Not too long ago there was a story circulating around the Asian American Hotel Owners Association that a petition would be launched to change its president’s name.
There are approximately 8,400 AAHOA members, all of them Indian or Indian American. And many of them said, albeit in jest, that their president should have a more Indian-sounding name. Fred Patel , perhaps. It would certainly sound a little more in sync with the organization than his actual name: Fred Schwartz.
Yes, yes. The president of the largest member-based Indian business organization in the country — and one of the most powerful lobbyists for an Asian-American group — is a Jewish boy from Queens.
“Go figure!” said Hitesh Bhakta, the chairman of AAHOA.
Schwartz, 51, a tall man with a neat head of brownish-gray hair, who retains the faint trace of a New York accent, is a celebrity in the Indian-American world. His picture can often be seen in Indian-American newspapers like the India Tribune or the Indian Post, and his face is occasionally beamed across the world through interviews on TV Asia.
Schwartz is the public face of a significant enterprise of Indian immigrants, the hotel business. Indian hoteliers are “affectionately known as ‘accidental hoteliers,’” Schwartz told the Forward. Out of the 52,000 hotels and motels in America today, roughly 18,000 — more than one-third of the total — are owned by Indians. And — even stranger — most of those Indians hail from one part of India, the Gujarat region.
Schwartz did not come to AAHOA out of any particular love for the East or with any special knowledge of India. He stumbled into AAHOA from the hotel business.
When Schwartz was still an undergraduate at Queens College he got a job delivering laundry and dry cleaning to some of the swankiest hotels in New York, like the Carlyle (“Talk about good tips!” he said), the Regency, the Drake and the Warwick. After graduating with a degree in English, he was offered a job at the front desk by the Warwick hotel, and he slowly worked his way up, becoming executive assistant manager, before leaving to work for Hyatt.
In 1987, Hyatt transferred Schwartz to Atlanta, where he made a big splash among hoteliers during the 1996 Olympics. According to Bhakta, Hyatt lent Schwartz to the International Olympic Committee, and he took on the job of organizing all the hotels in the city for the events.
One of his tasks was to give speeches to local hoteliers about keeping standards high for the visitors. One talk in particular was to a group of hotel managers of “limited service hotels,” the industry term for smaller motels, and 90% of his audience was Indian.
At the time, AAHOA was an entirely volunteer-run organization. “We never had a clear, dynamic individual who could take it where it needed to go,” Bhakta said. Schwartz was offered the job.
The preponderance of Indians in the hotel business dates back to the 1970s. According to Bhakta, the trend began on the West Coast, in the San Francisco area, where Indian immigrants began buying up hotels in the region from previous owners who were retiring. The immigrants turned the hotels into family businesses, with mothers, fathers and children all pitching in. (“I had dinner with a family recently. We were sitting in their living room,” recounted Schwartz, who explained that the living room was attached to the motel. “The [front desk] bell rang, and one of the kids excused himself from the table. He slid the glass door” connecting the hotel and the home and checked in the guest. “I was thinking — little did that [guest] know what a beautiful family structure was on the other side of that glass door.”)
Schwartz is actually not the first Jew to become a fervent advocate for Indian hoteliers. Henry Silverman and Michael Leven of Days Inns of America, one of the most popular franchises that AAHOA members buy into, were instrumental in establishing AAHOA. “They [gave] some of the initial seed money to get the first convention — and the first convention was only something like 150 people — off the ground,” Schwartz said.
Leven, the president of Days Inn, lobbied insurance companies aggressively during the 1980s, when many Indian hotel owners had problems getting insurance. Companies “wouldn’t rent to anyone named ‘Patel,’” said Bhakta. Many insurance companies thought that the wildly disproportionate number of families with the last name of Patel indicated some kind of organized scam. This insurance policy was not reversed until AAHOA challenged it.
But Schwartz has been a unique advocate. In his six years at the helm, he has nearly tripled the association’s membership. He’s also led the fight to keep down hotel insurance premiums, which skyrocketed in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center. When certain hotel owners in the big franchises began putting signs outside of their hotels that said “American-owned,” Schwartz lobbied the franchisees to take these signs down.
More than a mere advocate, Schwartz has found a cozy, welcoming home in the community.
When an AAHOA colleague’s daughter had her Bharat Natyam, a three-hour dance and coming-of-age celebration, Schwartz was not only invited to the ceremony, but he was also asked to speak to the 1,500 assembled guests. “I thought it was a real honor,” Schwartz said. He said that in his speech to the guests, “I compared it to a bar mitzvah — and just like the bar mitzvah, they would never forget this experience.”
“Fred has been welcomed in the homes of, I think, every member” of AAHOA, Bhakta said, “as if he were a member of the community.”