During Jeffrey’s and my stay at the Intercontinental David in Tel-Aviv last month, I was enthralled by the heightened autism awareness the staff practiced towards us, and gave my glowing review to the front door manager. He smiled, telling me that the hotel management staff is heavily involved in community service efforts, spearheading efforts to help underfunded projects in the Tel Aviv area. The next day, he arranged an interview for me with two out of the three ladies involved with these projects: Sigal Cohen-Tzedek- Gazal assistant director of human resources/training-and Livnat Nahmias Benisho, assistant training and development manager as well as corporate responsibility manager over morning coffee.
How did your work on these projects begin?
When this hotel was built the management decided that it would be an integral part of the community and not just a hotel. We wanted the name Intercontinental to mean something to our neighbors and residents of Tel Aviv beyond the tag of luxury hotel. Being located in the heart of the city we could see the need to get involved in projects to help the ones that need our help. However we don’t just stop by a place, make a donation, and leave; our staff tries to help implement much needed core values in struggling ventures around the city. To encourage our staff members to participate in community service projects, we treat them with respect, dignity, support (like sending food home on sick days), and recompense (paying regular salary on days they participate.)
So which program started it all?
The program that catalyzed it all was our first community outreach project with a Jaffa-based rehabilitation school for disabled and economically disadvantaged teenagers. Our plan was to introduce them to vocational skills—working in a restaurant kitchen—that could benefit their career choices later in life. Every September we interview applicant teenagers and select seven to eight people to complete the year-long program. In it, we first start off by teaching them basic kitchen safety, leading to cooking training, culminating in an official cook’s helper diploma from the Ministry of Labor. The special-needs students are trained by the hotel staff and treated no differently than any other employee; they are required to show up for work daily and behave appropriately. However, if they face any problem or difficulty in their studies, they may come to us for help and advice—we act as the “support” system. After completing the year, many are actually directly hired to work for the hotel (some find employment elsewhere). The most important gain from this program is their demonstration as capable and qualified individuals who can find work and make a decent living.
We truly believe our program to be a huge success, with over 95% of students completing it. Our “secret” to achieving this success is what I referred to earlier: treating each student with the same respect and dignity we expect to be given. To us, these students are more than labels; they are our students and possible future employees. By guiding and teaching these teenagers to the best of our abilities, we never have to lower our work expectations; in reality, most students flourish with our guidance and care, exceeding our goals greatly. One of the many success stories that comes to mind is that of a non-verbal student; even without any social skills, he completed the program and now is successfully employed in a Tel Avivi conditory. Our hotel itself is currently employing five program graduates, with many more hopefully to come.
Oh yes, we try to help wherever we notice a need. We are involved with a couple of schools in Tel Aviv. For instance, we have worked with Rogozin Elementary where many kids come from incredibly low socioeconomic status, some even being illegal immigrants. Our first encounter with them was when the school reached out to us and asked for a contribution of 50 sandwiches for their students. We were so enthralled by the offer that one of our staff members decided to take it upon herself to make them all at home. Since then the program has expanded and our hotel now donates much-needed lunches and even brings the students to tour the hotel once a year. At Ort Geula we’ve adopted the special needs class, offering them opportunities to visit the hotel, exhibiting their photography art work in our lobby, and even hiring some eager participants for summer jobs. After the devastating Carmel forest fire last year, our staff “adopted” a teen orphanage that had been destroyed by the fire, not only helping to rebuild it, but furnishing it with new beds, desks, and other badly needed objects. In addition, during the last Tu’Bishvat celebrations we organized a “day of fun” for the orphans at the Rupin College, where hundreds of our own employees participated as volunteers (but also received a paid salary day). Lastly, our hotel is also involved in “green” projects, such as recycling kitchen oil and glass, and cleaning the beaches we all love.
This month’s project is sponsored by the “Make a Wish” foundation. Every guest in our hotel will receive a small card documenting the foundation’s stories and a special coin on their pillow, a bedtime story of sorts. We are grateful for participation at any level from our patrons, and no donation is too small. We hope this drive will be a great success, so we can repeat it in August—when our hotel is booked at full capacity. Before this endeavor, we had very successful donation drives in which we gave our patron guests art figurines from the special needs organizations Akim,Alut and Beit Miriam.
Although we are very proud of our initiatives and would love to see other hotels copy our concepts, we have never pursued fame or even acknowledgement for what we do. Many years ago, we decided that a hotel, being a microcosm of cultures, should always be an active participant in its environment, ours being no exception.