The U.S. government in 2020 may have severely limited the number of refugees it would resettle, but a luxury hospitality program taking place in America's heartland is proof that refugees are still welcome here.
Luxury hospitality is going through a seismic shift — travelers want more than just elite-level service, one-of-a-kind experiences, and overall opulence. And that’s especially true for Gen Z, who will soon have more spending power. Guests increasingly want properties to go beyond just preserving the environment, and for them to be socially conscious as well.
Some sectors of the luxury hospitality industry have taken note — and taken heart — and are working with nonprofits that have social missions, including Heartland Alliance, a global anti-poverty organization. One of its goals is to help refugees adapt to new countries through programs like hospitality training. The nonprofit’s six-week training course is designed to prepare refugees for jobs in the luxury hotel industry.
Why hospitality? One of the biggest challenges in refugee resettlement is financial stress, according to Lea Tienou, director of Refugee and Immigration Community Services (RICS) for Heartland Alliance’s Chicago office. “When refugees arrive, they are financially fragile,” she said. “The federal government gives such limited support — a $1,000-per-person grant for the first 90 days. So, there is a need to move to employment really, really rapidly, yet they have to find a job with limited language skills and no experience working in the United States,” said Tienou. Entry-level hospitality positions often fit that description.
Over the past two and a half years, most refugees — defined as someone who is forced to flee their country of origin due to persecution, war, or violence — have come to the U.S. from Africa, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and Eritrea, according to Tienou. A smaller segment comes from Afghanistan and Myanmar’s Rohingya population.
For these refugees, the training course offers lessons on what jobs are available within the industry, what employers expect, and what customer service is all about. Guest speakers, including former students currently working in the industry and hotel general managers, often come to address the class. There are field trips, too, including hotel tours, meetings with human resource directors, and job fairs.
“The program is unique both in its breadth of content and in terms of the caliber of hotels we work with,” said Tienou.
The caliber of hotel that gets discussed is generally luxury, thanks in part to Nancy Callahan. She ran Heartland’s hospitality program from 2008 through early 2020. Before joining Heartland, she had been part of the concierge team at the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago.
When Callahan came to Heartland as hospitality training coordinator in 2008, she discovered a fledgling program taught mostly by ESL teachers without hospitality industry experience. Over the years, she worked to develop a full-fledged partnership with Chicago’s high-end hotel community. “We leaned on hotel partners to hone the curriculum,” said Callahan. Participating hotels also serve up guest speakers, offer opportunities for job shadowing, and, of course, provide jobs. Most of those positions are in housekeeping, banquets, or security. As English skills develop, there are opportunities to move up the ladder.
Over the years, about 50 Chicago hotels have participated in the program, including Four Seasons, The Peninsula, The Radisson Blu and The Langham. Due to the competitive nature of Chicago’s hotel industry, starting hourly pay at luxury hotels is already significantly higher than minimum wage.
Better-than-normal wages and the potential for promotions are two of the industry’s bright spots for refugee job seekers. Another is the sector’s reputation for, well, good hospitality. As Tienou pointed out, a big issue for resettling refugees is isolation stress. An assistant human relations manager for a five-star hotel, who asked not to be named, summed it up: “We are talking about people in difficult situations, who are often completely by themselves and lacking in social support. We want to help them become part of a community, give them access to connections, and to teach them what it means to be successful.”
“Working in a hotel environment can help allay feelings of loneliness,” said Randall Williams, general manager of 21c Museum Hotel Chicago. “Yes, there may be a language barrier, but fellow employees have a level of patience and compassion for what the person is going through.” Williams continued, “We want to make them feel comfortable. That’s half the battle — the feeling of inclusion and being part of a team.”
According to Susan Ellefson, a spokesperson for The Peninsula Chicago: “We try to create a family kind of environment. This is our home and we have people — both guests and employees — coming into our home every day.” That’s why, she said, “I’ve seen a lot of people from a lot of different countries stay a long time because there is that feeling of belonging and being part of something.”
Class is in Session
On the day Skift attended the training, the class of nearly 30 students was about one month into the program. The group was preparing for a job fair at The Langham. Positions available included steward, house attendant, room attendant, server, and club lounge butler. The class worked on completing resumes, coming up with answers to potential interview questions, and role-playing troubleshooting scenarios with guests.
There was palpable excitement and camaraderie as the class discussed the possibilities. Christy Hruska, the current hospitality training director, challenged the students to answer questions like “What is luxury?” and “How can you make a guest feel welcome?” She also provided information on what they could expect at the job fair.
Heartland staff will accompany the class to the job fair to ensure everyone attends and arrives on time. This is a practice for individual interviews as well. Staffers will, according to Callahan, always bring students to interviews while “cheerleading on the train on the way.”
The process seems to be effective. The program has placed about 90 percent of its graduates, according to Callahan, and participating hotels keep coming back for more.
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Photo credit: A number of luxury hotels in Chicago are working with Heartland Alliance, which helps place refugees in hospitality jobs. Flamingo Images / Adobe