Harsha Chanrai on Pop-Up Hospitality Schools and Economic Empowerment

Harsha Chanrai on Pop-Up Hospitality Schools and Economic Empowerment

Raised in London by parents from Mumbai, Harsha Chanrai is a world traveler with a vision. After being frustrated in her travels by hotels around the world that ignore the community around them, she took up studies at Cornell Hospitality school and used what she learned to start Saira Hospitality, a non-profit that aims to educate local communities in emerging markets—equipping locals to start careers in hospitality. We spoke with Chanrai at the Refinery Rooftop about traveling like a local, a hotel’s responsibility to its community and her vision for the future.

Here are five lessons we learned from Harsha Chanrai.

01 Traveling alone is a great way to discover a new destination.

“I like traveling alone. I like to travel with people, too, but I think you get less out of it. In a group, a trip becomes a vacation. When I’m on my own, I can go for a jog or do yoga in the morning. Traveling alone helps you keep a regular routine. And when you’re in a regular routine, out and about on your own, there’s more opportunity to meet locals and engage with new people in the new place you’re in. I like to write, so I’ll take my laptop or a book, and I’ll go out and find a place to sit, write and observe. When you’re on your own, locals are more likely to approach you, and that’s one of the best ways I get to know a new place.”

02 Being adventurous (yet cautious!) is the key to authentic, local experiences.

“I’m adventurous. I spent a couple of weeks in Panama when I was searching for the right place to launch my hotel school. I wanted to see what it would be like to live there, so I dropped my bags at the hotel and wandered around on foot. Exploring by foot is the best way to discover things you wouldn’t have otherwise. On another trip, in Brazil, the concierge at the hotel, who was from the local community, took my friend and I to see a favela. You have to make a judgement on how well you know somebody to take you to the local experiences, but often times it can be rewarding.”

03 Starting small affords great learning experiences.

“I launched a pilot of my hotel school in Los Angeles. We trained locals how to work in hotels. It was 7 weeks long and I graduated 5 students. Some got offers from W and Starwood. It was successful in that respect, and it was also a learning experience. I learned a lot about timing, what to focus less on, what to focus more on, and how to assess the students’ existing understanding of hospitality.”

04 When following your passion, a side hustle is often required to generate revenue.

“From the beginning, the mission of Saira Hospitality has been to start hotel schools in emerging markets. I additionally advise small boutique hotels on their structure and management strategy as a way to generate revenue, so I can focus on the non-profit hotel school aspect.”

05 For hotels, serving the local community should be just as important as serving the guest.

“Many hotels think about serving the guest, not the community, and part of Saira’s mission is to change that. I believe in social entrepreneurship and empowering locals in emerging markets to work in hotels, whether luxury or lifestyle or villa. I was lucky to go to Cornell and get an education, but most people don’t get that opportunity. And the thing about hotels is, anybody can start—you don’t need a degree from Cornell. I think every hotel should have a training program and ownership of training locals to work in their hotels, and if I can help facilitate that through Saira Hospitality, than I accomplished what I set out to do.”

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