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Late one evening in May, as the summer heat gathered in the foothills in Rajasthan, India, Karin van Zyl sat at her marble table, running a marker across a piece of calico. On her laptop, she could hear New York governor Andrew Cuomo delivering his daily pandemic briefing from 7,000 miles away. Van Zyl had had an early-morning Zoom call with the Aman executive team, but she hoped to finish a dozen more masks before bed.
For the general manager of Amanbagh, an American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property, this had become a nightly routine and what she called “a form of therapy” during the shutdown: sitting in her room at the hotel, tracing a face-mask template at her table, then moving to the bed with a pair of shears to cut them out. “I may put on some Queen, some Broadway musicals, and sing along as loudly as I can,” van Zyl said. “Then I’ll watch the news. Cuomo’s briefing comes on in the evening here, so I always try to catch that.”
The hotel had been closed since March 22. Amanbagh has 186 employees hailing from far-flung corners of India; most live in rented housing in outlying villages. The luckier ones returned to their home states before flights and trains were suspended. For the few dozen who couldn’t, van Zyl appropriated whatever on-site lodging she could for them to wait out the closure.
Two bumpy hours east of Jaipur, Amanbagh lies well off the grid in normal times; indeed, that’s part of its appeal. The COVID-19 shutdown only underscored that isolation.
"Everything we need now, we have to go out and get—there's no Amazon here," van Zyl explained. Face masks were near-impossible to procure so van Zyl had to get creative. In a storeroom she found a dusty old foot-pedal sewing machine; in the spa, a 100-meter roll of calico, used to make poultices for Ayurvedic treatments. “The first three masks took me nine hours!” van Zyl said with a laugh. “The needle broke twice, the pedal kept sticking. Eventually I figured it out, and the spa girls offered to help with ironing and stitching.” Within a few weeks they had enough masks for the entire team.
Van Zyl didn’t stop there. On her daily hike around the property, she spotted a group of local children walking by on the road. None wore masks. “Each of those kids probably lived with parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, all in the same home,” van Zyl said. So she and her staff set about fashioning masks for their neighbors as well. By late May they’d crafted several hundred and were down to 30 meters of calico.
As the COVID-19 pandemic raged across the globe this spring, the hospitality business was particularly hard hit. Worldwide, it’s estimated the hotel industry lost $25 billion in the first two months alone. But as bottom lines bottomed out, hotels and their employees responded by doing what they do best: taking care of strangers.
Some, including the Wythe and Four Seasons hotels in New York and Claridge’s in London, put up medical workers free of charge. Others, such as Australia’s Pan Pacific Perth, offered up rooms to homeless citizens unable to self-isolate. American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property Shangri-La Hotel, Singapore, among many others, leveraged supplier connections to source personal protective equipment and other essentials for those in need.
Some leaned on loyal clientele to support COVIDrelated causes, like the four Amalfi Coast hotels—Le Sirenuse, Il San Pietro, Hotel Santa Caterina, and Palazzo Avino—that teamed up to sell vouchers for future stays, raising $218,000 for vaccine research.
Looking to healthier times ahead, global brands like Hyatt and Karisma paid tribute to first responders by gifting them post-crisis holidays, while Asilia Africa and Explore arranged to send hospital workers on all-inclusive safaris.
There were big, brand-level initiatives by the three major players: Marriott and IHG organized rooms for medical staff via the First Responders First campaign, and Hilton partnered with American Express for the similar 1 Million Rooms effort. But much of the industry’s response was about individual properties—even individual employees—taking the spirit of hospitality beyond their doors to serve the neediest in their communities.
Back in May, while Karin van Zyl was crafting masks in Rajasthan, Massimo Falsini was waking up halfway around the globe in Santa Barbara, California. The Rome native is the executive chef at Rosewood Miramar Beach in Montecito. Although the hotel had been closed for two months, Falsini was busier than ever. Six days a week he arrived at work by 6:30 a.m. Mornings he spent planning for the eventual reopening but the rest of his time was devoted to his own Miramar on the Move project.
“We knew the local food supply would suffer during the pandemic, and Santa Barbara had a special challenge with its homeless population,” Falsini explained. “With everyone focusing on the virus, it’s easy to forget about the vulnerable. But we had kitchens, we had cooks, we had access to food. So I said, ‘Let’s do what we know how to do.’”
Coincidentally, just before the closure, Falsini had rented a food truck for the beachfront bar. Two weeks later, the truck hit the streets on a whole other mission: offering fresh food to Santa Barbara’s homeless residents, as well as to first responders and healthcare workers. Over the next two months, the Miramar team served more than 12,000 meals.
By the time we spoke, Falsini was running on adrenaline, having taken hardly any time off since March. The work sustained him. That morning he and his crew had brought a truckload of burritos to a downtown recovery center. “The staff came out to collect the food, and when we saw their faces—the surprise, the gratitude—our legs were shaking,” he said. “I realized this is why I cook. To nourish people.”
Similar scenes played out around the globe, as hotel workers rallied to feed their communities and care for the vulnerable. During the pandemic, the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong’s kitchen crews prepared meals to distribute to local seniors. Dorchester’s Hotel Eden in Rome and Hotel Principe di Savoia in Milan both “adopted” at-risk households to look after, providing vital supplies and shopping services.
In the Bahian village of Trancoso, Brazil, staff at the 13-casita Uxua hotel spent the first weeks of the pandemic delivering food to elderly neighbors. Their ad hoc effort soon became a town-wide campaign— and within a month, Alimente Trancoso had delivered 2,500 care baskets. Julian Hamamoto, medical director of Uxua’s spa, filmed a series of videos to educate villagers—many of whom are illiterate—on principles of hygiene and social distancing.
Hotels, of course, have a long history of stepping up in a crisis. When a hurricane, blackout, or wildfire hits, displacing residents and disrupting services, it’s often hotels that fill the void. With their resilient infrastructure, built-in security, vast kitchens and storerooms, and skilled personnel, some become de facto community centers. Such was the case in the Caribbean after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, as resorts throughout the islands became safe gathering spots for evacuees and staging areas for rescue workers.
When civil war broke out in Spain in 1936, the owner of Granada’s Hotel Alhambra Palace turned the premises over to the military to use as a army hospital. Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn played a pivotal role during Yugoslavia’s own civil war. Rising above the notorious “Sniper Alley,” its canary-yellow façade sustained constant shelling by Bosnian Serb forces. Yet throughout the 1,425-day siege, the staff and guests soldiered on. With its satellite TVs and basement discotheque, the Holiday Inn was favored by foreign correspondents, who holed up and hunkered down. “It was where love affairs blossomed, it was where we worked, it was where we escaped death,” Christiane Amanpour recalled to a CNN reporter years later. “It was really everything to many of us.”
In uncertain times, a hotel can be a trusted source for information, essentials, and—just as crucial—peace of mind, for travelers and locals alike. It’s the proverbial refuge from the storm.
COVID-19, naturally, was a very different storm, in which the mere act of gathering could mean danger. How can a hotel serve its community if the community can’t safely come inside? Solving that riddle would require a new way of working.
Fortunately, this is an industry built on improvisation. Armed with a diversity of talent and operational expertise, hotels can respond to crises more nimbly than other private or public organizations.
“No two days are ever the same in hotels,” said Stephanie Stanton, who works for Las Vegas Sands, operator of the Venetian and Palazzo resorts. “We’re accustomed to the unexpected.” Stanton oversees the company’s local philanthropic arm, and she suddenly found herself redirecting the hotels’ massive enterprise to meet the challenge of COVID-19. Forget every day—every hour brought another conundrum. At one point her office had received a call from the Catholic Charities homeless shelter. “Half their kitchen crew had gotten sick with the virus. But they still needed to provide meals—and, of course, demand is way up,” Stanton explained. “I said, ‘Okay, we’ve got you.’ ” Within hours, a dozen hotel cooks had jumped in to prepare 1,000 box lunches a day. “People can think what they want about Vegas, but this community is unbelievable,” said Stanton. “It all comes back to hospitality.”
The cruel irony of COVID-19 was that the industry most likely to pitch in during a crisis was itself in tatters. The pandemic had brought the hotel business to a standstill and an entire workforce to its knees. Now an industry built on caring for others would have to take care of its own.
In Ojai, California, the Ojai Valley Inn, an American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property, has long been the largest employer in town. “It’s an unusually symbiotic relationship,” said Chris Kandziora, OVI’s general manager. “One could argue that without the inn, there may be no town. But without the town, there would certainly be no inn.”
The Crown family, who have owned the inn since the 1980s, paid the staff full wages for the first three weeks, but ultimately 500 staffers had to be furloughed. To lessen the blow, workers got care packages every two weeks. Staffers chose a time slot to pick up a box with milk, eggs, chicken, beef, bread, and six rolls of impossible-to-find toilet paper.
Bread and toilet paper shortages are one thing. At a time when washing hands can literally save a life, what if running water itself is scarce? The pandemic brought into stark relief how geography can determine one’s fate. Basic services we take for granted at home are often luxuries in the places we visit—not least rural Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana, where African Bush Camps operates 15 safari properties, as well as a nonprofit foundation.
ABC founder Beks Ndlovu, whose mother worked as a state nurse in his native Zimbabwe, knows all too well southern Africa’s public-health challenges, which were only exacerbated when the pandemic struck. Furthermore, the communities where the bush camps operate—like so many others across the region—are largely sustained by revenue from visitors, either directly or indirectly. With safari camps closed and visitors staying away, people were in danger of losing their livelihoods, if not their lives because of the virus. So ABC’s Foundation (ABCF) set about installing nearly 1,000 “Tippy Taps” (rudimentary hand-washing stations) in rural households. The campaign had a dual purpose: providing sanitary facilities to villagers in need, while also driving awareness of their lifesaving importance.
The Tippy Taps were among dozens of COVID-related initiatives undertaken by ABCF. To ensure families had a sustainable source of protein during the tourism downturn, the foundation provided village households with egg-laying hens.
Meanwhile, once safari operations ground to a halt—and game parks sat more or less unattended—wildlife poachers went increasingly unchecked. The safari industry underwrites most of Africa’s anti-poaching measures, so as money and manpower dwindled, protecting the parks became a grave concern. So Ndlovu and the foundation reached out to ABC’s devoted clients for support.
Ndlovu wasn’t surprised by the outpouring of goodwill. “People remember meeting our staff, going into these communities, getting such a warm welcome from them—for our guests, those were extraordinarily happy times,” said Ndlovu. “They know that if ever there were a time to give, that time is now.”
Therein lies another advantage hotels have over other businesses, even other philanthropic endeavors, in terms of galvanizing support. If travel is all about intimate, face-to-face connections, hotels—be it a Zambian safari camp, a Hong Kong five-star, or a Brazilian beach resort— are often where we find our most personal connections on the road. We learn the names of our guides, the pool attendants, that comically bad pianist at the bar. We remember the server who surprised us with two desserts when we had trouble choosing one; the concierge who tipped us off to that speakeasy down the block; the gardener who led us on an impromptu tour of the resort’s private orchard.
And when disaster strikes—a flood, a bomb, a virus—we think of those people we met, however many years ago, and we wonder if they’re okay. So when a hotel reaches out to ask if we might help out, is it any wonder we feel duty-bound to do so?