Telesa Via's story at IHG's Kimpton brand of hotels spotlights a broader surge of industry interest in making the hotel sector more welcoming for Black leaders in all roles.
Twenty years ago, Telesa Via worked for a company that partnered with the National Urban League to build business relationships in the Black community and associations. Today, that has come full circle for the Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants‘ vice president of sales, who was instrumental in the boutique brand forging a partnership with the civil rights and urban advocacy group.
In its first year, a donation was made to the League for each reservation using a special code that included a guest discount. But equally as important as the impact of the promotion’s external impression is the internal influence of Kimpton’s partnership with the National Urban League’s Young Professionals mentorship program, said Via.
The effort nurtures future leaders, hoping to draw Black interest to a field that’s critically lacking racial and gender diversity in upper-level roles according to the Castell Project, a non-profit dedicated to accelerating the careers of women and minorities in hospitality.
As a Black woman, Via has continued to defy the odds from the very beginning of her career.
“I was told I would never be able to become a VP of sales, and this was from another female in the hospitality space,” Via said. “That was one of the greatest gifts anyone has ever given me because if you tell me what I can’t do, I’m going to get to doing it right away.”
Via has spent 13 years with Kimpton and her role currently touches the brand throughout the Americas. That length of service is notable in an industry with frequent turnover — annualized, 73.8 percent.
Via was initially “wowed” by representation in Kimpton’s leadership. “When I was hired, we had a female CEO, a female SVP of sales, and a female regional manager,” she said. “I’d never experienced that in my life.”
Most recently, a catalyst in her career came at a societal cost. While Via has been active in social causes for many years, the death of George Floyd prompted Kimpton to ask her to partner with current chief executive officer Mike DeFrino to lead Kimpton’s Black Lives Matter Act to Action. The initiative includes creating opportunities for employees of color, more representation in marketing for guests and owners, and partnerships with BIPOC vendors.
“As a little girl growing up in Martinsville, Virginia, who would have ever thought that I’d be having conversations with my CEO, making sure we’re continuing to open the doors to anti-racism, ensuring equalities for Black employees, and getting into our communities?” said Via.
“I think that because of George Floyd’s death, what we’re seeing is that eyes are open,” Via said. “Today, we’re more mindful and intentional.”
As part of Act to Action, Via spearheads a mentorship program that also serves as a recruitment and retention mechanism – and flips the script from what she was told entering the hospitality industry.
Via recently connected one of her 15-plus mentees to several Black females in leadership roles across operations, marketing, sales, and finance.
“This young woman in operations wanted to be a GM [general manager], but expressed that she was ready to leave the hospitality space,” Via said. “I connected her to all of these voices that she wasn’t aware of, through the Black Lives Matter committee. Now, this young lady is ready to gear up her career.”
Kimpton is not alone in mentorship or awareness initiatives, of course. Last year, SmartFlyer launched its equity in travel program to connect minority students to hospitality leadership and raise awareness for the breadth of roles in luxury travel and tourism. Marriott and Hilton, for instance, are active in the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators, and Developers (NABHOOD) to increase the number of African-Americans developing, managing, and investing in hotels. But despite being founded almost 25 years ago, NABHOOD president and CEO Andy Ingraham said there’s still a lot of work to do.
“When African Americans look at the industry, they don’t see a reflection of what America is or a reflection of people moving up the line,” Ingraham said. “My parents were dead set against me working in the hotel industry because they didn’t see people that looked like them.”
Appearances — and intent — are advancing at Kimpton with initiatives focusing on culture and awareness inside and out.
Hotel Named After Black Icon
Via is especially proud of this year’s launch of Kimpton Banneker in her adopted home city of Washington, D.C.
The contemporary interior design pays homage — via displays of artwork by creators of color — to its eponymous 18th-century scientist and civil rights leader Benjamin Banneker. History comes to life thanks to works from artists including Aziza Claudia Gibson-Hunter, a co-founding member of Black Artists of D.C., and Nigerian-American muralist Victor Ekpuk.
“The art program highlighting artists from the D.C. area telling visual stories is awe-inspiring,” Via said. “We always want people to walk away and feel inspired. Every guest touchpoint is special, and we create an experience.”
Celebrating Community Through Music
This year, those experiences were more important than ever and manifested themselves in myriad ways at many locations. At Kimpton EPIC Hotel in Miami, an artist in residency program gives up-and-coming creatives a space to showcase their work, provided their platform is tied to diversity and inclusion. Kimpton’s Off the Record live music series was founded in 2019 but in 2022 featured only people of color, and proceeds from all ticket sales benefitted the National Urban League.
“Music brings us all together, right? Regardless of what’s happening, lots of different kinds of people enjoy jazz, or rock and roll,” said Via. “Off the Record was such a great representation of music that highlighted Black artists and community at the same time. What better combination could you have?”
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Photo credit: Telesa Via is vice president of sales at Kimpton Hotels and Resorts. Source: IHG.