merkin, to form a group to weigh against the prejudice by demonstrating the newcomers’ economic might. They formed the Asian American Hotel Operators Association, or AAHOA, which proceeded to convene one of the largest conferences and tradeshows in the business. Principals even took over the kitchens of the headquarters hotel, a Hyatt, so an authentic Indian meal could be served.
The founders included men like HP Rama, who’d come to the U.S. with an education but no knowledge of English. He landed a job as a waiter in the 24-hour Howard Johnson restaurant in New York City’s Time Square. Locals knew it as a hellhole populated mainly by drug dealers, con men and prostitutes. Rama told me he knew one word of English on his first shift: omelet.
The organizers also included his brother, Jayanti P. Rama, known as JP, who became chairman of AAHOA in 1997. He grew the group’s membership by bringing women and young people under the tent, further striking down barriers.
Together with HP and two other brothers, JP formed a lodging company called JHM Hotels, which would amass 40 properties and 7,000 rooms. Through his success, professionalism and example, he widened the path into lodging for other Indian immigrants. He also shut up the bigots by proving he could generate as much green as anyone, even if his skin was brown.
He was lauded in particular for encouraging young Indian immigrants to pursue a career in hospitality or related fields. Together with his brothers, Rama started a university in India that provided higher education on innkeeping and such additional areas as law and technology.
The four brothers broke their hotel empire into four companies, one for each immediate family, in 2017.
JP Rama died last week at age 74, a quiet crusader for a cause that continues. Today, AAHOA has about 20,000 members. They are not the only ones who should remember JP as someone who made the hospitality business a better place.
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