In March, 2017, Standard Hotels – a five-property, 1,200-room American brand – published a manifesto: The Standard Stands Up: A Statement. With veiled references to U.S. President Donald Trump, it used words and phrases such as “solidarity” and “positive, productive activism,” and included a 10-point “Action Plan” with instructions on how to link up with your local Black Lives Matter chapter and another suggesting you support Caracen, an immigrant protection group.
“It’s about giving people a voice and teaching them in this day and age what it means to be politically active,” says Standard Hotels chief executive Amar Lalvani, sounding more like a community organizer than a hotel executive.
While it might seem odd for a hip LA-NYC-Miami Beach hotel group to be so political, hotels all over the world are starting to see themselves as hubs of social, cultural and environmental change, encouraging their clients among the 1.3 billion annual international travellers to change the world as they vacation through it.
In Vienna, the Magdas Hotel has been exclusively hiring refugees and those with refugee histories since it opened in 2015, taking advantage of the fact that hospitality is one of the world’s great entry-level industries, with few barriers to entry for those with few financial, linguistic or educational assets. The Cayuga Collection of hotels in Central America includes year-round employment – no low-season layoffs – for its 100-per-cent local staff as part of its definition of sustainability. The Ol Pejeta Conservancy uses funds from its camps and lodges to care for the last two northern white rhinos in the world, as well as provide medical care for 20,000 residents of its rural Kenyan district. The Misool Eco Resort has leased 828 square kilometres of water and islands in eastern Indonesia and, by providing employment to discourage overfishing, has increased the biomass of the fragile area by 250 per cent. (Cayuga Collection, Ol Pejecta Conservancy and Misool Eco Resort have each won a Tourism for Tomorrow award from the influential World Travel And Tourism Council.)
Hotels have been promoting conservation for at least a decade now, offering guests the option to keep their towels rather than have them changed and cleaned, or to refuse room make-up service in exchange for points or rebates. But many are taking it to a whole new level.
Delta Hotels, the Canadian group now owned by Marriott that is the process of going international, has partnered with Soapbox, a producer of high-end creams and cleansers, to let guests spread the wealth, or at least the soap. For every kit that guests use, a bar of soap is provided to someone in need, either locally or internationally. Although this may sound like a modest form of activism, Soapbox co-founder David Simnick explains that soap is one of those fundamental vectors of change – like mosquito nets and educating girls – that can be the fulcrum for massive change.
“Of the top five reasons children under the age of 5 die, according to UNICEF,” says Simnick, who just turned 30, “two of them − diarrhea and acute respiratory diseases − can be reduced and prevented with washing hands with soap.”
And as guests learn about the program, and the value of access to soap both at home and abroad, they have started to go beyond their own amenity kits.
“Marriott is using their Marriott rewards platform to let people bid to go along with Soapbox in order to be a part of a soap-education program in Mumbai,” Simnick says. When we spoke, the trip package had been online for six days and was the highest-bid item on the platform, beating out tickets to the Country Music Awards, a tour of a 14th-century Portuguese monastery and cooking classes with Michelin-starred chefs.
“It’s pretty cool,” says Simnick, who got the idea for Soapbox when he was volunteering with the U.S. Agency for International Development in his early 20s. “And it goes to show this isn’t just a do-gooder thing, this is something guests really want. They want to know that not only do hotels care about sustainability, but that their stay adds up to something more than just a stay.”
The new Eaton Workshop hotel, opening this summer in Washington, D.C., is counting on this new appetite for what might be called engaged travel. Unlike Standard Hotels, which began life as a hipster hangout and slowly grew into its activism, Eaton Workshop announced its brand roll-out by describing itself as “a new global brand merging hospitality with progressive social change,” and addressing itself to “an inclusive tribe of changemakers and creatives.”
Just a block away from The Washington Post, the Eaton will also have what it is calling a media arm, including a radio station, that will produce takes on issues such as immigration, women’s rights, race in the United States, climate change, food waste, and health care. Though keeping specific mention of Donald Trump out of its material, the Eaton is counting on being the counterpoint to another neighbour: the Trump Hotel is just six blocks south.
Of course, as these hotels expand their reach – Eaton is opening another Workshop in Hong Kong later this year, and Standard opens its first international property in London at the end of the year and has plans to double its number of properties in the next five to seven years − there are branding benefits to this corporate leap to the left.
“It’s partly the political climate,” says Deanna Ting, senior hospitality editor for Skift, a travel industry site, “but it’s also a really great story to tell. It gives you an outlook. Would the Standard or Workshop hotels be getting as much coverage if they weren’t doing that they’re doing? It’s a story.”
But the fact that it’s a story guests want to hear says something about the world, circa 2018. It’s a world where people are profoundly affected by social media and are travelling in greater numbers than ever before and, in the process, becoming more aware of the world’s problems, and its potential solutions.