American Renaissance

Indian Families Find a Niche in the US Hospitality Industry

Despite the fact that only five percent of Americans are of Indian heritage, Indian-Americans now own 40 percent of the hotels/motels in the United States

Elizabeth Gibson, MSNBC, Mar. 16

When the new owners of Howard Johnson Inn in Middlesex Township finished renovating the hotel, they celebrated with a lavish open house. Seafood canapes and a fruit sculpture adorned a gourmet buffet next to an open bar. The several hundred guests and business leaders who crowded the hotel that autumn evening vied for weekend getaway prizes.

For owners Anil Parikh, Jitendra Parekh and Mahendra Shah, the elegant October event was a chance to market their stylish hotel and toast the success of their toils. “This is an exciting moment for us. It’s almost like a dream come true,” Shah said.

In the 30 years that they’ve lived in this country, Parikh, Parekh and Shah — all of them Indian nationals — have settled into professional science and engineering careers. But like a growing number of their transplanted countrymen, they have discovered that the hospitality industry is a perfect fit for them.

Indians say that operating a hotel suits their family oriented culture. Owning a hotel provides immigrants with a place to live, and children and the extended family help run the business. And when they go into business for themselves, Indians rely on the financial backing and support of the Indian community. That invariably assures success.

“If you go anywhere, you’ll find hotels operated by Indian families,” said Parikh, who with his wife, Nayana, lives next to the Super 8 Motel North, which they own.

Growing numbers, community aid

According to the Asian-American Hotel Owners Association, Indian-Americans account for about 5 percent of the U.S. population, but they own about 40 percent of all U.S. lodging properties.

Association spokeswoman Rya Hobart said the group has 1,450 members in the Mideast region, which includes Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. The majority — nearly 1,200 — are in Pennsylvania. Harrisburg alone boasts 11 Indian-American owned hotels. Along Route 11 in Middlesex Township, Indian-Americans operate five hotels. By spring, the number will be six.

One family’s tale

For 26 years, Anil Parikh, 58, was a chemist with York Wallcoverings and Fabrics. Five years ago, he made a big decision. Parikh bought the Super 8, believing he could make more money working for himself. “I decided I was going to do a big venture. We know a lot of people in the hotel business,” he said.

He found success.

“I should have done this 10 or 15 years ago,” he said.

Last year, when the nearby Howard Johnson came on the market, Parikh seized another opportunity. But he couldn’t do it alone. With its banquet and meeting rooms, ballroom and a restaurant, the Howard Johnson was selling for more than $2 million. Parikh could not finance that amount by himself.

Parikh turned to his longtime friends, Parekh and Shah. The three had met in Harrisburg shortly after they immigrated to the United States. They bonded immediately and stayed in touch. It turned out that Parekh and Shah were also ready to be hotel owners. The men pooled their savings and borrowed money to buy the inn. They spent $400,000 on renovations, including the addition of a Country Oven restaurant.

Today, Parikh handles the day-to-day operation for the three partners. He says the business is not physically demanding, “It is mentally (demanding) because you own the business,” he said. “If something is needed, I’m there because it’s my money.”

A model for those who came after

A good example Parikh and his business partners are taking their cue from what is arguably the most successful Indian-American hotel venture in the region. Hersha Hospitality Trust, a publicly traded firm based in New Cumberland, was founded in 1984 when immigrant Hasu Shah bought a rundown Shipoke inn, improved it and began to build an empire.

Now a multimillion dollar enterprise, Hersha’s holdings include 18 hotels, six in the Harrisburg market. In Middlesex, Hersha owns Hampton Inn and is building a Residence Inn.

“We’ve had a good run of success (in Middlesex), and we feel the Carlisle market is a fairly strong and stable market,” said Neil Shah, Hersha’s acquisitions and development director.

The Cedar Cliff High School graduate picked up the business as a youngster working with his father, Hasu. He and brother Jay operated their own mini-business stocking hotel vending machines. Neil Shah went on to earn degrees from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Harvard Business School and was courted by Internet companies during the dot-com boom.

“I got offers from a bunch of them, but I decided to come to Hersha,” Shah said. “I’ve been very influenced by my culture of India and my parents.”

That culture is rooted in Hinduism, which practitioners say is as much a way of life as a religion. Hindu beliefs and the promise of economic opportunity might help to explain the success of Indian enterprise in the United States.

“You work hard, but you’re not working hard for any reward but to do your duty, to raise your family and to help your community,” Neil Shah said. “That’s why Indians have had success in the hotel business.”

In most cases, it calls for sacrifice.

A university valedictorian in India, Nayana Parikh wasn’t fluent in English when she arrived in the midstate, so she took work in a sewing factory.

Twenty years ago, when Hasu Shah, head of Hersha, started out, he juggled a state job, advanced college studies and work as the hotel’s night clerk. He slept in his clothes so he could check in late guests at a moment’s notice.

That’s the kind of sacrifice Mahesh Patel is making.

Patel, 44, who left his town near Bombay in 2001, works for the state Revenue Department. At night, he manages the Pike Motel in Middlesex, where he shares hotel chores with wife Rashmi, niece Dharti, and children Zalak and Mit. Someday he wants to own a hotel.

Patel will get more help when other family members arrive from India this year. “We are getting tired, but when you are putting your foot in a foreign country and establishing yourself, you are trying to build your nest,” he said. “We have to work very hard.”