'Life Behind The Lobby' Of Indian-American Motels Chances are, if you've stayed in motels in the past decade, you've stayed in at least one owned by an Indian-American. It turns out more than half of all motels in the U.S. are Indian-American-owned. And even more remarkable, the vast majority of those owners are from one western state in India.
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'Life Behind The Lobby' Of Indian-American Motels

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'Life Behind The Lobby' Of Indian-American Motels

'Life Behind The Lobby' Of Indian-American Motels

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Here are three remarkable facts about motels in America. At least one out of two motels are now owned by Indian-Americans. And out of those Indian-owned motels, 70 percent are owned by Gujaratis, people with roots in the western Indian state of Gujarat. And of those Gujaratis, three-fourths share the last name Patel. It's found a name for these overnight establishments: Patel Motels.

Pawan Dhingra writes about this incredible story in his new book. It's called "Life Behind the Lobby" about how Gujaratis came to dominate the motel industry in America.

PAWAN DHINGRA: They're a population that prides themselves on autonomous professions, working for themselves. So they were farmers back in Gujarat before they came to the U.S. So they were looking to own their own business. It didn't have to be motels. In fact, they knew nothing about motels. There are very few motels in India. Someone told me this, that there's more motels in Florida than all of India.


DHINGRA: So we're not talking about something indigenous that they were looking for. And they fell into the hospitality issue by accident. And this is at a time in the '40s and '50s when these residential hotels were seen as places that cater to a down-and-out population where there's going to be drugs and alcohol, whatever else going on.

The European-Americans and the Japanese-Americans who ran those hotels were looking to get out. Japanese-Americans were interned, but even Frenchmen and other European-Americans who had been running them, it's not a lot of money to be made, and their kids didn't want to take them over. So no one else wanted to buy these.

RAZ: You write how once immigrants from India establish themselves with, you know, in this, sort of, the motel industry, they began to encourage and help family members come to the U.S. and do the same. I mean, as you say, in Gujarat, many people came from farming backgrounds, agricultural backgrounds to a completely different world. And also, many of these folks were willing to move to very rural places, places that were predominantly white, had probably never really ever met immigrants or people from, certainly from India.

DHINGRA: Exactly. And so what happens is, let's say, I own a motel in Maryland somewhere, and I bring my family in to help run it, all right? And they're happy to come over because they know that eventually, if not for themselves, at least for their children, they feel there's more opportunities in the U.S. than there is in India.

And then I come in my - I come and I live inside my relatives' motel in Maryland. After five, six years, there's a place that opens up in Arizona or Oklahoma or in wherever else, I'll buy that place. I'm looking for the best deal. And I would ask people all the time, why would you want to move to, you know, the middle of nowhere someplace?

Sort of move from anyone else you know, there's no other family members. There's no Indian restaurant around. There's no temple, there's nothing. And they'd say, in a sense, I didn't move from India to the U.S., all that way, to then not move under 1,000 miles to get a better deal, to get the motel I came here for.

RAZ: I want to ask you about the next generations, because you write about - allude to this in the book when you talk about other ethnic groups and immigrant groups - Greek-Americans and diners and Jewish-Americans and the textile industry, Korean-Americans and the convenience stores. More often than not, their children go on to do other things. And you write, in the case of motels, very often, the children of the Indian immigrants who were born in America decide to do it themselves, to run motels or to take over the motel.

DHINGRA: Right. And many of them say, I hated living in the motel. I was so eager to get out of it. I swore I'll never go back to it. And they got jobs, you know, in engineering firms or whatever it is...

RAZ: Tech or medical school or...

DHINGRA: ...medical schools, whatever it could be. And they said, here I am working this job, and I have a boss, and that boss has a boss, and that boss has a boss, and I see my dad working fewer hours than I am making more money than me.

RAZ: Wow.

DHINGRA: Why am I doing this? So unlike a lot of the other businesses that you mention, a diner or liquor store or grocery store, the motel industry has multiple levels. So there's independent places that are relatively inexpensive. There's franchise - low-level franchise places, and there's mid-level, high-level, even major hotel chains.

So the children who grew up in the motels and go back in the industry, they typically enter at the hotel at a higher level than their parents were. So they feel like they're stepping up, not doing the same thing their parents did. They move forward, but they still have the same - all resources, all the knowledge that they can draw from because they're still in the same industry. So it's the best of both worlds for them.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Pawan Dhingra. He's written a new book. It's called "Life Behind the Lobby." It tells the story of how Indian immigrants came to dominate the motel industry here in the United States. Pawan, you write about the issue of discrimination, racial discrimination, and about how, in some cases, you write, motel owners go quite far in trying to hide the fact that they own the hotel. You describe this idea of whitening the lobby of the hotel. What's that mean?

DHINGRA: Yeah. It happens - it's not universal, but it does happen. It's definitely a trend, which is to portray the motel to the customer as not being ethnically touched. So what they would do is oftentimes hire non-Indian desk clerks to work the afternoon shift when most people check in, people the customer would not look at and have any kind of negative reaction towards.

So many of the motels - the family who runs the motel lives in the motel, and their home, actually, can be connected to the lobby. So behind the check-in desk of your motel is their apartment.

You don't see it - it's behind a wall - but that's where they live. They come in through a side door into the lobby from their apartment behind the check-in desk. And so their kitchens are back there. And they had to be conscious of what time they cooked their Indian food so that it didn't create the scent of Indian food in the lobby during a time when customers may come in and smell it because that would just put people off.

And someone said to me: You know, I walk into a motel, and there was somebody who was French at the front desk. And it was really kind of attractive to have this French accent and a kind of high culture notion to the motel. So in other words, someone being foreign or being different is not always bad.

We may like that in some ways. It may add to the - our sense of what we're paying for. But for the Indian food or Indian bodies, they don't always carry that implications.

RAZ: In the coming decades, do you see, you know, Indian-American hotel owners running high-end hotel chains? Is that where this is headed?

DHINGRA: Yeah. I think so. It's a matter of time. And what's interesting in addition to that is there will also still be Indians running the mom-and-pop places at the same time. And so as one Indian sells his, let's say, Holiday Inn to buy something even better, he'll sell it to another Indian.

And there's - I don't see that many other ethnic groups getting into the industry, joining Indians to the same rate.

RAZ: That's Pawan Dhingra. He is the author of a new book. It's called "Life Behind the Lobby: Indian-American Motel Owners and the American Dream." Pawan, thank you so much for coming in.

DHINGRA: Thank you.

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