In the fifth episode of the Skift Ideas Podcast, host Colin Nagy is joined by Harsha L'Acqua, Founder and CEO of Saira Hospitality. Together, they delve into the past and future of hospitality, and the undeniable importance of unlocking opportunities within communities.
Harsha began her career working for some of the luxury hospitality industry’s most influential brands including Six Senses & AMAN and went on to graduate from Cornell University’s prestigious School of Hotel Administration’s MMH program.
Having grown up immersed in her father’s philanthropic work alongside Mother Teresa, L’Acqua actively sought out a way to combine her deep-rooted dedication to philanthropy with her passion for luxury hospitality and so, Saira Hospitality was created.
So far Saira has seen 361 graduates following partnerships with brands such as Accor, The Standard, Nobu and Pan Pacific, where bespoke pop-up and semi permanent schools were created to educate and empower local communities ready for a career in hospitality.
Join us as we explore Harsha’s remarkable journey within the ever-evolving hospitality sector and her vision for unlocking opportunities, as well as the enduring significance of the human touch in hospitality.
Colin Nagy: In this episode of the Skift Ideas Podcast, we’re chatting with Harsha L’Acqua, founder and CEO of Saira Hospitality. She began her career working for some of the best luxury hospitality brands in the world, including Six Senses and Aman. And she’s also a graduate of Cornell University’s prestigious School of Hotel Administration. She grew up immersed in her father’s philanthropic work and actively sought out a way to combine her deep rooted dedication to philanthropy with her passion for luxury hospitality.
And as a result, Saira was born. So far, Saira has seen 361 graduates following partnerships with brands such as Accor, the Standard, Nobu and Pan Pacific. And she creates bespoke pop up and semi-permanent schools, and they’re created to empower and educate local communities that are ready to make a shift or start a career in hospitality.
Join us as we explore Harsha’s remarkable journey within the dynamic and ever evolving hospitality sector and her vision for unlocking opportunities and the enduring significance of the human touch and hospitality.
Welcome. We’re very happy to have you. Thank you for joining us today.
Harsha L’Acqua: Oh, thank you, Colin. So good to see you again. Thank you for having me on this.
Nagy: I had the good fortune of covering one of your projects back in the day when you worked with Liz Lambert, who has actually appeared on the show and basically set the stage for work in Todos Santos, we’ll get to that. But what I really love about what you do is it’s focusing on the most important thing of hospitality, you know, which is the actual people, you know, the front line.
And how are you training them up? How are you creating something super meaningful with those engagements? But before we get into that, I wanted to hear a little bit about, you know, what drew you to hospitality, a little bit of your background. Set the stage for us a little bit.
L’Acqua: Sure. Well, you did a great job of that a little bit already, but I’ll elaborate. My background is I grew up in London and working like most of us do, I guess, in bars and restaurants through university and actually dropped out from university and then kind of started working in real estate in London and then New York, eventually using real estate as a way to work with Six Senses and joining their residential team.
And as you as you kind of touched on, my parents are from India and my dad used to work with Mother Theresa and help her in a fund and operate homes and orphanages all around the world. So my sisters and I grew up with a very strong awareness of what we had versus what many others don’t. And so I but since then, you know, I fell in love with hospitality and barefoot luxury, working with Six Senses.
And it was actually when I was working with them in Southeast Asia that I traveled to Cambodia with a girlfriend of mine. And that’s when I really saw a link between these two worlds that I was really trying to connect, of philanthropy and hospitality. And I came across a nonprofit called çelebi where women who were otherwise in the sex trafficking industry were being trained to be housekeepers.
And that’s when I really saw the link between the two worlds. So I was lucky, despite my earlier attempt at education to get into Cornell. And I wrote a business plan there, that’s where I was trying to take this idea further that I’d seen in Cambodia and knowing that that link was there. But the business model and kind of the revenue streams that I feel very few nonprofits really consider needed some work.
So I wrote a business plan and was fortunate to win their business plan competition and then took that funding to launch the pilot of Saira in downtown L.A. at a nonprofit there called a Place called Home. And then that kind of took me, just after that is where I met Liz Lambert on the Summit Cruise boat in 2015.
Nagy: I love what you said there with the Cambodia experience, because the economic empowerment side of this is very important, Right? You know, one of my favorite stories is one of the reasons why there’s so many Vietnamese owned sort of salons is because there was a woman that actually taught a lot of these women fleeing from the war and families fleeing from the war, how to do nails as a kind of piece of economic empowerment.
And you know, from there, it kind of grew and took on a life of its own. There’s examples of that, you know, as you said, with Cambodia. But I think it’s very interesting. And also hospitality, especially right now, needs people, needs talent.
And a lot of places, they want to feel like they’re from the place. Right?
Nagy: You want to feel like you’re interacting with people that are from the place, and it’s not a generic sort of thing. And I think that you’ve managed to find multiple vectors and I see why your business plan is so compelling, because there’s the economic empowerment, there’s serving what hotels actually need with things like building more connection to the locals and the community, and then obviously there’s sort of political and soft diplomacy elements of creating jobs and things like that.So it’s very meaningful.
Now with the business, you know, you met Liz. What was the first sort of like beta and, you know, project that you guys spun up at first?
L’Acqua: Yeah, that was Todos Santos. So Liz was launching Hotel San Cristobal in Todos Santos, and she invited me down on a site visit. And I quite quickly learned from a girl called Judy, who is actually well, our relationship kind of started then, has continued over the last seven years because I now live in Todos Santos and on Judy’s farm, ironically, that belonged to her grandparents, which we bought a couple of years ago.
But Judy was very much the kind of community mayor of Todos Santos. She knew everyone and she understood the dynamics. And when we went down there, Hotel San Cristobal was facing a lot of community resentment. I think just as any as the first right, the first of any new hotel in an area, I think there were rumors being spread about what the developers were doing and not doing, whether the fishermen were going to be allowed to fish there where the water was going to be sparse as a result.
How many homes were they building? So they were facing major, kind of, what’s the word resentment? I guess, and protests, actual physical protests. The road was being blocked. So it was very important for them to communicate their message as hotel developers as to who they are and what they were really doing before rumors continued to be spread.
And so we went down there into a really kind of unusual, I guess, political landscape that I didn’t expect. And as the first school, I wasn’t I wasn’t planned for, but I could see how important it was and tell today how important it is for us to be this intermediary between the hotels and the community, and actually communicate on behalf of the hotels, really who they are and what they stand for and how they are actually employers that believe in what we believe in, which is really giving before you take.
But we did in a nutshell, Liz told us, or Bunkhouse essentially told us that they were looking to fill about 42 entry level positions. So working backwards, which is what we typically do and we go into the community, we post fliers. Judy again, was very instrumental in spreading the word and getting the buy-in of the community, and letting them know that we’re doing this school and it’s sponsored entirely by Bunkhouse.
It’s offering high quality, free of charge education and focusing on hospitality, on Bunkhouse, and also on themselves and who they are and what their career path could look like in this new industry for a lot of them. And we ended up placing, actually we did a school for 42 and she wanted to fill 25 positions, so we filled all 25 of these entry level positions before they opened and it was, it was a, it was a success, even though at the time it seemed like a total nightmare.
Nagy: Yeah. I mean, especially for you before you have any of your SOP’s up and before you have anything rolling, this seems like an insurmountable task. But what, what kind of unlocked here was people were allowed to change careers, right? People that were working in another field could kind of reinvent their lives and work in a really interesting hospitality environment.
You had this sort of diplomatic side of things where the additive parts of the hotel, you know, were on display in terms of creating jobs, economic opportunities. But also as we know in Todos Santos, like people can you know, these fishermen can still use the beach. Like the sourcing of a lot of the food there is actually probably from those exact fishermen.
Nagy: And so just being, you know, the opposite of like a lot of, you know, rampant development that exists around the world where it’s very extractive. This was much more symbiotic in a lot of ways. And I think that that’s the secret sauce that you guys found. And then what’s been the most exciting project?
I mean, you’ve worked on so many different ones, like what is the one that you feel has been life changing for the students? Any particular location that has really stood out to you as really working?
L’Acqua: It’s a hard one and they’re all very different, you know, from there we did another one in Mexico in Costa Palmas, just an hour away from Todos Santos. Then we did a couple in the BVI. I’m just thinking out loud through the different projects.
London’s been interesting for sure, just working in a city. But I think to answer your question, I would likely go with the British Virgin Islands. I think we went into the British Virgin Islands after the hurricanes, the two hurricanes had hit them, and we did our first attempt at a collective school where there was a number of hotels coming together, not just the one hotel sponsoring the one school, but a number of hotels kind of it’s a bit like after the pandemic, they all opened at the same time after the hurricanes.
And just like in London, all the hotels all around the world were opening around at the same time. So that was one of the most impactful. I would also say the hardest school we’ve done. And it really challenged us because there was, again, so much political drama, I guess, that lay under the surface. And so in that particular community, we realized that they were associating. We couldn’t understand why no one wanted to work in hospitality right in the Caribbean.
There was this just general disinterest in working and serving, and we couldn’t really understand why people didn’t have what we were looking for in the hospitality gene. And so, it took us an extra month, I remember. We normally allow two months before the school runs to find the students and interview them and then accept them into the school.
But we added a month because we realized that they were associating service with servitude. And it took us some time to kind of shift that mindset and explain to them really what hospitality was all about.
They lived on these islands and a lot of our students in that program specifically were mostly women, I would say single mothers. And they lived on these islands where they were surrounded by luxury, but they’d never been to Necker or Mosquito or Rosewood or any of the hotels that were really sponsoring this program.
So we also thought we were just doing one school. And when we got there, we realized between Virgin Gorda and Tortola there was so much rivalry and competition, that we needed to do a school on both islands to decrease that sense of one island has it and the other one doesn’t.
So we were running out of a kind of a tight budget, two schools on two different islands at the same time, and trying to shift mindsets. We’d go into one of the schools at the beginning of the outreach period and say to the students, who wants to work in hospitality? And no one would raise their hand.
And at the end we went in and luckily, which is what is kind of a ripple effect for what we do, we started to get so many referrals and we went into the same school and I would say 90% of people would raise their hand and say they wanted to be part of the program. So it was successful in that aspect.
But I guess one of the most challenging, which kind of sticks in my mind.
Nagy: I think that’s very interesting because the entire industry has to make a new sell to people in terms of hospitality as a job and as a vocation. And, you know, I was talking to someone from Four Seasons about this the other day and they said, look, you know, this career is actually going to be very rare because it’s a career, as you’ve experienced with your own career, that can take you around the world right?
You work your way up through one of the you know, one of the bigger luxury brands or even, you know, other smaller brands. And you could live in London, you could live in Bangkok, you could do a stint in Los Angeles and you can have an international career. And a lot of these are starting to be very rare, these types of jobs.
And in my opinion, people are always going to need a place to stay and it’s not going to be a job that’s completely eviscerated by generative AI and a lot of the things that are kind of creeping on the horizon, right? You’re in the business of caring for others and you’re in the business of sort of anticipation and it’s a very powerful thing.
And I love what you said, because you kind of have to flip the script. Not everyone understands this. And like when you when some people think about it just as a sort of servitude or it’s been framed to them the wrong way.
Nagy: Of course that sounds terrible. But when you see it in the way that I think you view hospitality, it’s a different story. And this is not to say it’s not a hard job. This is not to say that it’s not a job that is without, you know, frustrations and difficulties, but it is an interesting thing when you frame it the right way.
So I like the notion of your ability to almost bend perception with the projects that you’re doing through word of mouth, which is really exciting.
L’Acqua: Yeah, it takes some work. I mean at first you have so many different cultures, right? Some like for example when I look back at Mexico so easy, the culture is there, they understand hospitality, they understand what hotels can bring. They understand the economic empowerment that they can bring. But you go into places like the British Virgin Islands or we just did a school in Akron, Ohio, where, you know, luxury hospitality isn’t really a thing at the moment, you know.
And that was, always like an interesting learning curve. But we always have to listen, right. And learn before we go in and assume that we know how to change perception or what it is that they’re fighting against in terms of hospitality and what the rumors have told them or what their own experiences have told them.
So it takes a while, I would say for us to really, truly understand different cultures and their attitudes towards the industry before we can shift them.
Nagy: That’s such a great point. And I feel like Mexican culture has a built in politeness, has a built in hospitality, Where perhaps other cultures don’t have the same thing. And so there is an educational phase.
I would love for you to share with our listeners, you know, the crawl, walk, run, You know, how these modules work, how you’re taking someone from day one to the final day, and also how are you helping them navigate the harder things with hospitality, which is some of the more social elements.
You know, if you’re coming from a conservative area, you know, serving and and working with LGBTQ+ couple, right? Some of these things that it seems obvious to people that, you know, live and travel around the world. But if you’re beginning your career from a very rural area, from like a small place with a limited mindset, like, you know, some of these things are adaptations.
So how do you take people on this entire journey, like walk me through the end to end?
L’Acqua: So really, we have these eight core modules that we’ve developed with kind of global curriculum directors, and they start with, well, first of all, when we created the curriculum, we reached out to hotel operators and asked them exactly what is it that they want the students to learn at the end of it. So, instead of the traditional way of education where you take courses and you try and get a job at the end of it and hope that your courses were relevant for what you’re learning, for what you are actually doing in life, we kind of flipped it and said, what is it exactly that you’re looking in this person so that you will be able to hire our graduates?
And a lot of what they were looking for is exactly what you said, which is really this hospitality gene, and this desire to serve and this passion and the ability to kind of understand the guests behavior, so that’s where we started to build modules.
So we start the students on a module called You, Me and Hospitality, and it’s all about what the industry is. I know when I went to Cornell on day one, and they started saying things like hospitals are included in the hospitality industry, and I didn’t I didn’t know that. I didn’t really think of that, so I want them to really open their minds up to this industry that’s so huge and transformative.
I want them to think about their career paths. I want them to really kind of map that out and they physically draw that in a diagram and say, okay, this is where I want to be in six months. And this is where I want to be in a year and two years and five years… And really understand the different positions and where in the world, like you said earlier, that they could go.
And it’s really important they understand the brand that’s sponsoring. So it’s kind of, you as the students, me and as in Saira and who we are and how we kind of act as this intermediary and kind of a safe place for them before they get into work. And then hospitality is really understanding not just the industry but the brands that we’re working with and their vision and mission.
And a lot of what the orientation of the brand would include. We put that into our first module. We jump into emotional intelligence, which I think is almost the second most important thing, where they understand how to really read the guest and how body language is so important. And a lot of our students speaking culturally won’t look at anyone in the eye and how important it is to really look someone in the eye and smile and do all the things that maybe you and I do quite naturally.
But also understanding their own emotions and their own triggers. And what, because we’re working in such a difficult industry, but it’s difficult because we’re working with people. So really to understand what their triggers are themselves. And we’ve seen and then we go into communication, we go into cultural intelligence, we go into the service like wow experiences and service recovery.
And what the opening of, if we’re working with opening hotels in more of a pop up space, what the opening of a hotel could look like and just so they know it could be a total shit show. And so they aren’t surprised when they’re asked to do the same thing three or four times over.
And it’s about preparing them as much as we can as to what the experience is that they’re going to be involved in. And we end on things like building your own brand, how to sell yourself, obviously interview techniques, resumés and leadership also because we want our students to become general managers, to become supervisors, managers, etc.. So we need them to think with that leadership mindset right from the beginning.
So it varies. You know, those are kind of our eight core modules. And then depending on what the hotel specifically may want us to, to focus on if sustainability is a real passion for them, we can add modules on sustainability or whatever it may be, it’s kind of a bespoke curriculum, but making sure that we cover to some level these core life skills that are so important.
Nagy: Which is really very interesting because obviously there’s the emotional intelligence, the operational side of things, but I like that you’re giving people the skills, the early understanding of like the leadership skills that are going to be required. Right? So you start off in housekeeping, but then in time you’re running a team of housekeepers. After that, you’re going up to maybe the director of rooms.
So there’s these career paths for people and it oftentimes is based on the excellence of knowing your subject matter, right? Knowing, ensuring consistency and quality. And so that’s exciting. You know, and I think preparing them for the interviews and preparing for the way the industry works, you know with the recruiters and stuff, is also just another tool of empowerment as well, because there’s a game that you have to play in terms of how you’re presenting yourself, you know, in terms of your resumé.
And I find sometimes that doesn’t come through, like some of the some of the best people that that I’ve you know, I talked to a lot of interesting people at every level of hospitality. And sometimes the biggest superstars are not quite not quite great at presenting themselves on paper, even though they’re like incredibly dynamic and wonderful. So, you know, this is a gap. And it is you know, it is very important.
Looking forward a little bit, you know, there’s endless prognostication on like the future of hospitality. I feel like people like Six Senses are very dialed with sustainability and wellness. There’s, you know, you see what Chris Norton is doing with Equinox and really doubling down on the super sophisticated elements of sleep and wellness.
What are you inspired by in hospitality right now? And it could be at the luxury level, it could be at the more boutique level. But what pockets are you finding interesting in terms of brands, in terms of approaches, anything like that?
L’Acqua: That’s a good question. I think, honestly, I’m still so loyal to brands like Six Senses. I think they were pioneers of sustainability. I think they were. They are, and they were, ahead of their time. And when I worked for them in 2010, I’m trying to remember. But long story short, I think these are the brands that continue to inspire me, the ones that are genuinely thoughtful about their footprint and enter communities very mindfully and also build and develop very, very mindfully.
I think that a lot of hotels, unfortunately, we’re seeing a lot of greenwashing. Right. And we’re seeing a lot of them. They realize it’s a very different world now to what it was eight years ago when I was starting Saira and when I used to call brands up and say, Can I speak to your CSR department? And they didn’t know exactly what I was talking about or ESG and you know, these aren’t acronyms that were very common back then, but I do think hotels are starting to realize that.
But the true ones and I and I always do go back to Six Senses because it wasn’t just their focus on sustainability that that would inspire me, but it was also kind of their sense of playfulness and their understanding of escapism and the encouragement that they would have to guests to get lost on Maldivian Islands, or they would build unique experiences like treetop dining pods where waiters would come on, you know, flying foxes and deliver food through the trees.
And I think just always challenging the norm of hospitality and going beyond, of course, you know, just heads in beds and what traditional hospitality is doing.
But I see more and more hotels. Well, first of all, I see more and more hotels increasing their room rates like crazy, like mind blowing, like I can’t afford them. It’s all, you know, down the road from us in Pescadero, where we live, near Todos Santos, there’s hotels where the average rate in general. And these luxury hotels is about $650 in small towns with 5000, 10,000 people in them.
And so, you know, what I think is setting hotels apart right now is what else are they offering? You know, what experiences I think boutique was replaced by lifestyle, which is now replaced by experiential. And so hotels have to be really challenging. I think six senses ten years ago was doing what hotels are still striving to do, personally.
Nagy: Yeah, and you make a very good point. I think that there’s brands that have this deep core sense of purpose and it pulls through across every single thing they do. There’s like a silent integrity to these things that I feel like the consumer, like the ever jaded consumer in the world, can really see. And I really, really agree with you that a lot of the industry has gotten kind of out of touch and my joke with a lot of these brands now is that it’s like the Emperor’s New Clothes, right?
You know, it’s like some of these luxury brands are charging $3,000 a night, but they actually can’t back it up in terms of service delivery or anything like that. And, you know, I actually think it’s a type of luxury that is slowly dying. You know, I think that there’s this icy, opulent type of luxury that’s all about excess, that’s kind of going, you know, going in the way of like the formal suit and tie every day, right.
And so that evolution is interesting and corresponding to what you do, the desire for service delivery is changing. So it’s not just everyone that has been to like a super polished Swiss hotel school, although in all fairness, a lot of those hotel schools are trying to change, too.
But, you know, it’s not the white glove, you know, approach. It’s a little bit more warm, it’s a little bit more anticipatory. And it’s something that is honed over time, right? There’s the training that you do, but then there’s the inherent sort of good of the person that has to shine through, and the personality of the person, And I think that that’s well, Liz Lambert has done very well with her hotel’s.
Any sort of boutique hotelier has to really make the place a reflection of the community, and that’s what’s finding a little bit more resonance in the market right now. So I’m really happy that you see that as well.
So we’ve talked about a lot of the great things that you guys bring to the staff, economic empowerment, and a little bit on diplomacy. What are the other things we should know about what Sarah’s bringing to a community?
I think for us, it’s really important that communities, when they see hotels opening and they hear of new developments in their areas, that they celebrate that. And I think part of that is the importance of hotels incorporating things like schools for local communities into their pre-development budget. I mean, what we bring to communities really is a sense of being really seen for once.
I think it’s really important that the communities start to celebrate hotel development and feel seen and feel confident.
Nagy: In an ideal world for you, you know, hotels have their standard operating procedure to open in a new place, right? You got to do this, this and this.
Nagy: What are the things that you want to see them add.
L’Acqua: And I want to see them think about what they can give before they take, you know. I want to see them think about, okay, we’re entering this community and hotels so often will go into locations and they will not even think like neighbors do. When you move into a building, you knock on the door of your neighbor and you say, this is who we are and you invite them in.
And I’d like to see hotels do more of that and to really think mindfully about, okay, let’s put a school in the budget before we open. Hotels, owners and developers, they start to plan the hotels what, two, three years out? And they think of everything. They think of the permits, they think of the design, they think of everything that they need to do, but they don’t really think about how are we mindfully entering this community and what can we give them?
And I think it’s really important for them to think about the needs of the particular communities and not just to enter and say, oh, I think they need a football field or I think they need a bus. Let’s listen to them. Let’s ask them what do you really need, and then meet those needs in all part of the opening, and I think a lot of that will make a huge difference to the kind of reaction that local communities will have when they see hotels opening.
I mean, one of our dreams is that in every development budget going forward, when a hotel opens, they have space for a Saira school or any school, but a school for the local community so that they can feel part of that development as opposed to just seeing the walls go up around them.
Nagy: I love that you’re saying this because it seems like it’s just how to be a good neighbor as opposed to being extractive, right? In terms of the relationship to your environs. And there’s lots of little things, right? It’s like, how do you treat the people that apply but didn’t get in? The generosity and the closing the loop and like these very small things.
So a lot of this is something that I think your company has a particularly important role in enacting systemic change to improve a lot of this because you’re teaching them how to have a neighborly mindset as opposed to an extractive mindset, right?
L’Acqua: Which will serve them in the long term, right? So it’s also kind of selfish to think like that. But in a way, I mean, we’ve seen it firsthand buying the farm that one of our trainers grandparents’ used to own, you know, is a very sought after piece of land in Pescadero, which is, you know, an up and coming spot like, you know, and we wouldn’t have got that if we hadn’t done the school.
And if I hadn’t stayed as a mentor to Judy, our trainer. And, you know, these are the kinds of things that end up paying off, whether you’re buying a farm from your trainer or whether you’re having the community buy in before you open is kind of key to the success of that particular hotel. And we’ve seen what happens very, very firsthand, especially in the area where we live, where hotel owners don’t think about the community and they don’t get their loyalty.
And we’ve seen, you know, it can be catastrophic for hotels. So it’s not just neighborly, but it’s kind of key to the success of hotels to think about the communities when they enter and how they’re entering and what they’re bringing.
Nagy: Perfectly said, so covered a lot of ground. But on that note, lots of amazing takeaways. And thank you so much for joining us today and covering a lot of ground. We’re really, really excited to use this podcast as a way to celebrate and champion the ideas and the visionaries that are really kind of changing the way we look at travel.
So thank you so much. It was such a pleasure to have you. And I’ll talk to you soon.
L’Acqua: Thank you, Colin. So good to see you. Thank you for having me on, bye.
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