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Hotels that can sleep well at night

Special to The Times

IT was something Lisa Marie Potts had always wanted to do. On May 8, Potts, the salon supervisor at the Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Hotel & Spa in Pasadena, got her wish. With three other manicurists, Potts went to Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles and spent the day grooming nails for nearly 100 homeless women.

“One older lady never had a manicure done before, and tears were just rolling down from her eyes,” says Potts, who participated in the Mother’s Makeover Day sponsored by the Fred Jordan Mission. “Many never had anyone touch them like this. I met a lot of amazing, intelligent women. It was life-changing.”

In the last decade and particularly since Sept. 11, philanthropy and activism in the $113-billion hotel and lodging industry have ramped up. Independent city hotels, chains and luxury tropical resorts are doing more than cutting checks. They are getting staff and guests to invest expertise, time and labor toward such endeavors as saving young girls from prostitution, equipping at-risk youth with job skills and even giving free manicures.

Philanthropy is intrinsic to the hospitality business, says Joe McInerney, president of the American Hotel & Lodging Assn., Washington, D.C., which is the largest industry group of hotels and other lodging establishments. But in recent years, industry watchers agree, the involvement has increased sharply. Their top social concerns include aid for the poor and disenfranchised, education and the environment.

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Some establishments are teaming up with charities. In March, Hilton Corp.'s Homewood Suites, Memphis, announced a partnership with the National Coalition for the Homeless. Besides a $25,000 contribution, Homewood will be donating its furniture, refrigerators, bedding and bath goods to shelters as it upgrades guest rooms throughout the 175-plus property chain.

“It’s not often a major hotel would make the first step in contacting a charitable organization,” says Michael Stoops, acting executive director for the Washington, D.C., nonprofit. “We were floored and overwhelmed by their comprehensive plans to help end homelessness in America.”

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In charge of good works

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CERTAIN companies assign a management title to philanthropic positions.

At Marriott International Inc., Mari Snyder, as senior director of community relations, is responsible for worldwide corporate volunteerism and donations.

Every May, Marriott sponsors a Spirit to Serve Our Communities Day, and this spring, thousands of its employees took to beaches and soup kitchens.

At the Hilton San Francisco, Jo Licata is the community projects manager and handles a plethora of services, including elder support and assistance for low-income families -- as well as recycling: “I’ve been called the Dumpster Diva and the Queen of Garbage,” Licata says.

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In 1997, she saw a pile of hotel-bed mattresses in the back lot waiting to be thrown away, so she started the Hotel/Nonprofit Collaborative, which includes 30 San Francisco hotels, to help them transfer discarded items to nonprofits.

“Anything and everything can be reused one way or another,” she says.

Retired hotel uniforms are given to theater groups; partial rolls of toilet paper, to women’s shelters. As of 2005, the collective donated 97.7 tons of goods that would otherwise have gone to landfills.

Like the Hilton San Francisco, hotels across the country have high profiles in the business community, and that prominence attracts hundreds of solicitations from all types of groups. So corporations establish criteria for the charities they work with.

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Finding causes that fit their companies’ goals makes business sense, managers say, because it helps boost hotel branding and identity. “Believe me, how a corporation gives back is on the radar of the public,” Licata says.

The charities also get a significant boost, not only with funding but also marketing exposure.

San Francisco’s Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants last year sought out Dress for Success, a New York nonprofit that provides professional clothing and career development for disadvantaged women. Every March and April, Kimpton contributes a percentage of every hotel bill to the organization.

Last spring, the company donated more than $65,000 in the program in combination with fundraisers and guests’ donations.

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Niki Leondakis, the chief operating officer at Kimpton, is such a booster of the organization that she has become a member of its international board of directors and is starting a Dress for Success affiliate in San Francisco.

Joi Gordon, Dress for Success’ chief executive, couldn’t be happier. “My mother once [said], ‘We are who we associate ourselves with,’ ” Gordon says. “Being associated with Kimpton elevates our brand. The fact they put such energy behind us is pretty exceptional. They genuinely care.”

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Seriously green

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FOR Kimpton and many other chains, that care extends to the environment. Today, most hotels take conservation seriously, forming “green teams,” that meet regularly to reduce waste and improve energy efficiency.

The Fairmont San Jose volunteers clean up the nearby Guadalupe River Park, and the hotel gives free parking to guests who drive hybrid cars. In March, the Environmental Protection Agency awarded Marriott International its Energy Star Partner of the Year for saving more than 83 million kilowatt-hours of electricity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 68,000 tons annually.

The Hilton Vancouver in Vancouver, Wash., was constructed with eco-friendly materials. Chandeliers are made of recycled aluminum, and carpeting comes from local mills to save on gas costs, says Gerry Link, its general manager.

Hotels also are becoming good neighbors.

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Hotels often support causes that affect their neighborhoods, where they can be most effective. To combat the problem of prostitution among Thai girls, the Pan Pacific Bangkok and UNICEF teamed up in 1995 to launch the Youth Career Development Program. It recruits women ages 17 to 20 from the poorest communities in Thailand, houses them and teaches them hotel- and life-management skills.

So far, the program, with 25 hotels participating, has graduated more than 712 women. None has turned to prostitution, and many have become nurses, says Samir Wildemann, general manager at Pan Pacific Bangkok. It has been so successful that other countries, such as the Philippines, Ethiopia and Brazil, are copying the training program.

There’s a sense of ownership by the staff, Wildemann says. “It takes so much effort and energy and time to be responsible for these girls. They come from difficult households and have never seen civilized life in a metropolis,” he says. “We see them grow up.”

Some hotels are going a step further by involving not only their staff in volunteer projects but also their guests. It expands their knowledge of local issues and leaves them with lasting travel memories, managers say.

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Guests at the Casa Magna Marriott resort in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, can participate in the Sea Turtle Rescue Program. They collect hatchlings and name them before releasing them into the ocean.

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Supporting young artists

AT the Hotel Metropolis in San Francisco, guests support the Tenderloin Learning Center when they purchase one of the $60 framed canvas paintings hanging throughout the hotel. The paintings are created by the center’s toddlers and elementary-school children.

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When Yvonne Lembi-Detert, president of Personality Hotels, opened Hotel Metropolis in 1999, she carted brushes and paints to the low-income learning center and had the children create their own versions of earth, wind, fire and water.

“Each time a picture comes down, I put another one back up,” she says. “Maybe I haven’t purchased a playground for them, but every bit helps. Plus, I’ve made their community known to out-of-towners.”

Lembi-Detert is deliberate and focused in her goodwill mission, underscoring the fact that it takes time and effort to make a social commitment.

There are causes a hotel will fight for, even if it means it will cost them financially. Omni Hotels, based in Irving, Texas, backed its pro-family stand in 1999 by eliminating adult pay-per-view movies from all its 40 hotel properties. It invested $4 million to put in new televisions and switch programming vendors, and its stand has cost the chain $12 million, Omni officials estimate. But it has helped in recruiting employees and attracting churches and schools for bookings.

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“We have only received positive comments from guests,” says Ed Netzhammer, general manager, Omni Hotel San Diego, “and it makes me proud to work for a company that stands up for its beliefs.”

Sometimes stepping forward on moral and social issues takes courage. Just ask Lee Zimmerman, co-owner of Evergreen Lodge in Yosemite. When he and his partners purchased the hotel in 2001, they decided to recruit at-risk youth from San Francisco, house them on the premises and have them work as paid interns alongside the lodge employees. Although it seems risky, Zimmerman says the program has worked well.

“We screen applicants thoroughly for readiness,” he says. “The interns are great folks who, due to neighborhoods they grew up in, have few role models and limited access to opportunity.”

In the long run, does being a good guy pay off?

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Although hotel officials agree it would be great to have more bookings, that is not the point. Goodwill begets more goodwill, they say. And they’re doing it because they are passionate about what altruism brings into their lives and jobs.

“A hotel without community is like a room without a bed,” says Lina Broydo, the Fairmont San Jose’s director of public relations in California.

“You can check in, but you won’t have a very comfortable sleep.”


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