Hiring Local for Our Global Home

By Carolina Ramirez Herrera
Jul 31, 2020

In recent years, the way we journey has had a seismic shift; for the better. Our appetite for memorable moments and conscious experiences are just a few of the guiding principles that make up the Habitas ethos. RISE, our impact initiative and perhaps the one we hold most dear to our hearts, focuses on strengthening our local communities and promoting social sustainability and conscious tourism through everything we do: from the way we build, hire and give back.

To bring mission to life in Namibia, we partnered with Saira Hospitality, an organization that connects with local communities through education. Seeking a way to merge her passion for hospitality with her deeply rooted dedication to philanthropy, Harsha Chanrai founded Saira Hospitality. Saira was born out of the need to serve the guest and serve humanity.

The Habitas x Saira Hospitality School in Namibia received over 300 applications from students, to which 76 were accepted to the training program. Normally, Saira only accepts 60 students to their program, however Namibia proved to have large pool off very strong candidates. After two weeks of basic hospitality training and teaching cultural and emotional intelligence, we selected 6 candidates to join our family at Habitas Namibia.

We sat down with Habitas co-founder, Oliver Ripley, and Saira co-founder, Harsha Chanrai, to discuss our collaboration to bring local employment opportunities to Namibia...

 “Outside every luxury resort and destination, there’s struggle, there is someone on the outside looking in, there is someone who needs education. Talent is distributed evenly across the world but opportunity is not..” - Harsha Chanrai 

Carolina: Why did Saira choose to partner with Habitas? What about the brands are aligned? 

Harsha: Habitas is a brand that appears to above all else, deeply value the importance of community and human connection, just as Saira does. I believe we both recognize that in hospitality, we’re in the business of people and people will always come first. The Habitas family offers to our students a sense of belonging that I believe many of them have been looking for most of their lives. The bridge between the employee and the guest is not a divide as it can be in more traditional luxury hospitality. We feel it is important for our students to be able to bring their personalities to work and Habitas is a brand that we feel encourages them to build relationships with the guests, not bridges, celebrating their individuality yet respecting the unity of family. 

Carolina: What inherent characteristics do you look for in candidates and what are some qualities that you find are easy to develop throughout your program? 

Harsha: We look for the hospitality gene, someone who exudes warmth and genuine kindness and positivity when you meet them, someone who has the desire to serve others. Our students deal with extremely challenging circumstances and we look for those students who manage to remain optimistic, positive and hopeful throughout. We don’t pay so much attention to their ability to finish school or where they have worked before - more where they see themselves in the future and what the next chapter looks like for them. The Saira interview process is pretty rigorous and sometimes our students have never had an interview before - so they lack a sense of confidence which we try and develop throughout the program - connecting them with their Saira family where they begin to feel a sense of comfort and develop trust. During the program we try and open their minds to possibilities they may have never considered. We give them, as one of our trainers once said, “at a very grassroots level, the opportunity to dream bigger”. 

Carolina: How do you see Saira developing as you continue to grow? What are some milestones markers you’d like to achieve through these initiatives? 

Harsha: I see us making an even deeper impact with each project. In the British Virgin Islands, we were able to play a role in restoring hope to those that lost everything in the hurricanes. In Namibia, we were grateful for the opportunity to work with some students who had been out of work for eight years, others traveling ten hours just to get to our interviews. I want us to continue to find those that need it most, not solely to make a difference but also because those that need the opportunity the most, value the opportunity most and do their very best to turn this job into a long career for themselves. I want to increase our impact, graduating many more students every year than we are currently and taking this model all over the world. We want to see our students graduate, be employed by our partners and then elevate from entry-level to general managers in the not too distant future. 

Carolina: What are some of the challenges you have encountered with SAIRA?

Harsha: We were not prepared for the level of demand that we encountered when we arrived in Namibia for a program like this. It was difficult to close applications and say no to applicants who we know needed this opportunity once the spaces were filled. It is always a difficult decision to take, who is accepted and who isn’t, but in Namibia especially the need appeared to be so much greater than we have experienced before. Namibia is also very spread out and many of our students didn’t have access to transport. With the help of Habitas, we managed to organize transport to and from the classes and their homes for some of the women who lived quite far away from Windhoek but we also had to restrict the areas we could promote the program in, based on distance. 

Carolina: How can the next generation of guests get involved with SAIRA ? Especially with travel being on hold at the moment? 

Harsha: We partnered with Porter and Sail in the hope of raising funds from potential guests who want to play their part in educating and empowering local communities. We hope these kinds of partnerships will eventually allow us to launch schools with smaller, independent hotels who may not have the resources to fund 100% of the school themselves but are still wanting to train and hire the local community. We need hotels and OTA’s to take responsibility and to listen to the needs of the community to be able to provide the guest a variety of options where they can easily give back while traveling. We need the next generation of guests to help us spread awareness of what we do, so that the industry stops using an ancient model of hiring and instead creates a responsible and sustainable future for hospitality. 

Think consciously, travel mindfully. We are living in the age of information where we can no longer ignore the issues that affect our planet, nor should we. - Oliver Ripley

Carolina: For Habitas, giving back and empowering local communities is more than just ticking a box. What has been the most rewarding aspect of RISE? (or one of...) 

Oliver: Giving back and empowering local communities is the heartbeat and pulse of Habitas. When we provide underserved communities with resources, they are able to sustain themselves without external interference. We believe this to be one of the most powerful ways to give back. Through RISE, we’ve been able to collaborate with local organizations who share our values without imposing biases and as such allowing us to learn from the people directly; what their needs are and what type of future they envision for themselves. Our work in Africa and Tulum has been incredibly rewarding as we continue to learn about human connection in the face of adversity and the ways in which we can leave a positive lasting impact behind. 

Carolina: What positive changes have you seen in the hospitality industry as far as CSR and what do you deem the most important?

Oliver: Now more than ever, we’re seeing a shift in the way businesses prioritize social responsibility. These values are becoming embedded in operations from the top down and are no longer about “checking a box”. Educating guests, travelers and staff is paramount, and something we’ve seen happening within the hospitality industry. From social media campaigns to internal communications and corporate strategy, businesses are now understanding the vital importance of preserving our planet for generations to come. This means providing sustainable solutions to outdated practices and paving the way for others to do the same in their everyday lives. If we can collectively understand the fragility of our planet, then we can align our actions for a better future. 

Carolina: If you could give one piece of advice to  the next generation of guests/travelers what would it be?

Oliver: Think consciously, travel mindfully. We are living in the age of information where we can no longer ignore the issues that affect our planet, nor should we. Travel will always be a part of our lives and we believe it helps shift our perspective and expand our minds. It is our responsibility to embody this type of travel in our business model and the ways in which we communicate with our community. Our homes are plastic free, sustainably built and encourage travelers to ask themselves what is truly important to them. If we can change the way one guest thinks about the planet, then we know we are on the right path. 

Photography by: Shawn Van Eeden, Creative Lab Namibia