Skift Take

Some hotels are hiring "culture managers" to broaden their community programming. It's a promising move, given the rising numbers of guests seeking local discovery and cultural tourism.

When Silla Kaina and her new colleague Lokalia Poniliʻulā Farm make baskets, bracelets, and hats from native hala trees on or near Montage Kapalua Bay, they do more than weave. They also piece together a narrative.

The duo of cultural ambassadors — generations apart, but with common goals to educate and immerse staff and guests alike in the traditions, history, music, and art of native Hawaiians — are part of a growing cadre of hotel cultural directors.

A trend in hoteliers hiring cultural directors is a response to rising consumer interest in cultural tourism. A survey by the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization has categorized roughly 40 percent of international tourist trips as having cultural tourism as at least one objective.

cultural ambassador montage kapalua bay
Silla Kaina is one of the cultural ambassadors at Montage Kapalua Bay. Source: Montage.

Cultural Tourism

Far from Pacific breezes, Hotel Revival Baltimore describes its location as the “intersection of culture, creativity, and community.” One of the primary reasons is the hotel’s director of culture and impact, Jason Bass.

Since the middle of 2020, Bass has been using his experience curating pop-up culinary events with diverse musical acts, bringing similar programming to Revival to entertain guests and locals alike. 

Enlivening Revival’s food-and-beverage is one of Bass’s responsibilities. 

Bass also promotes what he calls “‘impact hospitality” — partnerships with local brands, artists, and nonprofits to kickstart their businesses. Those include coffee offerings from Black-owned Black Acres Roastery, and guest room pillowcases and bonnets from an independent Black businesswoman crafted especially for non-braided hair.

“There are more than a few people coming here and enjoying it over the alternatives that are in market. And we’re not even in a tourist district,” Bass said. “We’re in a culturally rich and diverse district. We become a better fit and in the community because of all the different things that execute well in an authentic way.” 

Revival is not alone as hotel building and investment continues into traditionally peripheral or underdeveloped communities. For instance, Hilton’s Foundry Hotel in Asheville’s historically Black Block neighborhood honors the area’s past with curated artwork, a soul-food-based restaurant, and referrals to local tour guides. 

As hospitality veers more and more toward immersion and authenticity, cultural directors can become engagement catalysts. They expand the boundaries of a traditional concierge. 

At Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, there’s a different cultural manager for diverse specialties, including hula dancing, music, and weaving. Many activities are hands-on at a dedicated facility free for guests said new manager Kaaiohelo McAfee-Torco. 

One program at the hotel’s Ka’ūpulehu Cultural Center recently welcomed Big Island residents to mingle with guests. One-on-one lei-making lessons are popular.

Expanding community-wide programming to include hotel staff is one of the reasons why McAfee-Torco, a former schoolteacher, took a role that she also considers educational.

“I just love working with everyone because I think when they feel more a part of Hawaii, they take more ownership and responsibility for this place,” McAfee-Torco said. “It goes beyond just being a nice place to come and vacation.”

Another part of McAfee-Torco’s role is taking the lead on teaching Hawaiian language lessons — as is Farm’s at Montage. While Kaina is more senior, Farm and McAfee-Torco are of generations that had access to Hawaiian language immersion schools. 

“When you cannot speak your language, your culture dies,” said Kaina. She and Farm teamed up to design an employee curriculum that kicked off in December and includes Hawaiian language, culture, and history.

For now, she and other cultural directors like her are making history by connecting the past and the future of tourism. 

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Tags: baltimore, cultural tourism, culture, DEI, diversity, diversity and inclusion, experiential, experiential travel, four seasons, future of lodging, hawaii, local communities, luxury hotels, montage

Photo credit: The Four Seasons Resort Hualālai employs cultural manager Kaaiohelo Ka’ai McAfee-Torco, shown here at the resort. Source: Four Seasons.

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