When Breitbart reports on the launch of a new culture-led hotel brand, you can expect something outside the norm. “A Snowflake Resort”, carped one vapid commenter, while another proclaimed it should fly the ‘star and sickle flag’, muddling up two separate works of communist symbology. “It sounds like hell on earth”, whined Alex Jones’s Prison Planet (which sounds like a ringing endorsement.) As a discordant choir of confused keyboard warriors tap away, founder Katherine Lo (daughter of Langham Hospitality Group Ltd. creator and executive chairman, Ka Shui Lo) continues preparations for Eaton Workshop, the hotel that aims to be a ‘force for creative evolution and purpose-driven impact’.
In short, Eaton is a hospitality project with activism at its heart. Behind that, though, is a well-considered enterprise that sits somewhere between Black Lives Matter and Soho House. Which seems a strange concept, until you consider that Gen Z are hot on the heels of millennials as the most in-demand audience for the culturally aware travel industry. Born into a post-internet world, Generation Z are as acutely aware of social issues, politics, and activism as any that has preceded them.
With a commissioned video art installation by AJ Schnack displaying footage from both the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections as you enter the hotel, Eaton Workshop is wearing its politics on its sleeve; which makes for a refreshing change, as the travel industry at large oft hides strategically from geopolitical issues. Myanmar’s ongoing ethnic cleansing is a stark case in point for an industry infamously afraid of rocking the boat.
Whether it’s the clichéd colonialism of Africa, an entire continent daubed with a singular sunset-hued brush; the worrying slant toward far-right influence in the ‘developed’ world; or the many disparities ignored by developers of up-and-coming neighbourhoods, there is a tendency to look the other way. To a degree it can be understood – there are multi-million pound projects at stake – but travellers are more aware than ever. Perhaps it’s time we were treated like adults?
It’s almost a year since Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. What at times feels like a lifetime has seen one of the most seismic shifts in public mood in living memory. The left and right are more polarised than ever, and it seems as though the sociopolitical struggles of the most marginalised have been set back decades. Activism is unavoidable, and rightly so. Yet, still, too few brands are confident enough to align themselves to one side or cause. Reliably challenging, The Standard are straight to the point: “If 2017 has taught us anything, it’s that complacency is a luxury that none of us can afford.”
Revealing how they’d always set out to be more than ‘a collection of rooms’, the hip hotel chain set out their stall with a statement of intent earlier this year, outlining their commitment to activism and compiling an action plan for would-be activists to follow. Somewhat pioneers of the hotel-brand-as-media-company school of thought, editorial arm Standard Culture has been active in promoting inspirational stories of minority figures and underlining their position on divisive issues like gun reform. In August, their High Line property installed a customised phone booth on a public square in front of the hotel; lifting its receiver allowing you to leave a message for congressional staffers in which your concerns on issues close to your heart can be voiced. Alongside the public installation, The Standard rolled out a direct-dial feature on in-room phones at all five hotels.
Cynics might suggest that such stunts are simply acute judgments on public mood, but at least The Standard are recognising that politics exist. By and large, a scoot through the cultural programming agendas of many other familiar faces will see yoga and cocktail-making sessions still occupying the space where education and uncomfortable discourse could lend their brand new intellectual integrity. With so many of these hotels having taken up residence in neighbourhoods with troubled pasts (and presents), it would be nice if the eyes and ears of guests were opened to issues more complex than wellness or epicurean pursuits.
You can understand hesitancy. Sociopolitical issues are complex and risk isolating large groups of potential customers. It’s also dangerously easy to get it wrong. Just ask Vancouver local Jenn Potter, whose ‘socially responsible’ walking tours of the city’s disaffected neighbourhoods were, to say the least, not a big hit with the local community, with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) launching ‘Yuppie Gazing’ tours as a riposte. “Basically you’re commodifying the experience of poverty and distress”, said VANDU board member Karen Ward. “It’s certainly something that we felt the need to take some action against. The idea for our members was to turn the conversation about the gaze, about looking at people, and thinking about how it feels when it’s done to us without our consent.”
Yuppie gazing tour going on now in the downtown eastside. pic.twitter.com/pbCBYgPkq8
— CCAP 加麗基社區行動計劃 (@CCAPdtes) August 16, 2016
Under the right conditions, though, guided tours could represent a fine opportunity for hotels to add to their programming and begin to address vital issues without going the full Eaton Workshop. Take NewYorkTour1’s Beyond Stonewall tour, a walk through the history of Manhattan’s LGBT community: the birthplace of the Gay Rights Movement; the theatre where Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show first played; the home of LGBT rights activist and author, Larry Kramer. An opportunity to experience watershed history that shifts from the 1960s through present day; a chance for guests to enrich their travels through education and empathy. In 2017, landmarks like The Stonewall Inn should hold equal significance to the weighty monuments of centuries gone by.
Over in the French capital, Black Paris Tours contribute an unexpected accompaniment to the city’s rich history – imparting little-known facts and stories whilst running you through the hang-outs and haunts made famous by African American creatives, historians, soldiers, celebrities, and political exiles. Welcomed with open arms, countless black Americans escaped the country over the course of more than a century; from slavery to the rioting and poverty that followed the end of segregation. “I loved being in Paris and loved the way I was treated”, wrote Miles Davis in his autobiography. “Paris was where I understood that all white people were not the same; that some weren’t prejudiced.” As the French right is alarmingly on the rise, what better way for its capital’s hotels to fight back with peace and inclusion than by promoting emotive tours like these?
Le Pen’s continuing influence in France is paralleled by Germany’s AfD; Austria’s coalition with the far-right Freedom party; and some 60,000 who chanted and marched through Warsaw – right-wing extremists on the rise in countries most impacted by the Nazis. It can be felt in the racist undertones of Brexit, too, the hatefulness of Farage and his mouthpieces like The Daily Mail warning us of ‘Muslim ghettos’. How well do the largely white middle-classes assimilate, though?
Third-wave coffee shops and concept stores frequently follow design-conscious hotel openings in ethnic minority neighbourhoods – what if ‘neighbourhood guides’ directed guests to local family-run restaurants long-established by those minorities? What if those restaurants were invited to run pop-ups in said hotels? What if ‘influencers’ were replaced by stalwarts of the community? Integration works both ways, and we shouldn’t fein shock at the rise of sickening political agendas if we continue to keep ourselves to ourselves. But remember Jenn Potter’s ill-advised ‘social responsibility’. Social integration is not to be viewed through the lens of poverty porn, as even the most progressive can tread clumsily.
Well-meaning but tone-deaf activists are exactly the sort of thing that can be prevented by education and understanding. Perhaps drop the township tour and opt for three-and-a-half hours in the company of a person of colour who has first-hand experience of the brutality of apartheid; go to Banksy’s The Walled Off Hotel, but remember to talk to locals and appreciate the realities of living under oppression.
Promising to promote ‘dialogue and debate’, enable ‘forward-thinking change’, and support ‘artistic endeavours from diverse emerging voices’, if Eaton makes good on its press spiel, then the brand could offer the sort of educational empathy today’s travellers deserve. If it just dishes up another smashed avocado on sourdough under the guise of provocative introspection then the Breitbart commenters will win. And that’s where the fine line in embracing activism is drawn. The dangerous ease of getting off on the wrong foot might strike fear into the hearts of brands contemplating such an embrace – but as The Standard say: “complacency is a luxury that none of us can afford.”
James Davidson is Editor-In-Chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.