Alumnus achieves American dream and offers a dose of Lumberjack hospitality
Story by Jo Gilmore
Photos by Robin Johnson '99 & '19
Vimal "Victor" Patel '91 started his career in the hotel business at the young age of 11 when his family immigrated to Lufkin from England March 7, 1981.
His family leased a small independent hotel from the owner who didn't want to manage it day to day. Patel's father, Makanjbhai, ran operations while his mother, Kusum, kept the books. Patel, his sister, Jyoti "Jody" '87, and his brother, Kamlesh "Ken" '92, cleaned the rooms and pool and swept the parking lot after school.
"We ran the whole operation because we couldn't afford employees," Patel said. "That's how I grew up in the business."
By age 22, Patel was one of the youngest franchisees with the Bass Hotel Group, now known as Intercontinental Hotel Group. In addition to IHG Holiday Inn properties, he proudly owns and operates more than 20 properties under the Hilton, Choice, Best Western and Wyndham brands. He is now president of Pegasus Hospitality Hotel Group and U.S. Hospitality Management, both of which are based in Irving.
But before this career success, he needed a formal education by way of a double major in economics and management at SFA.
A second home
When his parents told Patel and his siblings they needed to stay close to home for their college educations, SFA was the obvious choice, and a degree in business could help him hone his communication and deal-making skills.
"Rusche College of Business taught me how to communicate. Improving my communication skills was key because English wasn't my first language," he said. "SFA was welcoming and helped me assimilate more comfortably. It felt like home."
Patel enjoyed visits to the La Hacienda restaurant, attended concerts by Chicago and Richard Marx in the Johnson Coliseum, and practiced enough doubles badminton and ping-pong between classes to progress to the SFA intramural finals in both sports four years in a row.
Patel studied, too. He still uses the knowledge he gained in his business law class during deals today.
"That's how I know the right questions to ask and the important things to look for in a business deal," he said.
Twist of fate
In 1990, tragedy struck his family's household when Patel's father was murdered while working at the Holiday House Motel, now the Lufkin Inn.
"It was a random robbery. The murderer wasn't even from Lufkin," Patel said. "Although the robbery was not representative of the community, my mom didn't want to live in Lufkin anymore."
His mother moved the family to Irving, but Patel and his brother stayed behind in Lufkin and commuted to SFA to complete their degrees. As the oldest son, per Indian culture, Patel also took over his father's business.
The Patels fought for justice in Texas for years, but when Makanjbhai's alleged murderer killed two other people in Colorado, he was sentenced and eventually died in prison.
Despite the tragedy, Patel pushed on and now owns several hotels across Texas, including a cluster in Lufkin and the Hole in One restaurant in Lufkin.
An industry for Indian Americans
According to a 2021 study conducted by the Asian American Hotel Owners Association in partnership with Oxford Economics, Indian Americans own 60% of hotels in the U.S.
"Today, we're power players," Patel said. "But back in the '80s and early '90s, hotel brands wouldn't work with Indians."
In the late '80s, the economy was still reeling from the savings and loan crisis after a long period of both high inflation and interest rates. Hotels under foreclosure were being auctioned off at rock-bottom prices. Patel took advantage of the situation, secured some loans and made five deals before he graduated.
Since then, he's managed hotels through hurricanes, the onslaught of media in East Texas during the space shuttle Columbia disaster, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We never shut down any of my hotels," Patel said of the pandemic. One of the many ways he kept the hotels thriving was caring for traveling nurses who came to help in local hospitals.
Though he gained a good sense of business from SFA, he also learned from the hospitality the university showed him.
"I loved the whole experience at SFA," he said. "I hope I help others feel just as welcome when they visit one of my hotels."