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View From the Front Desk: How Indian American Hoteliers are Coping During the Pandemic

View From the Front Desk: How Indian American Hoteliers are Coping During the Pandemic

  • AAHOA Chairman Biran Patel says Indian American hoteliers’ drive to succeed will help the industry recover, despite sharp declines in occupancy rates and revenues caused by travel restrictions.

Biran Patel, the 30th chairman of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association or AAHOA is optimistic that the industry will recover. “The hospitality industry is tough and we hoteliers are resilient people,” he says. For the Irvington-Texas-based Patel, hospitality is more than just an industry. “It’s a philosophy that elevates generosity, warmth, and compassion to friends and strangers alike.” And it is this philosophy that is helping Patel, and his fraternity and colleagues tide through the challenging times. “We all know that these difficult times will pass, travel will resume and our industry will recover. But until that time, we must address our current state and prepare for what’s to come.”

Since March, the hospitality industry has taken the biggest hit after the COVID-19 pandemic forced lockdown, shelter-in-place and social distancing mandates. 

In the U.S., eight of 10 rooms sit empty and almost 4 million employees have lost their jobs, the group says. AAHOA, an advocacy group for Asian American hotel/motel owners, has an estimated 20,000 members, out of which a large number is currently struggling. 

About half of the country’s 55,000 motel and hotel properties are owned by Asian Americans, mostly first-generation immigrants from Surat and surrounding villages in Gujarat, most with the last name Patel. AAHOA says Patels are estimated to own between 80 and 90 percent of the motels across the U.S, especially in small towns. By another estimate, one out of two motels in the U.S. is now owned by Indian-Americans.  Over the past 40 years, Asian American entrepreneurs have played a major role in growing the U.S. hotel industry to $200 billion in revenue.

Along with several regional conferences and advocacy events in Washington, D.C., the group meets annually to discuss new trends in the industry, address policies, issues and concerns. This year, led by Patel, the members met virtually, from Aug. 11 to 13 and talked about the road to recovery. 

About half of the country’s 55,000 motel and hotel properties are owned by Asian Americans, mostly first-generation immigrants from Surat and surrounding villages in Gujarat, most with the last name Patel.

A second-generation hotelier and native of Birmingham, England, Patel joined AAHOA in 2003. He served as an AAHOA Ambassador and then as a member of the board of directors as a regional director for North Texas. In 2017, he served as AAHOA’s secretary. A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, Patel holds a degree in finance. He is a partner in BHP Investments Co. and owns and operates multiple branded and independent properties.

He plays an active role in his community and has been involved with the Irving City Chamber of Commerce for the past five years. He is actively involved in the Leuva Patidar Samaj (LPS) local chapter, SLPS. He has also served on the board of directors of the Texas Hotel & Lodging Association since 2014. He currently resides in Irving, Texas, with his wife, Poonam, and their two daughters. 

As businesses begin to recover from the sharp decline in occupancy rates and revenues caused by travel restrictions and stay-home orders, Patel said AAHOA is revising its strategic plan in the wake of the pandemic. In an exclusive interview with American Kahani, Patel discussed the ways in which he will lead AAHOA and deliver resources to its members to navigate, adapt and learn, in these trying times. 

Excerpts from the interview”

What has the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic been on Indian American hoteliers?Will there be major closure of businesses?

Hotels are essential businesses, and it is difficult to say if there will be widespread closures. While the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) affords some hoteliers a bit of a lifeline, Congress and the administration must help the hospitality industry with focused relief that addresses businesses, like hotels, with significant asset-based debt obligations. Many hoteliers worked with their lenders to seek forbearance on their mortgages when this crisis hit, but those are coming due. Those with commercial mortgage-backed security (CMBS) loans are in a more precarious spot because it is so complicated to get to the stage where one can talk with the lender about forbearance. We are working with our representatives in Washington on the new stimulus legislation and advocating for more industry-specific measures to help hotels weather this crisis.

Hoteliers across the country felt the economic impact of this pandemic at its onset. People stopped traveling, and with that steep decline in occupancy rates came a steep decline in revenues. Hoteliers are facing a major liquidity crisis. They are worried about paying their employees, paying their mortgages, and keeping their lights on.

Will the Indian American hoteliers be able to recover?

We are optimistic that our industry will recover. Estimates from STR (which provides market data on the hotel industry worldwide, including supply and demand and market share data) and United States Commercial Real Estate Services (CBRE) put the hospitality industry’s recovery some time in 2023. The reality is that people will eventually begin traveling again. It will be gradual, but it will happen. They will need places to stay, and hoteliers will be there to welcome them into their communities.  Right now, we are advocating in Washington for economic stimulus to help these small business owners address the liquidity crisis they are facing. We are pressuring Congress to help our industry with additional stimulus programs like PPP and EIDL or Economic Injury Disaster Loans, as well as regulatory relief regarding Commercial mortgage-backed security (CMBS) loans.

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Is AAHOA doing anything to help them out?

The road to recovery starts with AAHOA. We are helping hoteliers on multiple fronts such as advocacy and education. We created and hosted over 150 webinars focused on issues related to COVID-19. We are having constructive discussions with brands about relief measures they can offer hoteliers. These ongoing discussions are yielding positive results for owners. We are all looking to cut costs and increase revenues. Doing so constructively and smartly will help ensure as many businesses as possible come out on the other side of this.

Are the survival strategies of Indian American hoteliers different from other business communities? Just as their cultural background helped them to succeed in America, will it also help them dig out of this crisis wrought by the pandemic?

The challenges facing hoteliers are unique to our industry given the debt obligations that hoteliers have. We must address the liquidity crisis given the significant mortgage obligations that many hoteliers have. Hoteliers are also struggling to keep employees on staff as well. People simply are not traveling, and when occupancy is down, so is revenue. Our industry went through significant challenges after September 11th and the 2008 financial crisis. It takes a certain grit and determination to succeed in this industry. Hoteliers are a resilient group of entrepreneurs, and I am confident that this drive to succeed will help many through this crisis.

What is your vision for AAHOA for the coming year?

The work AAHOA does on our members’ behalf benefits all hoteliers in our industry. I want to help the rest of our industry understand this, for it will help us continue to increase the number of hoteliers we represent. Individual hoteliers will play a significant role in the hospitality industry’s recovery, and AAHOA is here to help them along the way. Whether it is through our educational offerings, political advocacy, or strengthening relationships with brands, vendors, and industry partners, we’re all in this together, and no hotelier has to go it alone. An AAHOA membership has something for every hotelier, and our team is here to help our members get the most out of the association.

Bhargavi immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 and has worked with Indian American media since then in various capacities. She has a degree in English literature and French. Through an opportunity from Alliance Française de New York, Bhargavi taught French at Baruch college for over a year. After taking a break and two kids later, she went back to work in the Desi media. An adventure sport enthusiast, in her free time, she likes to cook, bake or go for hikes, biking and long walks.

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The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of American Kahani.
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