Citizen hotelier: Companies embrace social responsibility

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Photo Credit: Illustration by Zhitkov Boris/Shutterstock

DALLAS -- On a recent afternoon in a nondescript office building here, four refugees from the Congo sat in a small conference room as an interpreter working for a Marriott-funded training program ticked off requirements and pay for housekeeping, dish washing and other jobs that don't require English language skills.

Across town, a handful of workers at the Marriott Solana were being briefed on how to pick up on and respond to signs of human trafficking. The training concluded with clips from a local newspaper to drive home the point that it can happen anywhere.

"That sent chills down my spine," one participant remarked.

Earlier in the day, the kitchen staff at the Ritz-Carlton in Uptown had begun its daily lineup, as usual, with a cook reciting the company's service credo, followed by a quick update by a manager on community outreach programs from sister hotels around the globe as well as a listing of upcoming events from a long lineup of volunteer projects in which local employees and residents of the Ritz-branded tower next door are involved.

The morning shift at the Ritz-Carlton in Uptown Dallas begins with a reading of the service credo.
The morning shift at the Ritz-Carlton in Uptown Dallas begins with a reading of the service credo.

The activities, which range from volunteering at food banks to helping teach English classes and taking underprivileged kids to meet and practice with the Dallas Cowboys, are ones that many guests will never see or hear about. Yet they have become a core of the corporate culture at Marriott International as it, like many other travel companies large and small, move far beyond conserving energy, banning plastic straws and encouraging a few hours of voluntourism to instill corporate social responsibility into every level of operations.

These so-called corporate social responsibility, or CSR, programs, which take in-house philanthropy far beyond the days of voluntary payroll deductions for the United Way, are hardly new. But they have been gaining attention and resources in recent years as consumers and workers -- particularly millennials -- demand it from both their employers and the companies with which they do business.

"Corporate citizenship is now a CEO-level strategy and critical to a company's bottom line," said Josh Bersin, principal at Deloitte Consulting, which recently published its 2018 Global Human Capital Trends report, "The Rise of the Social Enterprise." "It's not about check-the-box CSR initiatives but integrating citizenship, fairness, inclusion and purpose as core values across work practices. Customers and employees alike are holding companies to higher standards than ever before and rewarding companies that demonstrate socially conscious behavior with unwavering loyalty."

The Global Human Capital Trends report, which surveys more than 11,000 human resources and business leaders, found that 77% of respondents cited citizenship as important or very important. And according to the Deloitte Millennial Survey 2017, millennials' high expectations for corporate responsibility are a strong contributor, with 76% of that generation regarding business as a force for positive social impact. 

The China Central Reservations Office collaborated with InterContinental Hotels Group charity partner Hui Ling to run a harvesting activity.
The China Central Reservations Office collaborated with InterContinental Hotels Group charity partner Hui Ling to run a harvesting activity.

A C-suite endeavor

Travel companies of all sizes have taken note, creating foundations and give-back programs designed to sustain and improve cultures in the increasingly far-flung destinations they are developing.

In the meantime, big companies like InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), Hilton Hotels and Marriott have taken the issue to the C-suite, merging leadership of their diverse, global programs on environmental sustainability, voluntourism, give-backs and human rights under a single top executive.

They have also in recent years become much more aggressive in setting and meeting specific public targets and ensuring they are sharing knowledge to help smaller players and the industry as a whole become better global citizens. 

A Hilton team works with the Ground Up Initiative to plant and harvest produce that will be donated to Singapore’s largest soup kitchen.
A Hilton team works with the Ground Up Initiative to plant and harvest produce that will be donated to Singapore’s largest soup kitchen.

A few months ago, for example, Hilton announced "Travel with Purpose," a program that will make it the first major hotel chain to release science-based targets for reducing carbon emissions. It also vowed to double its investment in global initiatives that include sourcing from local and minority-owned suppliers and programs to empower women and young people.

In July alone, the company said, Hilton team members from 93 countries volunteered close to 250,000 hours in some 5,000 volunteer projects, representing more than $5.8 million in community investment.

Marriott International last year launched "Serve 360: Doing Good in Every Direction," which basically branded and broadened the wide range of social initiatives across its 30 global brands, including some of the more innovative ones that came with its acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts.

Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson said, "It's been one year this month (September) since Marriott International implemented our bold sustainability and social impact platform, and we've seen impressive results." He added that since 2016, Marriott International associates have contributed more than 2.5 million volunteer hours around the globe.

"I couldn't be more proud of how this company continues to put people first and help address some of the world's most pressing issues," Sorenson said. "Given our global scale in a fast-growing industry, we're well positioned to become part of the solution. Doing good for the world also helps fuel our bottom line, since millennials as well as our largest corporate travel buyers increasingly seek to do business with companies with values that align to their own."

Indeed, hotel executives have said, customers from individuals to major corporations deciding where to hold big meetings and events are asking for details about CSR.

A team from the Crowne Plaza Muscat in Oman helped clean up local wetlands.
A team from the Crowne Plaza Muscat in Oman helped clean up local wetlands.

The human trafficking challenge

Perhaps one of the more significant recent changes has been seeing the big players shake their aversion to admitting that their hotels could be used for human trafficking. More than a decade ago, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, former chairwoman and CEO of Carlson, began an aggressive push to get travel companies to sign a detailed pledge to train their workers and help fight human and sex trafficking.

But for a long time, many hoteliers ignored her call, while avoiding questions about why. Was it a lack of knowledge of the depth of the problem? Or was it merely concern that admitting it could happen at their hotels could impact investor sentiment? 

Still, although Marriott only officially signed that pledge earlier this year, the company has been deeply involved in fighting human trafficking for the past several years, working with two leading nonprofits, Ecpat-USA and Polaris, to develop curriculum in 17 languages on how to spot and react to signs of human trafficking.

In an unusually candid op-ed in USA Today earlier this year, Sorenson wrote that "rather than wish it were otherwise, we decided to make our 6,000-plus properties worldwide part of the solution."

He then went on to tell a chilling tale that underscored the importance of the move.

"In the early morning hours in one of our hotels in New Orleans last March, a safety and security associate at the hotel noticed a 12-year-old boy in the company of two men buying snacks," Sorenson wrote. "The associate overheard one man say to the other, 'I may take this one home.' Trained to notice signs of human trafficking, the associate thought the situation didn't look right to her, and the overheard statement was an alarm bell. Following her training, she alerted her supervisor, and they called the police. 

"When the police arrived and questioned the men and the little boy, they confirmed our associate's suspicions. Things were definitely not right. The young boy had been missing for three days. Thanks to the quick actions of the associate, this story has a good ending. Unfortunately, that's not always the case."

The training module is available to any company or academic institution through the American Hotel & Lodging Association. It is free for academics. Companies pay on a sliding scale based on their size, and the money helps support Ecpat-USA and Polaris.

Photo Credit: Sarah Mize

Junaid Altaqi worked in the oil and gas industry before fleeing Iraq. Today he’s an administrative assistant at a Marriott hotel.

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Hilton, for example, is among the large players who paid to use the Marriott-developed program to train all its managers as well as all the workers at its corporate and managed properties.

Today, more than a half a million people in Marriott's 700,000 global workforce have been trained. The goal is to have all associates at all properties -- whether owned, managed or franchised -- trained by next year.

With the recent workshop at the Marriott Solana, for example, the hotel, which is near Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, hit its own 100% mark with a small group that included one new hire and two workers who had transferred from different hotels.

IHG said it has developed its own in-house human trafficking training with an outside human rights expert.

And like Marriott and Hilton, it now has an executive, vice president Kate Gibson, overseeing social, environmental and human rights issues.

Gibson said, "At IHG, responsible business underpins the collective strategy for our business, and we view it as an essential, interwoven part of our culture. In fact, we have a dedicated corporate responsibility board committee as part of our governance structure."

A team from the InterContinental Toronto Centre volunteered with the Toronto Humane Society.
A team from the InterContinental Toronto Centre volunteered with the Toronto Humane Society.

Working together

IHG is also part of several industry forums and working groups, she said, including the Business for Social Responsibility Working Group on Human Rights and the International Tourism Partnership's Human Rights Working Group. 

Tu Rinsche, a former State Department employee who heads the human rights area of Marriott's CSR program, said the biggest change she has seen over the years is the willingness of businesses to collaborate in more meaningful processes.

"What we're seeing is more a race to the top," she said. "We're finally, for the first time, sharing our resources, sharing our tools -- and not only for the big companies but also for the smaller ones. We understand that smaller companies have limited resources."

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