The Power Of Travel
In his thirteen years as general manager of the Holiday Inn along Patong Beach in Phuket, Thailand, Wolfgang Meusburger had never thought much about supporting the community. Just positioning his hotel as a luxury oasis on one of Thailand's most overbuilt honky-tonk beaches was challenge enough. On the ocean side, crowds of beer-swilling tourists, counterfeit handbag hawkers, and prostitutes compete for the walkway along a strip of noisy restaurants, bars, and T-shirt shops. Down the way, Rock Hard A Go-Go offers pole-dancing girls in bikinis, and at the Moulin Rose and other cabaret clubs, transvestites sing pop songs. To Wolfgang, keeping the riffraff out was more important than community outreach.
That all changed in December 2004, when the tsunami that devastated the region swamped the beachfront, wiping out hawker stalls, trashing dozens of hotels and restaurants, and killing more than seven thousand people up and down the Thai coast. Meusburger was relatively lucky: He lost only one guest to the waves, and no employees were killed. But the lobby was waist-deep in mud and cluttered with debris, including a motorcycle that had been swept in by the sea.
With the support of the property's Singaporean owner and his bosses at InterContinental Hotel Group, Meusburger jumped into action. Within four days, the hotel employees knew that they would keep their jobs, even though the Holiday Inn would be shut for almost a year during reconstruction. InterContinental replaced employees' lost cell phones and TVs and contributed ten thousand dollars each to three employees whose houses had been demolished. A tsunami relief fund established by the hotel supported twenty-four hawkers who lost their income for four months and offered scholarships to keep local kids in school.
More than two years later, Meusburger is clearly relieved that his hotel is up and running and at almost full capacity once again. But he is proudest of something else. He drives me a few blocks away to look at a shelter for street kids, paid for by the Holiday Inn and run by an international nonprofit organizatio. More than twenty boys and girls live here—in simple, clean dorm rooms—where day care, counseling, and some classes are offered. Today, a group of scruffy-looking pre-teens and one toddler ("Her mother is probably a prostitute," says Meusburger) sit around a table drawing pictures. "Before the tsunami, we did not consider charity work as terribly important," he tells me. "But you start to think, Wow, why are we still here? Then it's no longer just about making money. You feel suddenly responsible for giving something back." For now, the Holiday Inn provides supplies to the shelter. The question, Meusburger says, is what his company's commitment will be going forward.
It took a tragedy to make Meusberger realize that his hotel had a responsibility to help support the community. And until recently, most general managers—indeed, most hotel and travel companies—felt little responsibility for what lay beyond their walls. But with the rise in environmental and social awareness around the globe—look at the Oscar given to Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and the celebrities, from Angelina Jolie to Jay-Z, who are joining the fight against poverty—travel industry executives seem to have a newly honed social conscience. "Giving back isn't about putting on a tux a couple of times a year and writing a check for a worthy cause," says Jonathan Tisch, CEO of Loews Hotels, whose eighteen U.S. properties recently partnered with a nonprofit organization to provide loans for the working poor. "It's about shouldering our responsibility to the community we belong to."