Mariana Aldrigui is a researcher at the University of Sao Paulo and a Director of the Global Travel & Tourism Partnership which works to help young people build careers in tourism. With a long-held interest in responsible tourism, she was invited to be a judge for the 2015 Tourism for Tomorrow Awards, where YCI ultimately won the People Award. Although she’d encountered YCI before, this was the first time she had the chance to see the programme in action. What she saw made such an impression that she’s become a passionate advocate for YCI; not just for its life-changing capacity, but as an excellent business model for hotels. We interviewed Mariana to learn more.
YCI: In 2015 the World Travel & Tourism Council invited you to join the judging panel for the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards and you had the chance to visit the YCI programme in Brazil and talk to employees at the hotel, our non-profit partners and the young people themselves. What was that like?
Mariana: I started a series of visits to four or five different hotels and I talked to the General Managers, to the HR Managers and mostly to the students. That’s when I got pretty emotional about the kids I met. I work for possibly the most prestigious university in Latin America, so the kind of students I have, most of them are from wealthy families and they are very well educated and the way they behave towards jobs, opportunities, careers is ‘Let me pick the one that fits my profile’. So when you talk to someone who comes from a very underprivileged background – I was collecting their testimonies – and I remember this little guy saying to me, ‘You know the first day I came back in uniform, my dad looked in my eyes and said ‘Now I can respect you’’ or something like that. And I said, “My goodness this is something really different”.
I can quote the local manager of a YCI non-profit partner, Rede Cidadã, which is Cristina Saturnino, and she was explaining to me that most of the kids when they apply, they lack the concept of dreaming. It’s a lack of ambition. She was explaining to me she will ask them ‘What is your plan, what do you want?’ And the most that they can come up with is a tennis shoe or a nice smart phone. And she says ‘Ok this is nice but how can you get this? Do you want to have a job?’ And they say, ‘No I don’t know if I’ll be alive by that time’. She was explaining that the first challenge was to make them regain the possibility of dreaming and anticipating a better life and then you can start talking about a goal. It’s a group of young people who can’t see the power of tomorrow, it’s just surviving.
YCI: That must have been quite hard to find young people with so much potential but who see no value in themselves.
Mariana: That’s what the world keeps telling them. School does not want them, society is pushing them away, sometimes their families are unstructured from the beginning so they feel really unwanted, and that’s why, when you see someone who feels so little about themselves begin to realise and understand that what they are doing is towards the other – the guest or their team – just wow! Because they start seeing value in their work and then themselves and then they become a part of something bigger.
YCI: It’s wonderful to see those changes happening, but how does this make good business sense to the hotel?
Mariana: Sustainability has to make financial sense first, not just morally and ethically. For some countries or companies it won’t matter if it is or isn’t sustainable if you’re having to spend a lot of money. But this does make sense, it saves you money in the long term.
“There is this emotional attachment to the brand and to the project and of course to the team that I can’t say that I have seen with my university students.
YCI: Can you explain why you think YCI helps hotels save money?
Mariana: Because of the other aspect that caught my heart and my attention when I was visiting the programme, which was that the young people say, ‘Well I’m finishing my YCI programme at the InterContinental, but I don’t want to move to another hotel because I’m in debt, in gratitude to this hotel, so I want to have all my career here.’ So there is this emotional attachment to the brand and to the project and of course to the team that I can’t say that I have seen with my university students.
I was talking to Francisco García, known as Paco, who was the GM of InterContinental São Paulo saying that is a big win for a programme like YCI at a hotel if you’re creating a team that is devoted to your product more than devoted to their career. And the career compounds itself with their lives and it is life changing but it’s also measurable.
YCI: Because often hotels recruit and train people who don’t stay in post long, therefore the costs associated with poor retention of employees is high, but YCI creates highly trained recruits with a commitment to the hotel brand, and who may build a career there over many years.
Mariana: Right. But this is not just a marketing speech. I’m a fan of the idea that the hotel manager or the hotel owner who wants to truly make a difference, this is something they can do. They can think ‘How can I do something that is first good for my business, and it will improve the quality of my service, and it will make my guests happy, and as a side effect I am improving the lives of others in the community?’ I love social projects for being social, but when you manage to help your business first but at the same time – with no negative effect – improve the quality of life around you, this is the goal. Everyone should go and try to find something like that. And I have seen YCI work in Brazil, in India. It’s an international model.
YCI: And investing in training the YCI students has other business benefits like improved team morale.
Mariana: Yes! It adds a sense of purpose and every time someone from engineering or an accountant is invited to share their knowledge it’s ‘Oh I’m needed elsewhere so I can transfer what I’ve learned and I’m being recognised in a different way that’s not only payment or employee of the month.’ The sharing aspect of ‘Wow I’m now in a position to say what I have done, tell about my life, my career, my choices’ and when you look at the pride in the eyes of the students, it’s a connection that’s unforgettable.
“This is about always having your hotel business in first place.
YCI: And in your experience is our model of partnership working a good one?
Mariana: Public private partnerships offer the best solution to a lot of the sustainability issues we face, especially in countries whose policies are not clear, or policies are not clearly directed to improving the quality of life for people. So for a lot of countries which are undeveloped or in development, we need the business man and the NGO to set the path together.
But what I like about YCI is that you do not just bring the UK knowledge but you always connect with someone that knows the way the country operates, knows the way the underprivileged community operates. So this local NGO that’s working with the young people, this is something that respects their culture and their way of living because we’re so tired of those first world patronising ways of showing us how we should be. Just don’t. We may be poor but we have our dignity, and our own culture.
I think if a company is considering opening a new hotel in Rwanda or Nigeria or Kenya they have good economic reasons, but if we connect economic development to the needs of social development then you have a good opportunity. This is about always having your hotel business in first place. It’s not just being a social good-doer, this is good for the business and the community at the same time with no negative side.
YCI: And you’ve seen how the programme impacts not just the students but their families and even the wider community.
Mariana: Yes. One of the students said to me, ‘Well now I can properly set a table and I taught that to my family and they all ask me to do that in the community. And we’re talking about poor communities where these kinds of things bring them, it’s not a flash of hope but it’s a sense that there is a possibility for change. It needs to be worked at, it needs hard work: I need to wake up early, I need to work six days a week but there will be change. So the personal testimonies of the 20 or 25 students I talked made me feel that ‘Wow this is really something.’ There are other good projects around but your way of setting an international model, I think you are one of the very best.
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