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Hotel Etico is the place to go

Australia's first social enterprise hotel is giving young people who live with disabilities a unique opportunity to enter the hospitality industry.

In 2006, Niccolo Vallese – a young Italian man who lives with Down syndrome – dreamed of working in a hotel. He scored a three-year internship that made his dream a reality. That idea germinated and from it, great things have grown.

The first Hotel Etico was established in the historical centre of Rome, but you don’t need to cross oceans to see the program at work. Here at home, in the Blue Mountains, you can find Hotel Etico Australia – our country’s first social enterprise hotel.

At Hotel Etico, young people who live with disabilities have a unique opportunity to live and work independently. From reception, to housekeeping, to serving food and drinks, they are responsible for the day-to-day operations of a full-scale hotel. They are paid award wages, they gain experience and qualifications – and guests get a great getaway into the bargain.

Located in Mount Victoria, Hotel Etico Australia is a gorgeous fully-renovated manor with 16 rooms (all with en suite), as well as sitting rooms, gardens, a conservatory, restaurant and bar. Room rates include breakfast, and the bar offers live music on Friday nights. 

The vocational training and independent living skills that trainees gain at Hotel Etico are wonderful, but so is the community they discover in living and working together. It’s clear to see camaraderie building between young adults learning on-the-job for the first time, and these friendships continue as their hospitality careers grow. 

Two Hotel Etico staff members peeling carrots in the kitchen, smiling
Hotel Etico trainees build both skills and friendship.

“The hotel is like a big home,” says Andrea Comastri, co-founder and CEO of Hotel Etico  “It’s a big step for most of them because they’ve never lived outside of home, and for their parents as well.”

Some graduates stay on at Hotel Etico as peer mentors, working with new trainees to help them develop the skills and confidence they need to tackle the challenges they encounter. Other graduates build upon work placements arranged through the Hotel Etico program, and chase their career dreams further afield.

“This is not just a job placement, it’s professional development,” says Saraya O’Connell, General Manager Independence Program

Hotel Etico’s model isn’t purely philanthropic. In the 2018 financial year, one of the early Hotel Etico locations in Italy generated a social return of €3 (AU$4.50) for each €1 (AU$1.50) invested. Employing people who live with disabilities, and providing them with the support they need to learn and thrive, isn’t just good for them – it’s also good for the bottom line.

“We don’t want to be a place where people just come because they feel sorry for us,” says Andrea Comastri. “We’re a business. We want to be appreciated as a desirable destination, and we want to break down barriers. The feedback has been really, really good.”

Staff members of Hotel Etico in white uniform shirts gathered underneath a blooming cherry blossom tree
The staff of Hotel Etico are ready to welcome you on your next trip to the Blue Mountains.

The significance of profits pales in comparison, though, to the bright smiles that greet you when you enter Hotel Etico. Visitors to the Blue Mountains get to enjoy the best of what the region has to offer, while supporting people with disabilities to achieve their career goals. 

To find out more about Hotel Etico Australia, visit their website.

What Hotel Etico trainees have to say

What do you enjoy about being a trainee at Hotel Etico?

Reggie Happ: The best thing about Hotel Etico is that I get to see new faces every week. It makes me feel capable and I try to give my best and give guests what they need.
Lucinda Crowe: I like working with my friends and the support workers. I like housekeeping and reception and learning new things, like making coffee and making things in the kitchen with Chef Amanda. I really like living in the apartment, with my “stepfamily” (aka the other trainees) – we have lots of fun together!

Where would you like to work when you finish your traineeship?

Reggie: Where next? I want to take a big step in a big city hotel or a pub.
Lucinda: I think I would like to work in Guest Services in a hotel – either somewhere in the Blue Mountains or in Sydney, near my dad.

This story first appeared in Travel Without Limits. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

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