Innsights

BIPOC hotel entrepreneurs are blazing trails, but recognition remains a challenge

REPRESENTATION MATTERS PROFILE: feature from the WINTER 2024 issue of STAY Magazine

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Living in a post-pandemic world, BIPOC accommodation owners are feeling the hum of tourists less afraid to travel these days. But it’s also an uphill battle to be recognized.

There has been a growing number of conversations happening in the hospitality industry about diversity and inclusion in recent years.

According to a 2021 joint report undertaken by Restaurants Canada and the Hotel Association of Canada, 29 per cent of the hotel industry’s workforce is composed of visible minorities. That number is higher south of the border at 51.8 per cent. But upon closer inspection minority representation drops significantly at the C‑suite and VP levels and diminishes even further at the board of director level. Unfortunately, similar Canadian statistics remain unavailable; what is documented tends to focus more narrowly on women and Black representation.

There’s no question that events like the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, while in police custody and the subsequent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement have raised our collective consciousness about systemic racism. The response from many in the hospitality industry has demonstrated signs of progress, whether through the creation of employment resource groups and/​or the establishment of inclusion committees.

But another group of BIPOC hoteliers and business people has chosen to go its own way, walking its own path, upholding its own truth; people like Peter Lee, vice president of development with Wyndham Hotels and Resorts Canada. Lee is based in Vancouver and he is one of Canada’s longstanding hotel sector executives, a voice of knowledge, reason and the immigrant experience in our Canadian industry.

Lee’s career in hospitality began in 1976. After coming to Canada, he first got a job as a delivery person, then about 10 years of food and beverage before he became a night auditor during Expo 86. Lee says he wholly embraced his career in the hotel industry and he still does.

I think the best part of my job is meeting people that want to have the opportunity to grow and profit. I’ve seen that. I’ve probably done a couple hundred deals in franchising through my life, and I’ve seen all walks of life come in the door and how they can succeed. Diversity makes our industry stronger by unlocking new perspectives and providing access to new communities that we may not otherwise interact with on our own. That’s the value BIPOC owners add not only in Canada but more broadly to our industry,” says Lee.

From my experience, BIPOC owners bring an amazing sense of pride to the work that they do. They go all in, and they incorporate much of their cultural identity into their day-to-day work. Whether it’s their first hotel or one of several that they own, hotel ownership helps unlock multi-generational wealth, and there’s a sense of pride with BIPOC owners when it comes to making a lasting legacy for their families and communities.”

Peter Lee, vice president of development with Wyndham Hotels and Resorts Canada

Hospitality and First Peoples

A sense of pride is certainly reflected in the gorgeous interior design of the First Nations-owned and operated Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre (MHCC), which celebrated its tenth year of operation in 2023.

Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre

First Nations people feel a deeply-rooted sense of ownership in their hotel, says general manager Corey Stacinski. “This hotel is considered a badge of honour and people look for that authentic component and an immersive experience,” he says.

Offering 58 rooms, a 5,600 sq. ft. conference room and an adjoining restaurant, the MHCC hosts motor coach and bus tours, business meetings, weddings and virtually any type of activity, including a film festival.

Six years before opening in 2013, a former Indigenous tour company, Great Spirit Circle Trail (GSCT), hit upon the idea that having first-rate accommodations right on the island would encourage tourists to linger longer, says Stacinski. “Prior to that, we were sending visitors to Sudbury.”

With a unique idea for shared ownership, GSCT invited local First Nation communities to consider a joint venture. The project saw six communities buy into the idea: Aundeck Omni Kaning, Sagamok Anishnawbek, Whitefish River, Sheshegwaning, M’Chigeeng and Wiikwemkoong. Along with funding contributed by Aboriginal Business Canada, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada and the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation, each partner contributed to the $12.5-million price tag.

The final product hums with Indigenous culture, including a breathtaking tipi-shaped lobby and outdoor excursions with Aboriginal themes. And while many folks from Southern Ontario visit the centre during its busy summer season, the hotel has also gained a niche for itself by hosting bus tours.

“Those bus tours froze for a while during Covid, when attendance dropped to zero,” Stacinski says, “And staff dropped from 79 to nine people. The hotel went through a lean period but gradually tourists have returned and attendance is back to pre-Covid levels.”

Travelling while Black

Covid proved to be no barrier for one ambitious family that decided to open their business in 2021, during the very height of the pandemic. Tiffany Ramsubick-Plange and her family launched the boutique hotel Ode Toronto, in one of the city’s trendier neighbourhoods—Dundas West.

They haven’t looked back.

“I have three siblings, and we all have serious day jobs, a lawyer, doctor, engineer and coder. But we also have a super creative side and wanted to have an outlet for that. We are all also deeply obsessed with Little Portugal where Ode is located and so we decided to create Ode to bring people who might not otherwise know about this amazing community,” she says. “In terms of the experience, we want guests who stay at Ode to feel like they are staying with their cool and deeply thoughtful family member. We really subscribe to the ‘unreasonable hospitality’ model. If you have a request, we will do everything we can to accommodate. And we also encourage guests to leave Ode. Our only common area is our rooftop deck, and we do not have room service or a restaurant. We encourage guests to go out and explore the neighbourhood, which has some of the best restaurants, shops and galleries—all within walking distance.”

The Ramsubick family. Photo by Curtiss Randolph.

Ramsubick-Plange feels that Ode stands out from its competition for many reasons, including location.

“We made Ode for people who are looking for interesting neighbourhoods to stay in, who care about design, and art, and supporting local businesses. We thought our clientele would mostly be in the 30-45 age range with a penchant for supporting the arts. But it just so happens that a lot of people actually care about the above things, so we have everyone from business travellers to older travellers coming to the neighbourhood to visit their kids. Guests are putting more and more emphasis on staying in special neighbourhoods and spaces. No beige carpets, no generic landscape art, no neighbourhoods devoid of personality,” she says.

Location aside, Ode fulfills the goal of not only being a funky place to crash for the night but also appears to have become something of a safe space for visitors.

“Black travellers are a powerful and influential sector and we are looking for places to stay where we can feel safe, valued and appreciated. We see so many Black guests who are thankful to have found a place where they know they will be welcomed and won't have to deal with any ‘travelling while Black’ scenarios. It's truly been one of the most rewarding parts of opening Ode, being able to create that safe space for our community.”

The path ahead

“Hotel ownership is challenging and every owner has a unique path,” says Wyndham’s Peter Lee. “As the world’s largest hotel franchisor with decades of experience across team members and leadership, it’s our job to meet owners where they are—whether it’s facing rising interest rates and high construction costs today or weaving in best practices when it comes to day-to-day operations. We’ve seen it all at Wyndham, and we can leverage our expertise to tackle those challenges alongside our franchisees and find solutions that help them succeed.”

Some entrepreneurs respond well to guidance and structure offered by a franchisor like Wyndham and programs like the recently introduced IHG LIFT, a program offered by IHG Hotels and Resorts, which aims to open doors to hotel ownership for under-represented communities. Others, like Ode, simply aren’t afraid of taking chances.

“For Ode, the sky is the limit. We would love to expand to different cities,” says Ramsubick-Plange. “My dream would be to open up on Trinidad & Tobago where my parents are from. My mom and I also always talk about having a podcast, because we deal with some crazy stuff running this business, maybe even a Netflix show. For the hotel industry, thankfully I feel like travel is over-correcting post-Covid. People were cooped up and are ready to get out of their houses and away from the day-to-day grind, so I see the travel industry booming again in the future. Fingers crossed.”

“Hospitality is one of the most diverse industries with employees, owners and team members from many different backgrounds,” says Lee. “It’s important for companies to embrace and celebrate those cultural differences—because they represent our guests, too. At Wyndham, inclusivity is one of our core values and it inspires us to make hospitality a more welcoming industry every day. The more we know, the more we understand, and the better experiences we can provide.”

BIPOC in Canada, resources + links

INDIGENOUS TOURISM ASSOCIATION OF CANADA:

indigenoustourism.ca

ODE HOTEL:

odetoronto.ca

BLACK BUSINESS DIRECT:

blackbusinessdirect.ca

CANADIAN ASIAN HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION:

cahia.org/contact

MANITOULIN HOTEL AND CONFERENCE CENTRE:

manitoulinhotel.com

JUBILEE HOSPITALITY ASSOCIATION CANADA:

jhacanada.com

BIPOC FOUNDATION:

bipocfoundation.org

STARTUP CANADA:

startupcan.ca/top-12-resources-for-black-entrepreneurs-in-canada

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