Hotels Leave the Light on for Immigrants, as Tennessee Hospitality Industry Shows
Jim Gaines | The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Tenn. | November 22, 2017 1:00am
Nov. 22--For ambitious workers, the hotel industry is no place to rest.
It remains a business in which higher education can be outweighed by determination -- especially for immigrants to the United States, who may lack other options for upward mobility.
"There are always going to be jobs in the hotel industry, and it's a great place to move into an entry-level job and move up," said Lisa Benker, general manager of the Hampton Inn West Knoxville at Cedar Bluff. About 30 percent of her employees are immigrants, she said.
Fred Ipaye came to the U.S. from Nigeria in 1969. He was a college student in Chicago, then went to Tennessee Tech in Cookeville before transferring to UT in 1974. Ipaye began working at hotels in 1977, and has raised four sons in that time.
"My oldest is a manager for Walgreens," he said.
Ipaye worked at four other hotels before the Hampton Inn; he had already retired, but his brothers told him he wasn't old enough for that. In 2011 Ipaye applied at a nearby hotel, but was steered to the Hampton instead.
There he works with Alicia Cux, from Guatemala; Maria Elena, from Mexico; and Karen Flores, from Honduras. Other Hampton employees come from Honduras and Cuba, Benker said.
Cux has been in the U.S. for nine years, and has worked as a housekeeper at the Hampton for three. She hopes to soon buy a company that makes clothing, she said.
Elena arrived eight or nine years ago, seeking a better job, and has also been at the Hampton for three years. Now working in the laundry, she has her eye on a cleaning job at West Town Mall.
Flores has worked at the Hampton for seven out of her 10 months in the U.S. She came to join family and find work, she said.
Flores wants to keep doing hotel work -- though she jokes that she'd rather sleep.
All four said they haven't faced workplace discrimination, or been refused a job because they were immigrants.
"I've been here too long for anybody to say that anyway," Ipaye said.
Tennessee Hospitality CEO's take
Many immigrants come to the U.S. specifically for hotel jobs.
"There are several legitimate worker programs," according to Greg Adkins, president and CEO of the Tennessee Hospitality & Tourism Association.
With domestic unemployment rates hovering around 4 percent, one of the hotel industry's biggest challenges is filling jobs, he said. So many hotels turn to people here on student and work visas to fill the gap.
"The hotel industry is a very diverse industry, and yes, many of the hotels are owned by either refugees or immigrants, or the children of immigrants," Adkins said. "It's an industry where if you work hard, and you maybe don't have a college education, you can still thrive. We are one of the few industries where that can still happen in America."
Adkins said there is anti-immigrant discrimination and racism within the industry; he's encountered it himself, and opposes it when he does, he said.
"I would say that's terrible," Adkins said. "I would say that diversity is a great thing, and diversity is what makes America great, not just one race or religion."
While entry-level hotel jobs may not pay much, many immigrant owners started at the bottom and made it "on a dream and hard work," Adkins said.
In 2012, 3.2 million businesses were owned by people not born in the United States -- about 14.4 percent of the total, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many of those are lodging establishments; in Tennessee, roughly half the hotels are owned by Asian Americans, mostly of Indian heritage, according to the Asian American Hotel Owners Association. They include Heetesh Patel, the second-generation owner of hotels across Tennessee who's also Kentucky/Tennessee director for that trade group.
Like Adkins, he flatly rejected the claim some make that immigrant hoteliers get handouts from the U.S. government.
"That's not true. Absolutely," Patel said
What they do get are opportunities they might not have in their country of origin, he said.
"When we started AAHOA in 1989, one of the reasons was the discrimination (Indian-born) owners were receiving in the hotel industry," Patel said. Lenders and insurance companies discriminated against nonwhite entrepreneurs, he said.
"That has really dissipated over the years," Patel said. Today, such discrimination probably isn't in the top 20 concerns of AAHOA members.
There are still isolated cases of prejudice, and sly jabs such as "American-owned" signs on some properties, he said.
"Now, it's almost a joke with in the community, because we all consider ourselves American," Patel said.
Point of origin
Only a few AAHOA members originate from places other than India, Patel said; and almost all of the group's members come from one Indian state, Gujarat.
"We're the largest hotel owners association in the world," he said.
There are several theories about that concentration, but Patel favors one that matches his personal story: Gujarati immigrants arrived in California in the 1950s, and wanted both a place to stay and a job to do. Hotels fit that need perfectly.
"They came to America with limited funds, but grew up in this environment of hospitality," he said. "They had this language barrier, but felt if they could provide pleasant service that can trump any barrier of language."
As the early arrivals sent word back home about their experiences, their siblings and other family members would follow.
"They tended to go into something that they knew someone was in," he said.
A big jump in migration occurred after passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, which abolished the national-origin quota system.
Many later arrivals or American-born children were highly educated, but stayed in the hotel business -- his own father has a master's degree in engineering, but has never used it, Patel said.
In Patel's family, his uncle came first to Los Angeles, then helped his brothers and sisters immigrate too.
"We all lived at the same motel in Los Angeles at one time in our lives," Patel said. He lived in one motel or another until he went to UT at age 18, he said.
Most of the hotels Indian-Americans own are limited service properties with fewer than 150 rooms. Heetesh Patel estimates roughly 65 percent of all hotels under development statewide involve Indian Americans.
Kal Patel, whose holdings include the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Nashville MetroCenter on French Landing Drive, said older relatives would often pool together money for new projects. That still occurs, but he said people in his younger, second generation are more often likely to branch out and pursue projects on their own.
The AAHOA has never done a poll, but Patel guesses 30 to 50 percent of Tennessee hotel employees originate from outside the U.S. But those numbers are always changing, he said.
"Turnover of staff in the hospitality industry is extremely high, similar to the restaurant industry," Patel said.
Not just immigrants
The potential for upward mobility isn't limited to immigrants. Hotels offer seasonal and part-time jobs that may suit recent arrivals, people transitioning out of homelessness, or people trying to rebuild their lives after a jail term, Adkins said.
"It's almost like a safety net for a lot of people, our industry is," he said.
Shortly after graduating from high school 40 years ago, Madison native Ray Waters took a job as a banquet waiter at the then soon-to-open 600-room Opryland Hotel.
"It was a holding job for a young kid while going to college," he recalled. "I recognized after 10 years that I could turn an hourly wage job into a lifetime career."
After stints that included running Gaylord Opryland and the Hilton Nashville Downtown hotels locally, Waters today oversees operations for the company that owns The Westin Nashville and soon The Bobby boutique hotel.
After six promotions in two decades at Gaylord Opryland, Leah Gray is now chief steward overseeing a staff of more than 70 workers who serve primarily in the food and beverage and banquet operations.
Most Hamptons employ 45 to 50 people for about 100 rooms, Benker said. But the Hampton Inn Cedar Bluff has 175 rooms, so about 100 people work there.
Many of those workers are University of Tennessee students, but employees range in age from 19 to 80, Benker said. Student workers often move on after graduating, but other employees remain for years, she said.
"They're here, and they love it; and it's what they want to do," said Benker, who has been the location's manager since 2001.
Stephanie Seier started at the Hampton almost four years ago, working several part-time positions in whatever department needed help, she said. Now, she's assistant general manager.
None of the Crowne Plaza hotel's 120 current employees in downtown Knoxville are immigrants, but that's not due to any policy or preference, said General Manager Ken Knight.
"I don't have an answer why," he said. "The few that we've ever had have probably been in town to go to UT or something."
One factor may be that Crowne Plaza employees tend to live close to work, limiting its pool of applicants, Knight said.
Most starting jobs at hotels aren't technically complex, so recent immigrants and people without higher education should be able to do them well, he said; Knight himself started as a high school graduate in 1978, working as a cook; by 1994, he was managing the hotel he still runs today.
"If you work well with people and have a lot of common sense, you can go far," Knight said.