CityLab: The Floating Hotel Fighting Chronic Joblessness in London

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The floating hotel is currently docked in London. Photograph: Steef Fleur

Ona Brown is an early riser. Every morning, the 49-year-old wakes up at 5 a.m. to get her household chores done before waking her granddaughter a couple of hours later, dropping her off at school, and heading to work a shift as a kitchen assistant.

This is the first time Brown has been employed in 18 years, thanks to the Good Hotel London, a social enterprise that aims to help local people out of long-term unemployment and get them into work in the hospitality industry.

The 148-room hotel is built on a large floating platform, allowing it to roll from city to city by water. It’s currently moored at the Royal Victoria Dock in Newham—which, according to U.K. government statistics, was until 2015 the second-most deprived borough in England, with poor housing and low educational attainment, training, and skills keeping residents’ incomes low.

The hotel opened its doors in December; in March, Brown was one of the first 15 trainees—recruited with the help of the local council—to complete a month of classroom training before being given a three-month contract and learning on the job.

The hotel is also working with other hotels in the city to encourage and support the trainees in their attempts to find work in the industry. If Brown and her colleagues are unable to find a job in the field by the time their contract ends, the Good Hotel will keep them on until they do.

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Ona Brown at work. Photograph: James Davy

Before coming to the Good Hotel, Brown spent nearly two decades unemployed. At first, as a result of her immigration status, she was unable to work legally. Later, when her status changed, she went to college for three years to study hospitality. She volunteered and sometimes catered parties, but struggled to find work and still seemed far from her dream of being a professional chef.

After five weeks on the job, her attitude has changed. “I’m smiling, which I never used to do, to be honest,” she says. “I’ve always been down and depressed because what I wanted to do, I didn’t get the opportunity to. So now I’ve got it, I’m smiling all the way.”

The Good Hotel was founded by Marten Dresen, a Dutch social entrepreneur, in 2012. Dresen, who was already running Niños de Guatemala, an NGO providing education to over 400 children in the Central American country, first introduced the hotel concept as a pop-up social enterprise in Amsterdam in 2015.

Teaming up with the local municipality to find trainees, the hotel trained 100 people during its year of operation. Of that group, 70 secured a permanent job elsewhere in the industry—working in reception, on the housekeeping team, and even as servers in 5-star hotels—and have moved successfully off of state welfare.

The River Thames had been scouted as a potential location for the London hotel, but a seven-meter difference between low tide and high tide made it unviable, so when the time came to leave Amsterdam last year, a barge towed the 8-million kilo concrete structure across the North Sea, where it settled at the Royal Docks.

The hotel in London will stay in place for five years, aiming to recruit 15 new trainees every three months, for a total of 60 people a year. For guests, room rates range from £80 ($103) to £220 ($284) a night, with all profits going back into the training scheme. The company also works with local suppliers, and when guests book directly, £5 ($6.50) is taken from their payment for Niños de Guatemala.

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The trainees often work in the hotel’s bar area. Photograph: Chris Baker

In London, trainees clad in black uniforms can be seen at reception, in the café, and in the ‘living room’ area where food and drinks are served. There, some guests are having lunch; others tap away on laptops at window seats with a view of the water, while the sound of a coffee machine cuts into the music. Couches and seats are spread throughout the sleek, open-plan space.

Here, Salome Takyiwah-Sestini, a 32-year-old mother of one who spent over a year unemployed, has just begun her shift. She works at reception or in the food and beverage department, depending on how busy it is. She lives nearby and came across the hotel while on a walk with her husband. Before joining, she had been regularly handing out copies of her resume in the local area, eager to work in hospitality. When she heard about the hotel’s training program, she spent the next few months hounding her employment advisor at the council to get in on the scheme.

“I had lost a bit of my self-esteem before coming here. I wasn’t that confident. There seemed to be an obstacle because everywhere I went with my resume, they looked at it and they said ‘Hmm, but you don’t have the experience,’” she says.

“Nobody was willing to really give me a chance. When you’ve been told ‘no’ so many times, it gets to a point where you predict what they are going to say even before you’ve walked into a place.”

Before landing at the Good Hotel, Takyiwah-Sestini had no experience in hospitality. That wasn’t a deal-breaker for the program, explains Marie Julie Craeymeersch, the Good Group’s marketing director. She says the criteria for trainees is “person-based.”

“It’s not based on, do you have experience? Do you have an education? It’s really based on who [the applicant is] as a person. Are they motivated to change? What is their attitude to work? What are their dreams? What do they want to achieve? You interview them based on their personality—not so much on where they come from and their resume.”

Last year was a busy one for the Good Group, who also opened a boutique hotel in Antigua, Guatemala, with the same concept in September 2016. There are plans to open eight more new hotels worldwide by 2020.

The next destination for this floating hotel is unknown—but for now, the Good Hotel is certainly making its mark on the residents of London. “I feel more confident in myself because the obstacle has been removed” says Takyiwah-Sestini.

“There’s no excuse for [employers] anymore. I’ve had the three months’ experience here, and it makes me confident that if I walk into an interview, I will know what I’m talking about and when I’m put on the shop floor, I know what I’m doing.”

This feature was published on CityLab 

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