– follow Harsha –sairahospitality.com/
What do you do and how did you get here?
I am the founder & CEO of SAIRA Hospitality. SAIRA creates pop-up hospitality schools with hotel owners for less privileged locals in thriving hotel markets, educating them with the knowledge and equipping them with the life skills needed to create a career and build a future in hospitality. Thanks to Bunkhouse Hotels, I am now starting week four of the SAIRA program in Todos Santos where I interact with 48 passionate and self-motivated students from the ages of 21-53, excited to learn about an industry that can bring them endless opportunities to travel, to support themselves and their families, to experience new concepts, to open their minds, to engage with travelers and to serve others. I first met Liz Lambert (founder of Bunkhouse Hotels) at a panel on a 3-day Summit cruise last year with 3,000 other entrepreneurs from all walks of life. Liz invited me to Todos Santos in Mexico on a site visit to her latest hotel, Hotel San Cristobal with her team earlier this year to assess the potential success of SAIRA in Todos Santos. The town is magical, with fresh, local food, untouched beaches and an energy and excitement in the air felt from the locals who understand the possibilities and opportunities that responsible tourism can bring. SAIRA was sponsored by Bunkhouse Hotels and its developers to do an eight-week pop-up hotel school for just under 50 local students, selected through a rigorous interview process. Each of these students were looking to open their minds, to learn about an industry that is growing in the heart of Todos Santos, and knew that knowledge is power and inevitably the key to their futures. Unlike most non-profits, SAIRA relies on hotel owners & operators to cover the cost of the education, which they in turn benefit from in various ways. For example, whilst fulfilling their social responsibility to the community, hotel operators also benefit from access to a bespoke curriculum created with hotel managers as well as educators in the field, a potential pool of trained, local talent to hire from and perhaps most importantly the support of the locals when opening a new hotel. Through SAIRA, the overall level of service quality is also raised in the community.
SAIRA is such an interesting and inspiring program…can you tell us how it came to be?
I worked in real estate, hotels and resorts for ten years in the UK, US and S.E. Asia and I had been searching for a way to help people and at the same time stay in hospitality. Towards the end of Cornell’s Hotel School Master’s program, I realized philanthropy and hospitality are strongly linked through service: service to the guest and service to humanity. SAIRA was created at Cornell from recognizing two simple needs in emerging hospitality markets: hotel operators couldn’t find local, well-trained employees and the local community, especially at-risk youth, had limiting career opportunities. When SAIRA won first place at Cornell’s business plan competition, I was lucky to have the funding, support and strong incentive to turn it from a plan to reality.
What drew you to the hospitality industry?
In 2009, I was a sales agent for the William Beaver House designed by Andre Balaz. Balaz, who has an eye for detail and lifestyle living. I noticed the small details in the new form of lifestyle living he was creating in a condo building and was inspired to learn more about resorts and lifestyle hotels. Of course, like all of us in the industry, I am excited to travel to all the places I have yet to discover, to taste their local street food, to interact with people I would not normally be able to in my everyday life; to see and learn, whether it be through an exploration of landscapes, foods or cultures. I’ve always wanted to try everything; the ability to play many different roles under one roof fascinates me. The all inclusive nature of hotels - the way that everyone is welcomed, whether to stay the night or join for a coffee or a cocktail, and ideally no one is judged - is somewhere I feel truly comfortable being. The different design aesthetics of hotels, the historic buildings that hotels have crept into, the ability to create something in every 100 sq. ft. of a hotel is fascinating to me. Hotels are an escape from reality, a utopia for adults, where if service, design and quality are what they should be, you feel as if you’re finally in the home you’ve always wished you owned.
What inspires you daily?
Daily? Other people. I feel so lucky that I can finally make a big impact in people’s lives and help them to realize their own dreams. Today, I feel like I have purpose. My father’s generation believed that you had to first make the money to be able to give it away but I’ve always fought him, telling him there’s no time to wait. I’m so excited to wake up knowing that 50 other individuals are waking up excited to learn from a platform that I’ve created. The ability to share the privileged knowledge I’ve been exposed to, to open people’s minds to the possibilities of travel and exploration, to change and challenge the traditional hospitality routes to sourcing employees and to be able to work with and learn from incredible brands like Bunkhouse…all of that inspires me daily.
Who are you admiring in the industry?
So many people are doing amazing things. I would love one day soon to take a world tour for a year, visiting all the incredible hotels others have created and become more and more inspired. Liz Lambert naturally is an industry pioneer, not afraid to recognize the opportunities in run-down areas others may steer clear of, realizing how their sense of place adds to the story of the hotel over time. She uses hotels to create positive change in markets with huge potential in ways that benefits both the guest and the neighborhood. I’ve always loved to hear Ian Schrager speak, his values and experience inspire me, I see him as an original hotelier. To pick a brand with a true sense of luxury and service, I would say Rosewood Hotels understand how to deliver the high end hospitality experience, and when I think of the emerging hotelier, I truly admire more than any others, those who tread softly at first into new territories, respecting the environment with no arrogance, creating the first of what may or may not become a brand, such as the group of creatives behind Maderas in Nicaragua.
What do you see as the next big thing in the hospitality industry?
Of course technology will continue to play a greater role in hospitality, however as someone passionate about service, I worry what will happen when the majority of the human element is taken away. I think the boutique hostel is continuing to grow, concepts like Mama Shelter realize the millennial traveler today is fueled by creativity and design elements that ignite their passions, be it the background music that has been carefully selected, the local art displayed or the inviting combination of lighting and hand-picked furnishings. Travelers today are not tourists and they are not necessarily won over by a Michelin star restaurant in the lobby but by great coffee in a Great Room/Ace kind of Lobby, bespoke furnishings similar to a Soho House vibe. They know that when you choose to stay in this kind of lodging, there is an ability to extend your network, to engage with others who think out of the box. Perhaps like others, I’m curious to see where AirBnB will go and how much they will infuse hospitality into their offering to capture the market that might need a little more hand holding on their adventures. And of course, hotels like Bunkhouse, that tread gently and softly into their new homes; the hotels that make friends with the locals first, learn from them and then teach what they can. I see sustainable hotels growing in a way that even the most luxurious market will have no option but to choose the “organic” option.
Where will you be on your next day off?
These days in Mexico. Sundays are my day off and if I do escape Todos Santos, I’ll likely be at Balandra Beach. Early, so I can walk through the water to the private beaches and have one all to myself before the tide rises. I love to spend Sundays away from my phone as much as possible, listening to i-books, catching up on what’s going on in the world outside SAIRA and ideally getting a massage and eating fresh fish on the beach. It doesn’t get much better.
Where do you see yourself in ten years? And how about SAIRA?
In ten years I see myself living somewhere I could afford to buy a home or even better, land where I could build a home. I love the idea of designing something myself, where I can handpick each detail with a reason and a story behind each choice. I have an obsession with extraordinarily high ceilings, with fireplaces, with plenty of wood finishes and white furnishings in rooms. I’d like to have a child, a dog and a husband and ideally live somewhere close to the ocean, so I can center myself whenever I need to. In ten years I see SAIRA schools running all over the world, both pop-up and permanent. I see SAIRA being lucky enough to work with many different hotel brands. In the not too distant future, creating a resort myself where I could hire students and profits from SAIRA hotels could fund SAIRA schools in any emerging areas where it could be tricky to find hotels to partner. I see a large SAIRA alumni where students can interact, continue learning about hotels all over the world and ideally be able to travel and work within a network of SAIRA hotels or SAIRA hotel partners. I see the SAIRA students of today as general managers, hotel owners, bellmen or bartenders. Whatever position they choose, I see them happy and satisfied with the same if not greater sense of purpose and drive that I have to wake up every morning.
What’s your favorite hotel in the world?
It’s tricky to pick just one, but after spending a few years working for Six Senses, I believe they taught me a lot about creating extraordinary experiences for the guest. Each of the sense is engaged through magical restaurants in the mangroves or over water cinema paradisos, entire rooms filled with fresh chocolate or cheeses and tree-top dining experiences where the waiters serve you via flying-foxes. Once each sense is fully awakened, it is believed a sixth sense, a more spiritual sense, is awakened. I spent my 30th birthday at Six Senses Llamu in an over water villa in the Maldives where the bottom of the bathtub was glass so I could watch the fish swim by…and as like a true Brit I love to indulge in bubble-baths whenever I can. It’s a resort where you lose all sense of time or need for time, where every evening brings a sunset more breathtaking than the next, where you can feel comfortable barefoot, yet still feel the luxury in the privacy and immersion of being so deep into your natural surroundings.
What’s on the top of your travel wishlist?
Bhutan & Japan.