How Saira Hospitality Empowers Communities by Training Hotel Staff
In an unsteady world, how can communities recover from natural disasters, political unrest, and economic depression? The short answer is by ensuring people have income and can support themselves. While it may not seem like much, for many communities around the world a job is the difference between hope and hopelessness. That’s where Saira Hospitality comes in.
Founded by Harsha L’Acqua, Saira ran its first successful pilot program in 2015. Essentially, the organization aims to unite luxury hotels around the world with a dedicated, vetted pool of local staff members. Saira Hospitality does this by partnering with international hotels to identify staffing shortages and local communities in need of opportunities. Through an intense applicant screening process and pop-up hospitality schools, Saira trains students in the nuances of luxury hotel service.
The result is a bespoke training program that provides hotels with qualified staff members and local people with the makings for a career in the hospitality industry.
For L’Acqua, the connection between hospitality and philanthropy is everything. According to her, the two go hand-in-hand and are linked by service, hospitality serves the guest, philanthropy serves humanity. Saira Hospitality’s results speak for themselves, with 248 program graduates to date, and only a 10 percent turnover rate — far below the industry standard of 60 to 70 percent.
With L’Acqua at the helm with her keen sense of service and eye for bespoke luxury, Saira is likely to continue to produce capable graduates while giving back to local communities. We caught up with Chanrai to discuss what service means to her, and exactly how her program aims to uplift those in need.
Why did you decide to found Saira Hospitality, and what is your ultimate goal?
I was searching for a way to connect nonprofit work and hospitality. My sisters and I grew up watching my father work with Mother Teresa and we were always aware of the lack of food, water, education, health care, and opportunity that so many people face everyday.
Yet when working with Six Senses, I also fell in love with luxury lifestyle hospitality and wanted to find a way to connect both worlds. I came across an organization when visiting Cambodia that was working with women who were otherwise forced into the sex-trafficking industry and training them to be housekeepers who could be employed by hotels. For me, that connected these two worlds of service, one to the guest and one to humanity.
Not long after that trip, I was working at the Aman Galle in Sri Lanka when the need on both sides became apparent while observing a painful interview for a pool-cleaner. Hotels are looking to hire well-trained, local talent to reduce turnover and costs and support local communities. On the flip side, local communities are looking for education and opportunity but are lacking the skills and knowledge to to gain employment at these hotels opening in their neighborhoods.
I am trying to challenge the way the industry has entered neighborhoods and ignored the local communities. Our goal is for hotels to give education and opportunity before they take resources. We want hospitality to change their hiring practices — which are greatly contributing to their high turnover rates of 60 to 70 percent — and to start investing in educating local communities so they can hire those living closest to the hotels.
How does your work with Saira Hospitality aim to empower local communities?
Everything we do is centred on empowering local communities. Offering a free, high standard of education to communities that may not have the privilege to access information is one of the most valuable commodities that you can provide someone. In our most recent project with Habitas that took us to Namibia, we had more than 300 applications and encountered people that hadn’t had a job in 8 years, who, when asked out of curiosity in Saira interviews how much money they needed to survive each month, some were happy to earn even $50 USD per month from any job they could get. In countries that are experiencing socio-economic hardship, Saira is providing a platform for a career in hospitality, and at the very least, some belief in themselves that they can achieve one.
What does service mean to you, and how is this reflected in Saira Hospitality?
When we’re interviewing and recruiting candidates for the Saira program, we always ask the question: “What does service mean to you?” and specifically “What does good service mean to you?” It’s so interesting hearing how the students respond, though the answer always alludes to providing the guest with a level of happiness.
Often however, our students do not have access to the luxury level of service that will be expected of them when they start working for a hotel. So, one of the first things we do is organize a “welcome” for them that you’d experience as a guest walking into a high-end hotel for the first time (hot towels, welcome drink, etc.) to show them how guests are treated at a luxury hotel. Later in the program, we also organize a fine dining experience and if we have time depending on the length of the program, we take our students to a luxury hotel to tour the back of house, front of house and feel first hand the service interwoven with the hotel design, the F&B offerings, the amenities and so on that all contribute to the guest experience.
Ultimately service is subjective and dependent on what is most precious to the guest, which in today’s society and in luxury hospitality, is often time. Therefore, I believe great service means being considerate of people’s needs and people’s time; it means being thoughtful, considerate, attentive, and anticipating the guests needs before they even know what they want themselves.
Why does Saira take a holistic approach when teaching hospitality skills, such as teaching emotional and cultural intelligence?
Hospitality, as a people industry, is incredibly subjective and emotional, which is why Saira can even exist. You don’t need to have a formal education to be successful in hospitality — to be successful in hospitality you have to be empathetic and understand human behavior.
Our role is not so much in teaching the practical skills — while we can lay a foundation, hotels tend to have their own distinct training programs for this — Saira’s role is much more about nurturing what we call “the hospitality gene.” Through the interview process, it becomes evident the candidates that really want to work in hospitality and have a natural predisposition for nurturing, caring and, well, hospitality. While you can’t necessarily teach emotional and cultural intelligence, you can make students more aware of behavior and how to respond effectively in different scenarios.
We believe in teaching skills that can be applied both when working in hospitality but also to the personal lives of the students. Some of our students in the past have managed to heal broken marriages by learning about the communication skills we teach in class. Much of what we teach enriches both the professional and personal lives of our students.
How do you decide where to run the pop-up schools? Where do you see the greatest need for skilled hospitality staff?
It’s not really up to us where we run the pop-up schools, it’s up to the partners and hotels that we work with. Sometimes, like when a natural disaster hit the British Virgin Islands (BVI) for example, we’ll reach out to contacts we know in the industry to see how we can help. During our project in the BVI, we entered the market at a time when the country had just been devastated by hurricanes, people were lost, homes were lost, and jobs were lost. Most of all, hope was lost. Saira was brought on to provide training to individuals that were recovering from huge hardship, and in a market that heavily relied on travel and tourism for economic stability. Meanwhile our project with Habitas took us to Namibia, where we didn’t quite anticipate just how desperate the economic situation was. For only approximately thirty jobs in round one, we had over 300 applications and while the vast majority were unemployed, most did not have access to good education, either. It’s those countries that have great socio-economic hardship that we find most rewarding.
Where is your favorite place to travel?
I took my first trip to Japan with my husband to see the cherry blossoms last year and it was magical. I love way that tradition and technology interact, the Japanese values and culture, and the beauty they find in simplicity. It’s a very spiritual, peaceful, and respectful place with so much to explore and so much to learn from its people.
Are there any places you admire in particular for their hospitality service or community empowerment?
Geographically and culturally speaking, I think some of the best hospitality service is in Southeast Asia – Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. For locals in these countries, service is in their genes. Brands such as Six Senses embody the most detailed and compassionate hospitality service. They have created a unique form of barefoot luxury.
Do you have plans for future pop-ups? Would you ever consider building a permanent facility?
Absolutely, on both! Future pop-ups are dependent on the hotel industry investing more in the Saira program but we’re ready! We’ve worked incredibly closely with the team at Habitas on its new opening in Namibia, and our values and brands are so closely aligned we would love to work with them on future projects. We are also so excited to be “working from home” next year, assisting a new Hyatt property opening in California who are so keen to give back before they take.
A permanent hospitality school funded and sustained by a hotel of my own is a dream of mine, stay tuned…
What lessons can we learn about resilience and regeneration as a result of Covid-19?
On Resilience: Those who are left in the world will literally be the strongest versions of themselves. Individually speaking and on a corporate level. Physically and emotionally. Those whose businesses do manage to survive will prove themselves to be the fittest perhaps. Yet what will the rest of the world do? We saw very quickly the hospitality industry adapting, to take out service, to grocers, to hospitals even. The “hospital” in “hospitality” has never been seen so clearly in my eyes and I wonder whether Saira Hospitality could be used to service hospital staff as well, teaching compassion, empathy and emotional intelligence which can be key in the recovery process for patients. Adaptation is a form and a sign of resilience. Our industry is strong but more than that, it is passionate about people, about travel, about education and learning through exploration and it will come back, we just don’t quite know how or when or whether it will be for the better as we hope it will.
On Regeneration: We are all at the moment forced to recreate ourselves in some way, to think like entrepreneurs, for some it comes naturally and for others, they worry where they will get their next paycheck. Today it feels as though we are all intra/entrepreneurs, with jobs or no jobs, out of choice or no choice. I read a quote that says it’s like we have all been sent to our rooms to think about what we did wrong. But what will come out on the other side is unsure. There are two ideas floating around, one predicting that the world will go back to the same in not so long, we will fly around the world as we once did, freely and without thinking about the impact on the planet. The other feels the world will stay home more, travel locally, and mindfully. All I know today is that we have to be united in our thinking or it won’t work. And clearly our world leaders still stand divided.
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