Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Hotels That Help" Harnesses the Wayfarer's Generosity

For most, even when traveling, finding a warm bed is as simple as pulling into the nearest Motel 6 or Holiday Inn. But many - particularly in this era of recession and unemployment - find themselves confronted with the anxious, lingering threat of homelessness.

Social entrepreneur Dave Levenson confronted this reality several years ago when he learned of a friend and former client who had lost his home and been forced to take refuge in a local shelter. Reflecting on the challenges of homelessness, Levenson created the Kohala Foundation, conceiving the organization as a philanthropic foundation geared toward partnering community businesses with underserved local nonprofits.

Setting out to “leverage his talent for leveraging,” Levenson quickly procured financing for Kohala’s flagship endeavor, Hotels That Help, a dynamic, low-cost program designed to bring together hoteliers, their staffs and visiting guests to raise funding for nearby charities.

Headed by Jim Abrams, former CEO of the California Hotel & Lodging Association and a leading expert on hospitality law, Hotels That Help kicked off with a modestly scoped 2007-2009 pilot program involving twenty Bay Area inns, hotels and motels.

Their model is simple, and all the more impactful because of it. As designated businesses join, they start by advertising their involvement around the premises of the hotel with key folders, hotel room tent cards, signs and placards advertising the Hotels That Help logo.

This simple array of promotion is tailored to initiate customer curiosity and inquiry. From there, hotel staff members answer questions, explain the venture and invite guests to add an optional $1 donation to their bill at checkout. Then each month, 100% of the total proceeds are contributed to a local charity chosen by the hotel’s management and staff.

Though Levenson originally envisioned the program as a means of fighting homelessness, its scope has widened to serve a variety of causes. The employees of Berkeley’s famed Hotel Durant, for instance, selected the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, a nearby shelter and soup kitchen, as their charity of choice. But the Petaluma Sheraton chose to devote their donations to the Boys and Girls Club of Marin and Southern Sonoma Counties, while the Hotel Adagio in San Francisco sponsors Art for Life, an arts program for critically ill children. By the nature of the program’s unique selection model, charities have come to run the gamut.

According to Hotels That Help President Jim Abrams, nearly 75% of guests at participating hotels volunteer to chip in. As a result of their generosity, the initial twenty Bay Area hotels raised $25,000 per month during the two-year pilot phase of the venture.

Now Hotels That Help is setting ambitious goals for 2010. In the first half of the year alone, they hope to enroll 1,000 new California hotels to participate in this inventive guest-giving system. By the end of the year, they expect to have brought in an anticipated $10 million of “net new monies” for community non-profits.

Armed with this ambitious vision, Abrams, Levenson and their team foresee a bright future for Hotels That Help, both in the Golden State and beyond. It’s a future in which the reach of charity extends as far the traveler roams.

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