Wouldn’t it be nice?

The need for hotels to embrace community.

This story first appeared on The Shift, the content platform of contemporary travel event LE Miami, in October, 2016.
Groundswell members meeting with Jeff Koons to complete 11 Howard’s mural plans. Source.

Frequently stood outside my local corner shop just trying to get by, Clemence is a guy from Ghana with little but a smile. He stops me for a chat, I sometimes buy him a sandwich, and then I’m gone — with a crushing guilt that I’ve stayed in hotel rooms he couldn’t even comprehend; such is the disparity that exists even beyond the well-publicised elite/minion divide.

I’m lucky. As a travel writer/blogger/journalist/influencer [delete where appropriate], I’ve stayed in places I too should not be able to comprehend. But now, comprehend I do, and dear Clemence’s distance from my world is all the more gut-wrenching.

What if every night you spent in a hotel could make a positive impact on the Clemences of this world? If booking a room for the night sent off a chain-reaction of positivity that helped those who needed it the most? Those with a keen eye on hotel-related news will have seen the wide-eyed ambition of celebrity photographer Jeremy Cowart and his grander than grand Kickstarter campaign for the Purpose Hotel — which, at the time of writing, is well over target on its second (more reasonable) bite at the crowdfunding cherry.

Cowart seems like a big-thinker, and his campaign’s motto is bold, if not mildly cringe-inducing: Change the World in Your Sleep. I shouldn’t scoff — if I were more bold, more ambitious, more American, I might have translated the sadness I feel for my Ghanaian friend into something positive; but that’s the Brit in me. The L.A.-based entrepreneur is the antithesis of the bumbling Hugh Grant character. Shooting megastars, buggering off on humanity missions to Rwanda, and doing TEDx talks. I’m still working on small talk with my hairdresser.

Crowdfunding and ‘giving back’ are big buzzwords, mind, but Purpose Hotel has an impressive vision. Internet fees (we’ll let him off here) fight human-trafficking; a child’s education is sponsored by each booking; and every single detail (art, coffee, blankets, toiletries…) will be sourced from brands active in the fight against poverty, violence, and injustice. Impressive, yes. But should it be? In 2016, should I be impressed by somebody with an ambition to build a brand that actually gives a shit? “I’m asking you to help me build it, because humanity desperately needs it”, says Coward — and that just makes me want to cry.

[Update: there’s been little tangible progress since 4,236 backers pledged $679,587 to complete the Kickstarter in 2016, perhaps Cowart’s grandiose will be his undoing?]

Is it a hotel’s place to help, though? And, if so, what are hotels doing so wrong that it takes a valiant crowdfunding campaign to highlight it? You might have noticed that ‘social responsibility’ has cropped up right next to ‘environmental policy’ on hotel website footers across the world . Bbeing conscious is on trend, be it mere compliancy, through things like the Modern Slavery Act, or swashbuckling do-goodery like our friend Jeremy Cowart.

How to cut through the clutter?

Rancho Mirage, California, and a plight that we humans all feel instant empathy towards: dogs. Travel+Leisure recently reported that Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort & Spa had turned their lobby into a temporary home for needy pooches from a nearby shelter in the Palm Springs Valley, homeless dogs being the ultimate line in hotel amenities.

Forgive me drawing comparisons between our four-legged friends and international humanitarian crises, but I’m running with something here: being nice is good. And it can be contagious.

Groundswell’s The Spirit of SoHo mural at 11 Howard.

From big-thinking photographer of the stars to homeless hounds, an embodiment of community spirit is a common friend. And community, like local and glocal and hyperlocal, is something all hoteliers should be transferring to the top of their to-do lists. Because … well … if you can’t respect those around you, what hope do we have for intrepid efforts to make meaningful change in the developing world? “It will mark a shift”, Cowart continues in his call-to-arms Kickstarter video, “in hotels becoming a place for change, for community.” Community.

Opening earlier this year in SoHo, New York, 11 Howard is a partner with Global Poverty Project— whose mission is a world without extreme poverty by 2030—and a slice of each and every booking is taken for good causes. That’s not the end of the positive collaborations. There’s food from FEED Projects, who provide school lunches in 63 countries; consciously-conceived products courtesy of ethical platform Conscious Commerce; the minibar uses that c-word again, with organic retailer Thrive Market on board; and lastly, but perhaps most importantly, New York organisation Groundswell have lent the decorators a hand.

Responsible for a 150-foot-by-50-foot mural that’s emblazoned on 11 Howard’s south-facing wall, Groundswell did what they do the city over, and put marginalised youths to work on the project. (This time under the mentorship of a certain Jeff Koons.) Operating since 1996, the Brooklyn-based community project uses art as a means for social change, and represents the hotel’s solid investment in the area that surrounds it. Community.

Good Hotel, Amsterdam

Let us not play down the horrors that we can keep ‘out of sight, out of mind’; developing countries need our support more than most. But that should be a given, shouldn’t it? If a hotel isn’t putting a portion, no matter how small, of what they make into projects that seek to stamp out global poverty, then shame on them. If food, beverages, and products aren’t handpicked from ethical sources, then shame on them. What goes above and beyond the token ‘socially-conscious’ gambit is what that gargantuan mural represents. Hotels make a significant impact on the neighbourhoods they occupy, frequently negative, doing good at a local level is an oft-overlooked necessity.

Enter: Good Hotel. Currently on its way from Amsterdam to London (the hotel is a former floating prison), the non-profit project is dedicated to giving long-term unemployed locals a new start in the hospitality game, the handsomely-designed space featuring a neon mission statement: create beauty do good. If its laudable pursuit is as well-executed as its impressive look, there’ll be some exceedingly happy new hospitality workers buzzing around London’s Royal Victoria Dock soon.

Socially-conscious. Treading the carpet-tiles of their middle management cube office, writers of corporate mission statements the world over are busy Googling its meaning. But, like all good things, meaning can’t be faked. It needs to be felt.

Over in central London, a new ‘social enterprise’ project bills itself as the UK’s ‘first arts hotel’. Some may contest, but Green Rooms is unique in offering truly affordable accommodation to bona fide artists. Aiming to act as a cradle for the neighbourhood’s arts community, it is socially-conscious without grand plans or mission statements of intent—it is socially-conscious purely by way of being itself.

Green Rooms, London

Much has been made of Barcelona’s Casa Bonay and its coming together of the city’s creative community, then there’s nearby Hotel Brummell with its running club and yoga classes. Ibiza’s La Granja too, with its hippie outlook on holistic hospitality; communal farming and slow-food workshops. Subtle touches to incorporate local people and support local enterprise. Not everything need be charity or represent worthy projects, integration over plonking a new batch of tone-deaf tourists into the local community is the name of the game here.

From 11 Howard to the sailing Dutch prison, Green Rooms to Balearic paradise and beyond, looking outside your own four walls—and welcoming those from outside them in—is an essential ingredient in cooking up your own community; and fostering that vital relationship is the very least any hotel should be doing in their pursuit of positivity.

I saw Clemence this morning. I didn’t have a Euro to toss in his cup, nor anything else to shout him something to eat, but he didn’t care. Clemence just wanted someone to take the time to stop and say hi. To be nice. From small acorns, and all that. Social change needn’t be a grand gesture, it can grow from as little as inviting someone in for a coffee who can’t afford it. Making someone, anyone, feel part of a community.

Socially-conscious? Don’t believe the hype… just be nice.