At the time of its founding in 1989 and subsequent merger in 1994 with the then nine-year-old Indian American Hospitality Association, what AAHOA’s founders wanted most was relief and protection from discrimination that confronted them from all quarters. Banks shied from making loans, insurance companies charged 10 times the rate of premiums asked of non-Indians, and some hotel franchisors made conditions infuriatingly difficult for ambitious owners. Worst of all, many white hotel owners peppered highways with billboard ads touting their properties as “American Owned and Operated.” Indian American motel owners soon despaired of ever being able to achieve the American Dream that brought them here in the first place. Clout and recognition on Capitol Hill, a lucrative centralized purchasing program, and board-level positions with hotel chains weren’t even on their radar in the early days.
H.P. Rama, of JHM Hotels of Greenville, S.C., remembers the alarm generated by the discrimination and the threat it posed to the business he and his brothers founded. “I better change the way I am looked upon by ‘them’—whether that was fellow hoteliers, vendors, or lenders,” Rama told Lodging magazine early in AAHOA’s history. After becoming AAHOA’s first chairman in 1991, Rama would two years later become an officer of AH&LA and the association’s chairman in 1999.
At the same time, the early Indian American hotel owners knew what they didn’t know: how to increase their knowledge of hotel ownership and operations. Without more formal training and professional development, they figured they would never advance beyond mom-and-pop status.
What was needed, they determined, was an organization that would provide them a collective voice and a vehicle for providing education. From a meeting of 125 like-minded hotel owners in Charlotte, N.C., a core of 12 agreed to form the Asian American Hotel Owners Association.
When only 225 hoteliers showed up for the first convention in 1990, organizers H.P. Rama and Ravi Patel undertook a recruiting drive, literally, since they crisscrossed the country at their own expense in their cars to convince fellow Indian Americans to join their cause. When the association next met, in Nashville, Tenn., AAHOA was 600 members strong, and it was gaining the support of a few hotel companies.
Early supporters of AAHOA, Henry Silverman, CEO of Days Inn of America, and its marketing director, Michael Leven, recognized the uphill battle being waged by immigrant hoteliers. Leven, who would go on to be president of Days Inn, then Holiday Inn, and other lodging and gaming giants, helped with the organizing efforts and Silverman would write a check for $100,000 to AAHOA on behalf of Days Inn.
“It was a civil rights issue and for us a business issue,” says Silverman, who would go on to chair the Cendant Corporation. “Perhaps most important, it showed our franchisees how to unite around a common goal.”
First, the onerous billboards came down, thanks in part to the intervention of the American Automobile Association. The first steps of an education program to provide all-around ownership skills began, as did the framework for leveling the field with hotel franchisors. In 1998, during the term of AAHOA Chairman Mike Patel, of the Diplomat Hotel Corporation, the association debuted the 12 Points of Fair Franchising. A manifesto that was even printed on thousands of plastic yellow convention lapel badges, the 12 Points outlines tenants dealing with liquidated damages, development impact and encroachment, vendor exclusivity, dispute resolution, database ownership, and general franchising ethics.
The impact of the 12 Points was immediate and defining for nearly a decade. Whether it was causative or simply catalytic is still the subject of debate. But few would argue that the playing field soon leveled and relations between hotel owners and franchisors became more of a conversation at the conference table and less of pitched litigation in the legal marketplace. The transition to a more equitable relationship also conveniently dovetailed with a development even more pronounced and significant, the rise of the second- and third-generation hotel owners.
As the first generation of Indian American hotel owners entered their 50s and 60s in the early 2000s, existential questions abounded. How will their adult children approach life in America? Will they become so Americanized that they completely lose touch with their cultural heritage? Will they take their U.S. educations and comfortable standard of living and pursue other career fields? Or will they simply coast and enjoy the wealth created by the sacrifice and hard work of their parents?
“We are no longer accidental hoteliers,” says H.P. Rama in answer to these questions most asked of every wave of immigrants to America. “Today, Asian Americans are truly hoteliers, where the second generation is going to hotel schools and has a formal education in the hotel business.
“At AAHOA, the next generation is taking over—full of energy, creative, less political, and open to trying new ideas,” Rama says. “I have great hope for them.”