REBEL CONCEPTS: INVESTING IN THE INTANGIBLE

What price would you pay to have access to a renewing pool of engaged, loyal and talented staff? SAIRA Hospitality’s founder, Harsha Chanrai, tells Olivia Squire why hospitality schools will disrupt the future of travel.

Harsha Chanrai credits her family with giving her the ‘philanthropic gene’. Growing up, they worked closely with charitable causes, inculcating a young Chanrai with the notion that “people don’t necessarily think that they alone can make a change, but I saw that one person really can have an impact – and it can be life-changing”. Coupled with a passion for the luxury travel industry that saw her later work for Six Senses in Bangkok and Singapore, it’s perhaps unsurprising that when entering a competition at Cornell Hospitality School in 2014, her aim was to bridge the gap between these two worlds.

“A lot of people think you’ve got to grow old, make money and then give it back – but that’s the old-fashioned way of thinking and it takes too long,” she says. Inspired by non-profits she saw whilst in Angkor Wat that trained locals for roles in hospitality, she devised the concept for SAIRA Hospitality: a pop-up hospitality school for less privileged locals living in thriving hotel markets.

Harsha Chanrai

Unlike these Cambodian non-profits, however, and driven by her awareness that “you can’t rely on donations if you quickly want to make a significant difference”, at SAIRA hotels invest in the programme in exchange for a bespoke curriculum and pool of talent to recruit from, subverting the traditional routes of hiring expats or poaching from other properties. After winning the Cornell competition, Chanrai launched a successful pilot in downtown Los Angeles in late 2015 and has since graduated 42 local students from a nine-week school in Todos Santos, Mexico, in partnership with Bunkhouse Hotels. During the latter, every student completed the programme and Bunkhouse benefited from 100% ROI, hiring all 25 of the students they wanted.

However in the nature of all true pioneers, getting this concept into the mainstream has meant struggling against entrenched perceptions. “Hospitality isn’t the most forward-thinking industry,” Chanrai admits, “so when introducing a new idea like this it can be hard to see the benefit, which is intangible. However, 70% of a guest’s experience is emotional and intangible, so sometimes it’s worth investing in that”. SAIRA’s challenge lies in convincing hotel owners to “embrace community for the sake of their own ROI” and understand the value in making a positive impact

This approach is particularly relevant to new launches: as Chanrai explains, “when you move into a new neighbourhood you introduce yourself, and hotels need to do that – not just to local businesses, but to local people”. By providing a tailored programme for the property and destination, taking into account cultural norms, brand vision and standard orientation procedures, by opening date graduates are already imbued with the hotel’s character and guests’ needs – a powerful incentive for prospective brands (in Todos Santos, for example, bespoke training in the US market and F&B meant that Bunkhouse was able to hire the 25 SAIRA graduates they needed prior to opening).

SAIRA graduates receiving their qualifications

The pitch to students has a more immediate appeal. Chanrai is insistent that “it’s not enough to just want a job: I eventually want graduates to become general managers… I really need to know before they are selected that they have a ‘hospitality gene’, a desire to serve”. This means undergoing three to four interviews prior to selection, weekly assessments during the programme, and training on “intangible service qualities” such as empathy, reliability, responsiveness and assurance – after all, “service is an intangible industry”.

Creating a real community is also pivotal, with everything from winery tours to rooftop yoga sessions included on the curriculum. Chanrai remarks, “One of the most interesting takeaways was that the out-of-class activities are sometimes the most important”. The result is that people who had perhaps previously never stepped foot inside a hotel feel part of something, liberated to find not only employment, but also a sense of purpose.

SAIRA’s next stop will be a permanent school in Turks & Caicos, opening this year. A non-profit joint venture with a local hotel owner, it arose in response to a growing demand for staff in a booming tourist destination. In addition to more pop-ups in emerging markets, Chanrai also has plans to tweak the concept to make it viable in densities like New York or London, whereby “hotels could pay an annual membership fee to dip into the SAIRA pool in that city, rather than going on Craigslist or poaching talent from other properties”.

Group yoga sessions

When I ask if she thinks herself a rebel, Chanrai laughs: “I don’t know about a rebel! However, I do definitely want to disrupt the way hospitality is run. Mandela said, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world’. Turnover is one of the largest challenges for hotels, so through education, I’d like to prove that you can greatly reduce turnover. So would I describe myself as thinking out of the box? To make a change, I think you have to”.

One thing she does firmly believe is that “hospitality should embrace the idea that it’s ‘cool’ to be humanitarian. It’s the world’s biggest industry; we have to lead the way and recognise the impact we have. Mindfulness, watching your words and decisions, is growing enormously – but people have to realise that this isn’t just personal, but applies to how you do business.”

On whether the birth of similar concepts like Good Hotel and Salt School herald a new dawn for talent in hospitality, Chanrai muses, “I think that every hotel should be connected to a school, whether it’s SAIRA or similar. I hope the concept catches on. It’s non-profit, it’s not competition. The more people we help, the better”. Just as she inherited that ‘philanthropy gene’ from her parents, this reluctant rebel is aiming to pass on the same spirit of selflessness to the rest of the industry: an intangible investment in the future of hospitality that we should all get behind.

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Olivia Squire

Olivia Squire is a freelance travel writer and Editor of SUITCASE Magazine. She loves old buildings, new books, strong drinks and bright lipstick, and is on the constant lookout for hotels that combine all four.