By Kaitlyn Wallace
When reporting on COVID-19 and the hotel industry, writers tend to focus on the economic impacts of travel restrictions, social distancing, and staffing shortages that have threatened many aspects of the industry’s profitability. We don’t often focus on positives– but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. For some, COVID served to spotlight our relationships with and responsibility towards our local communities, pushing us to create more thoughtful relationships with our neighbors, friends, and even clientele.
One particularly salient example of this trend is the Embassy Suites by Hilton St. Louis Downtown’s new partnership with the Missouri Special School District. This program provides hands-on hospitality jobs and mentorship opportunities for students with disabilities. Running throughout the school year, this partnership is designed to help students gain valuable work experience and confidence in the job market. Mark Brown, General Manager at the Embassy Suites by Hilton St. Louis Downtown, describes the benefits of the program as “increasing students’ confidence, which leads to a real sense of pride. We’re thrilled we have the opportunity to work with them to build their confidence and skill set.” This attitude of engagement, respect, and mutual benefit is not new for the Embassy Suites, according to Mark: “Working closely with the community has always been a top priority for Embassy Suites by Hilton St. Louis Downtown. We have been thrilled to partner with the Missouri Special School District to create this opportunity at our hotel.”
The partnership currently includes seven students and is supported by a full-time teacher and teaching assistant. Students work with the housekeeping department to gain experience with a variety of tasks and build essential skills. The Embassy Suites by Hilton St. Louis Downtown works diligently to work with each student in order to maximize their benefits from the program, providing training and consistent communication. “We focus on students’ abilities, not disabilities,” says Mark Brown, “implementing a structured training process is the key to success. It’s crucial that the housekeeping leaders keep communication lines open. We know each student may learn differently, and we’ve worked closely with the teachers to make sure we’re effectively communicating with each student.”
This model of community engagement has been becoming more common in the hotel industry over the past few years. Other Embassy Suite locations, such as Embassy Suites by Hilton Frisco in Texas, Omaha-La Vista in Nebraska, and Northwest Arkansas, have conducted similar programs with outstanding success, preparing students with disabilities for success all over the country. Leadership by Embassy Suites locations all over the country has provided a sustainable and effective model of community partnership for the rest of the hotel industry. In many places, these partnerships have inspired other hotels to move forward with programs supporting and connecting with their local communities. “As the President of the St. Louis Area Hotel Association, I’ve conveyed our experience with my colleagues,” says Mark Brown, “The impact of incorporating these students into the hotel team has had a great and positive impact on our culture. I’m proud to share that our experience has led to other hotels in the market contacting Missouri Special School District [in the interest of establishing their own programs].”
Ultimately, partnerships like this one are mutually beneficial. Students gain valuable work experience, while hotels reap the benefits of a diverse and inclusive community culture, opening the door to a more positive and compassionate workforce and clientele. As valued team members, students have the opportunity to contribute to a vibrant and leadership-oriented community. As Brown emphasized in his closing: “This program prepares these students for success. Not only do they gain real life work experience, but most importantly, they develop confidence, pride, and satisfaction through the skills they acquire and the relationships they create.”
Kaitlyn Wallace is a contributing writer from St. Louis.
Disclaimer: Interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.