A room with a difference
2 June 2021 at 8:14 am
As Australia’s first social enterprise hotel, Etico provides more than just a picturesque country escape, writes Maggie Coggan in this month’s Spotlight on social enterprise.
From the outside, Hotel Etico looks like a pretty standard place for travellers to rest their heads. However, this hotel, tucked away in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, is doing things a little differently.
As Australia’s first social enterprise hotel, Hotel Etico is supporting young adults with intellectual disabilities to gain training and experience, to set them up for future careers in hospitality.
The training program is based on a model that started in Italy, with the aim of helping a young man with down syndrome, Nico, secure his dream of working in a hotel.
After Nico completed a successful internship in a restaurant, the owners who had hired him set out on a mission to create a place where Nico could work and that could provide training and employment opportunities for other people with disability wanting to break into the hospitality industry.
While Nico was the first ever trainee in the Etico social franchise model, Stella Sgambellone, the general manager of Hotel Etico Australia, told Pro Bono News, there are now hotels open across Italy, Argentina, Albania, and Australia.
“I don’t think that anyone ever thought that one person’s quest would result in a social franchise model that would one day take on the world,” Sgambellone said.
There are two parts to the program. The trainees (of which there are currently six in the Australian Etico hotel) undergo on-the-job training in all aspects of the hotel – from housekeeping, and front-of-house, to working in the restaurant kitchen.
Then there is the Academy of Independence, which gives the trainees an opportunity to live independently and develop life skills during a three-day working week.
“We have a dedicated department within the hotel where our trainees live when they’re on shift… to practice independence,” Sgambellone said.
“It’s a place where they can do their own washing, cook their own meals, and make their own beds.”
Already making an impact
While the hotel is due to officially open in Australia on 5 June, the training program has been running since February. Sgambellone said the positive impacts were already starting to show.
“Just recently, I was talking to the mum of one of our trainees… and in the short time that he’s been with us, his mum has realised that his verbal communication has improved massively,” she said.
“When he comes home now, he’s a real chatterbox, and that never used to be the case.”
Sgambellone said that the trainee is also taking charge of setting a weekly schedule for himself, which is something that only his mum used to do.
“Hearing that is absolutely incredible because it shows that he’s really getting confident and taking charge of his independence,” she said.
In the coming months, the trainees will also complete three projects focusing on business, physical and mental wellbeing, and local community engagement.
“They’re going to be styling an apartment within the hotel… so that will mean working out colour schemes, budgets, doing a pitch, and then actually carrying out that project,” Sgambellone said.
“The second one is a health and wellbeing project, which is learning all about health and fitness from mental health to physical health, diet; and then the third is a community project, which is going to be an event that trainees plan and invite the locals along to.”
A boost for the community
Sgambellone said that another important part of the hotel’s impact was giving back to the local community of Mount Victoria, which over the past year, had faced a multitude of hardships.
“We’ve had the bushfires, we’ve had landslides, we’ve had heavy rains. In terms of natural disasters, a lot has happened, which is why we are really excited to put on events for the community to give them a night of laughter and joy,” she said.
She said that it was also important for the hotel to have a strong presence in the community to shift perspectives around what it looks like to have a workplace that is inclusive of people living with disabilities.
So far, the response from the community has only been positive.
“The locals and the local businesses have really embraced us and our model,” Sgambellone said.
“The feedback we’ve received is that we have opened their eyes to what an inclusive workplace looks like.”
Trials and tribulations amid a pandemic
While 2021 is looking to be (slightly) smoother sailing for the hospitality industry, Sgambellone said that setting up a new hotel amid an ongoing pandemic was always going to be tricky.
“We took a gamble to open in the age of COVID-19, but there are always going to be challenges, it’s just about how you deal with them in the end,” she said.
The hotel is currently receiving seed funding from the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation, as well as philanthropic backing from Paul and Sandra Salteri, as well as additional financial support to support operations over the next couple of years.
Sgambellone said that the business is aiming to be financially independent by the end of 2024.
The focus up until now has really been to get the hotel officially open, get the training program up and running, and to establish operations,” she said.
“The next phase we are looking forward to is to start creating that solid foundation in our organisation so that we can demonstrate that this is a model that works.”
She said that the Blue Mountains Etico was only the beginning, and they were already setting their sights on building hotels in Melbourne and Canberra.
“This started with Nico’s dream, but he’s inspired all of us,” she said.