|By Benita Newton, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
July 19, 2004 - Look at hotel broker David Mumford's database of potential hotel buyers, and you might see an oddly organized list.
Instead of ordering by last name, Mumford has resorted to sorting by telephone number to keep track of the thousands in the database named Patel.
"Just looking up the name Jay Patel, I can find 200 of them," said Mumford, president of Mumford Co., a Newport News hotel brokerage. "Sorting by telephone number was the only way we could maintain some level of ability to distinguish one from the next."
The Asian American Hotel Owners Association has more than 8,000 members, and 60 percent are named Patel. Given that the group says about 37 percent of the hotels and motels in the United States are owned by their members, this would mean that about one in every five of these facilities in the country is owned by somebody named Patel.
Drive down South Military Highway in Chesapeake and you'll find that the Econo Lodge, the Budget Lodge, the Open 24 Lodge, the Sunset Manor Motel and the Best Value Inn are motels all owned by a Patel.
Take a stroll down East Ocean View Avenue in Norfolk, and you'll pass three Patel properties just in the 900-1000 block.
The name has become so ingrained in the hotel industry that many people believe Patel is an Indian word meaning "hotel."
In fact, Patel evolved from ancient India, where record keepers were appointed to keep track of crops planted on a parcel of land, or a pat.
Many Patels were literally born to sell under the Indian caste system that was designed to allow people to work according to their natural tendencies. Patels fall into the Vaishya or Vaisya, a merchant caste.
With three partners, Ajay Patel owns six Days Inns in Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia, including two locally. He also manages an additional 17 hotels with those same partners -- Greg Patel, P.K. Patel and Anil Patel.
No, they're not related. In fact, Patel said his partners got together after he moved to Virginia in 1995.
"Patels have very good math skills, and we tend to be good with numbers," Ajay Patel said. "That's why we've been so successful in business."
That success has not been limited to the two continents. Over generations, many Patels left their native Indian state of Gujarat to work as indentured servants in British Colonies in Africa. After indentured labor was banned, many Patels stayed in Africa, until political factors forced many to emigrate again.
Anil R. Patel, Mid East regional director for the Atlanta-based hotel owners group, said 30 to 40 percent of the Patels in the United States moved to London after leaving Africa, flourishing in the retail businesses, before coming overseas to pursue their American dream in the hotel industry.
"Patels do have business in their blood," said Anil R. Patel, a hotelier himself who runs a hotel management company. "They've always worked in business throughout history."
On occasion, a motel owned by a Patel generates some negative publicity, such as a fraud case earlier this year involving the Town Point Motel in Norfolk. But despite their numbers and their distinction within a single industry, most Patels say they have little trouble being associated or confused with their thousands of namesakes.
"It's just like being named Smith," Anil R. Patel said. "I think it was more of a problem in the past. But it's become an asset now because people recognize it more and more."
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