Webinar: The Revival of Community with Hotel Revival’s GM, Donte Johnson #15

Hotel Revival’s purpose is a direct reflection of its name; the property brings renewal to the Mount Vernon neighborhood, embodies the rebirth of art and history, and is committed to the ongoing restoration of Baltimore. Hotel Revival isn’t just IN the community, they’re OF it!

Long before the pandemic caused dramatic shifts in where hotels looked for revenue opportunities, often turning inward to their local markets in place of business and leisure travel, Hotel Revival was actively supporting the local businesses and people around them, creating day-to-day programs where local businesses can use their space to raise money for nonprofits in the area. The hotel employs a “Director of Culture & Impact”. And it makes a point to introduce its guests to Baltimore by building spaces with services and products from its community.

In this 45-minute hospitality industry webinar, Hotel Revival’s General Manager, Donte Johnson, further expanded on the programs, services, products, and partnerships his property has forged in their local community, the benefits of doing so, and how this proactive “investment” of energy and resources helped the hotel stay afloat through the last eighteen months.

If you’d like to watch the webinar instead, click here.

Donte Johnson is an experienced Area Director and General Manager with a demonstrated track record of success in the hospitality industry. He is a dynamic operations, sales, marketing, and revenue management leader that is skilled in budgeting, forecasting, food and beverage, and hotel management. As General Manager of Baltimore’s Hotel Revival, Donte takes his role as a community leader seriously, ensuring his hotel is as connected to local culture as it is to its guests.

Community-based programs that were implemented pre-pandemic

Donte explains that “since the hotel opened, even before I got here, the community focus and the social impact ethos was strongly in place. We looked at it from all the natural places that you would look. Where do we get talent? Are we giving opportunities to people in the city? Are we giving opportunities to people who are returning citizens? Are we giving opportunities to people who otherwise might have a difficult time getting into the workforce but once given an opportunity to show that you know, hair isn’t really an important predicting factor as to whether or not you can successfully navigate the challenges of working behind the front desk? Or whether or not you might have been incarcerated for something completely unrelated to the day to day business of a hotel, but because you’re stigmatized you’re not given an opportunity. I think that’s where who we’re giving opportunities to is really kind of the baseline of a lot of the conversations that we’ll have about how our community impact work has been so substantial.”

Donte and his team were ensuring that they were creating space for conversations through the program before the pandemic. The last thing they did before the pandemic was, as Donte said, “an entire month of Black History programming at the hotel, which you know doesn’t sound extraordinary but when you look around, there aren’t a ton of hotels that are leaning into black programming. There’s more now than there were 18 months ago, but in February of 2020 it felt a little risky, to be honest and for us, the way we looked at it is that we need to look at the assets that we have at our disposal and create space in a way that feels natural. My hope is that we do this in such a grand way and we have so much success in doing it that five years from now we’ll need to figure out a new way to be interesting because everybody is doing it and now we’ve created the momentum behind it. So we started last year with an intense focus on creating impact through programming, that was the focus for 2020. So in January, we launched a non-alcoholic cocktail menu, which was not unheard of in January 2020, a lot of people had done it already. The reason why we wanted to do it is that we have a team who are passionate about mental health, are passionate about destigmatizing the idea of having a non-alcoholic beverage in a bar and just creating space for people to feel natural. I’ve got a lot of people in my family who are on that sobriety journey, and I can appreciate them being able to go to a place and feel like the same care has been put into their glass as the rest of the people at the table and they shouldn’t have to order an iced tea or a Shirley Temple just because they don’t want to consume alcohol. That was an amazing opportunity for us to do something that that I think adds value for the community but also be able to create a platform to do storytelling that I think amplifies that value.”

Donte continued, “then moving into February, the Black History Month focus, we did one thing a week. We started with a Black artist program and worked with five local black artists. We have a lot of art at the hotel and it is a huge focus for us since we’re in a cultural hub in the city. Anytime we go pulling art off the wall and replacing it with something else it’s got to be something meaningful. Wall space is an asset where the investment has already been made, it doesn’t cost us anything, but for local artists having their work be in front of thousands of people as they walk through the hotel every day is a really meaningful thing. Beyond that, the real value was the artist ‘talk,’ being able to sit in a room of 50 or so people from the local community to participate in these events and have those artists be able to tell their stories. I think all of those things were incredibly meaningful for the community. At every turn, we’ve looked at you know how we can create space, how we can create opportunity, and how we can connect with people who are, for some reason, stigmatized or who have just been shut out of the opportunity. Digging back into the history of our industry and thinking about the history of Baltimore, unfortunately, a lot of that history centers around the idea of people being denied access. We’re trying to do what we can to go against that.”

What are some of the ways that other properties can find their truth or their position and lean into it?

Donte explains that “first and foremost I think you have to listen. Some people are not unpacking their own experiences through the programming of their business right, some people want to do the right thing but don’t want to make a misstep and that’s something that I can appreciate. But, what I see all too often is that desire to not get it wrong or to not fumble causes us to fall into inaction and we just don’t do anything at all for fear that we’ll do the wrong thing or that it’ll show up as performative. I think the biggest thing you can do to counteract that is just to listen to the people around you and create a safe space for really candid conversation and dialogue. I would bet that most hotels, most businesses around hospitality and tourism have the voices needed to make a positive impact and positive change within their framework. But, creating a culture where those voices can be candid and can be unapologetic and can be authentic is a completely different thing. I think it’s one thing to have the people in the room, it’s another thing to have people included in the conversation, and a decision making process.”

Donte continues by saying that “the second piece of advice I would give is to professionalize your approach. We’re not leaning solely on the fact that you know that I’m Black and I come from a community that feels a lot like Baltimore does right now to inform our programming. We went through several sessions with the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University to study the city of Baltimore and to identify the areas where Baltimore is thriving and where it is struggling. We did that so that we can inform our programming in a way that felt natural, that felt authentic, that aligned with the needs of the community, so we’re not just throwing ideas against the wall and doing only the things that I like. In fact, we have a strict rule against just doing the thing that I like. Ultimately, we’re not going to bring 20 different unique voices, unique backgrounds, or unique experiences into the room and then only do the thing that the boss wants to do. It is against the law to let us do something stupid in this building just because I think it’s a good idea. We do a lot of things and I’ve had tremendous success with ideas that I didn’t initially love. I think having a space where people can feel like they can come up with something that’s off the wall and goofy that you’ll make funny faces at when they first mentioned it to you, but if they can support it with data and reason and with a sound argument, that they will be at least heard. At best you’ll have an entire team of people who become an army that’s supporting their idea, I think is a critical piece.”

Adapting the already successful program after the pandemic began

Donte explained that a lot of the conversations he had with his team about the program and how to adapt it after the pandemic set in were actually quite inspiring because they already spoke to the alignment that they had within the ecosystem. Donte continued to say, “going back to the groundwork which is creating a culture that is inclusive, that is truly a meritocracy, you’re not going to have less weight in the conversation because you’re different. You don’t get to have less weight in the conversation because of where you fit on the org chart. A great idea is a great idea no matter where it comes from. We also had the insight and what we learned from working with the Beeck Center was that Baltimore has one of the strongest minority entrepreneurship scenes in the country, which is not a thing that you hear talked about when people are making ridiculous YouTube videos about the worst places in Maryland to live. You don’t hear about how those small businesses kind of lock arms and lean into how they can make a difference. Those are the things that you’re not going to see in the data that you study across different cities, but those are things that we were able to glean from the work that we did in the pre-work.”

The other thing that Donte and his team spoke about were the areas that they were uniquely positioned to be able to support. They identified the ways that they could help like providing accommodations for travelling nurses and police offices to make sure they weren’t sleeping in their cars between twelve-hour shifts. Once discovering that the pandemic was going to be longer than a two or three-week ordeal they set their rule book aside and took a look at the immediate needs of the community. In doing so, they launched their community day program where they packaged the food from their purveyors, whom they’ve been doing business with for years, and delivered it to people who were going to be living paycheck to paycheck within the industry. After receiving great feedback, they decided to open it up to the broader community only two days later and ran it throughout the summer last year. “It got to a point where it was just putting a smile on somebody’s face, you know, one care package is only going to take it so far, but that little bit of happiness, in a news cycle that was dominated by gloom, it felt like made a difference with them,” Donte professed. 

Defining success in the role of the Director of Culture and Impact at Hotel Revival

“That is the number one question I get asked about that position,” Donte proclaimed. He continued to say that ‘it’s one of those things that comes up quite a bit and honestly, it was the first question he, Jason Bass, asked me when we had a conversation about going down this path. It’s really hard to pin down an ROI on community impact, right? How do you define success from a business perspective? How do you define success from a community perspective? I think one of the things that he and I sort of looked at through the lens of programming was the people who were in the space, who were attending the events that we had, who were utilizing our services before, and how we can continue to drive that to a broader audience. The people who were coming to Topside, the rooftop bar at the hotel, were strictly people who were staying at the hotel and people who live in the neighborhood, it meant that we didn’t have a presence in the broader community. So as we started to look at how that demographic changes it’s telling us who we’re putting ourselves in front of as an organization. The quick answer is there are no hard KPIs on how you define impact. I think there’s a lot of ways that we put a lot of work and thought into the M&A tab, like how do you measure the impact of the work? The two impact tracks that we decided to go down as we started down this journey was family stability and entrepreneurship. Our thinking was ‘if the hotel has to spend X amount of money a year just to do business, to keep the lights on, well how much of that, if we look at all of the people and all of our suppliers, what is the net impact? How do we lean into sustainable suppliers and diverse suppliers? How do we go from buying toilet paper from halfway across the world to buying toilet paper from a Black woman-owned company in Baltimore? What’s the net impact of that? Well, you know, obviously there’s less fuel involved because it has to travel and the impact of supporting communities and business leaders who otherwise aren’t given access to opportunity is one of the things that is tough to measure but she knows what her business was doing before Revival got involved and what her business is doing now.”

Donte continues, “at the risk of it feeling like we’re not doing it for the right reasons, we don’t pry into the financials of the businesses that we support. We just know based on the feedback that we get from those leaders that our help is appreciated. The beauty of that and localizing that supplier network is that it truly becomes an ecosystem. And so, you know, I’ve used this example a million times but I don’t personally know the CEO of Charmin. I’m sure wherever they are they’re a great person, but that person wasn’t here on community day with us last year passing out care packages to the community in Baltimore. The values to our business and our bottom line, I think, is yet to be measured because we’re still early on and the world is just opening back up. I can tell you that our positioning and our business results compared to our competitors are exponentially better and stronger than they were before this. I think some of that is because the team is more cohesive and because we’ve had this experience that we’ve all been through together. I think we’re stronger as a unit because of it but I would also attribute a big part of that to this ecosystem that we’ve been able to cultivate through our support of local and minority-owned businesses.”

Donte and Dave go into even more detail in the webinar, feel free to listen to the whole conversation HERE

As a reminder, Micrometrics believes that businesses should create more meaningful connections with the people they serve by enhancing face-to-face interactions and creating connections with guests at scale. Our hospitality clients leverage powerful messaging automations to improve customer experience and operational efficiency at their properties. You can learn more about us at https://www.micrometrics.com/hospitality/

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