It's no secret that the name "Patel" has become synonymous with hotels; Indian hoteliers are deservingly proud of what they've accomplished in the hotel industry, often passing the business down from one generation to the next. It hasn't always been easy, though. Discrimination and resistance have been obstacles in the past, but thanks to associations such as the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), hoteliers, bankers, investors and lenders have become more educated and more aware of the value of a variety of cultures.

In retrospect, 1989 was a monumental year for AAHOA Chairman Bakulesh "Buggsi" Patel. It was the year he immigrated to the United States from England, and it was also the year the AAHOA was created. No stranger to obstacles himself, Buggsi came to the United States after finding it nearly impossible to finance a real estate project overseas. After serving as an apprentice to his sister - already in the hospitality business - Buggsi began his own business and today Lake Oswego, Ore.-based Buggsi Hospitality Group owns 16 hotels. Not bad for a man who's only been in the United States 11 years. To Buggsi, that's just part of the business and part of his aggressive nature. Recently, NREI spoke with Buggsi, whose determination and knowledge have contributed to his rapid rise in the business and AAHOA, an organization that has merely begun to make its mark on the hospitality industry.

NREI: Tell me a little about yourself. How have you gotten to where you are today? And how has AAHOA influenced your career?

Patel: I immigrated here from England in 1989. I had wanted to get into the hotel business in England, but it was quite difficult - one, to raise financing, and two, the real estate was really expensive. I had an opportunity to immigrate to the United States, and I heard it was a lot easier to obtain financing and a little more opportunity here. I had a convenience store in England, so I sold that and set off on my venture here.

NREI: How easy - or difficult - was it for you to get into the hotel industry?

Patel: One of my sisters was in the hotel industry, so I basically did a bit of an apprenticeship under her and learned what I needed to learn. Then I set off on my own. At times, it was hard, but it was a question of seizing the opportunities that were out there and taking a risk. That's how I've gotten to where I am today; I'm a pretty aggressive person.

NREI: When you got involved in the hotel industry, did you immediately join AAHOA?

Patel: AAHOA started when I came to the United States, and I joined in 1991. I had heard about it, and it sounded very good - in terms of its mission and what the organization wanted to achieve. At that time, the Asian American community was starting to make a force in the hotel industry, and I felt that I could benefit by joining [AAHOA].

NREI: How has the organization evolved since you first joined in 1991? What are its strengths and weaknesses?

Patel: The organization has really grown in stature in all aspects. When you talk about the actual professionalism that the association has helped create for its members - deferring the perception that [Asian Americans] are shoddy operators, we don't know what we're doing to one of that we know what we're doing. We're handling the assets properly, we're moving up the ladder to bigger and better properties and also getting into full-service properties - a lot of things have changed.

We've created educational programs for our members, and we've created a fantastic trade show/convention that gives the franchise property owners and the independent hoteliers a chance to attend something where they can learn and grasp what the whole industry is about. The awareness that has been created by our association not only in the hotel industry but within our community is one that is basically taking us to the top.

We're highly organized; we have a very strong office and very strong regional town hall meetings; we're out there touching our members, providing information that they need.

The only weakness I see right now in our association - and which we're remedying - is strengthening our lobbying efforts so people in Washington, D.C. know who we are. We just want to forge a better image for our association.

NREI: In your Chairman's Corner letter on the Internet, you mention education being the key to being successful in the industry, and you also mention that in 2000 you will make every effort to make sure educational resources will be available to AAHOA members. How do you plan to implement this?

Patel: We've got some very innovative programs that are coming out. We have an education course - certified hotel owners - that we're going to be rolling out pretty soon. It is unique to the industry, and it's been created especially for AAHOA. It will be certified for AAHOA members. It's targeted to our membership to the type of operators and hotel owners that we have in the limited to the mid-market segments so we can give them more tools that are not available out there from the franchiser. We want to make sure the independent hotelier can get another chance to understand what they need to do if they want to move up to the next level.

Because many of our members are multi-unit operators, we also have several programs that are targeted to multi-unit operators so we can make sure that they have the management skills - lots of employees, a unique back office structure and organizational skills - needed for these properties.

We also are pushing very heavily for the independent hotelier where we're planning a one-day mini-conference that will be targeted especially to the independents. The franchise owners get a lot of this [education] from the franchise companies, and we want to emulate a little of what they do so the independent hotelier can get that education too.

Regarding the youth, a lot of the youth in our community have grown up in the hotel business. We're encouraging them to go out there and get the education, expertise, the knowledge, and to transform the assets that their parents have built into better assets so they can be safeguarded. We don't want our members to depart from their assets, we want to make sure the youth picks up on it and runs with the ball. We're encouraging that heavily.

We've created internship programs with major management companies, with major hotel companies out there and varying degrees of participation in the industry where we can educate our youth.

NREI: It sounds like AAHOA membership has really swelled since the early-1990s. Is that the case?

Patel: Yes it has. From three years ago, when we were at 3,000, we're up to 6,700 as of the last convention. I'm sure by the time the next convention comes, we'll be well over 7,000.

NREI: What do you think is the reason behind this massive increase in membership?

Patel: Let me tell you, in any organization, if one member feels ownership of the organization, if one member feels that the organization is doing things that touches them and affects them, he's going to go tell 10 others. He's going to encourage others to join, to make sure they support the association, and that's what's happened with AAHOA.

We've also got several thousand [members] that we could get out there, and obviously that is our goal - to make sure we get the majority of the Asian American hotel owners out there to become members of our association.

NREI: Any thoughts as to how you'll go about doing that?

Patel: I think the major group that we'll really want to focus on and touch is, again, the youth. Hopefully they'll come back and pick up memberships. We're also going to be working hard on the independent [hoteliers]. We'll be having a major push in the future as to how to drive the independent hotelier into the association. Again, we feel that element is one that really needs to be in our association, and really grasp the benefits that we are creating.

NREI: As chairman of AAHOA, what are your goals for 2000?

Patel: My goals, as I said, involve education, lobbying and a presence in D.C., and e-commerce. We have a major push to make sure our membership realizes the importance of the Internet and e-commerce, starting again with the independents and moving up to the franchisee.

We want to make sure that they understand they need to grasp it. To that end, we're going to be doing a major revamp to our Website. We want our members to access aahoa.com to pull down information, access articles and make sure that they understand that they need to be wired to be successful going forward.