South Carolina Hotel to Offer Case Study for Hiring Workers With Disabilities

Skift grip

Many travel companies want to foster a workforce where everyone, regardless of circumstance, can thrive. But many companies are wondering how to go about it. The example of The Shepherd Hotel in Clemson, South Carolina suggests one way.

Sean O’Neill

The Shepherd’s Hotel will open in downtown Clemson, SC, with an unusual engagement among hotels. It plans to employ dozens of people with intellectual disabilities, many of whom have been diagnosed with Down syndrome.

The 67-room hotel – officially opening in September but soft-launching in July – will be an independent boutique property. He partnered with a Clemson University training program to hire 40 people with intellectual disabilities, approximately 40% of the establishment’s staff.

Rick Hayduk is the spearhead of the new hotel, its first brand built from scratch. Hayduk has decades of experience in the hospitality industry. Blackstone, the real estate investment giant, had previously hired him as president of the Boca Raton Resort & Club in Florida and as general manager of its South Seas Island Resort and Inns of Sanibel.

Hayduk also has a personal interest in the project. One of her daughters, Jamison, has Down syndrome, as does her son, Abe. Another girl, a Clemson graduate, told her about a two-year training program called ClemsonLIFE [learning is for everyone]. The hotel is now partnering with the program to find employees.

Acting in the enlightened self-interest of a hotel

The Shepherd Hotel is not alone in this kind of effort. Accor Novotel hangar in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, works with a local association to sponsor apprentices with Down syndrome. Lemon Tree Hotels, India’s largest mid-market hotel chain, is consistently hiring people with disabilities. About a tenth of its staff work with disabilities.

Countries such as Germany, France, Japan and South Korea require many employers to meet quotas for hiring people with disabilities, or face penalties.

Hiring people with disabilities can create a more innovative operation, at least ideally.

Many hotels lazily accept impulsive management. But planning is often key to helping workers with disabilities manage their workdays without getting derailed.

“In the special needs community, it’s all about trust,” Hayduk said. “Reaching the confidence plateau usually takes a little longer for someone with Down syndrome. If they face a lot of frustration and can’t reach the plateau, it’s twice as bad because they might close faster.

A well-organized and planned operation has the added benefit of helping all workers reduce errors.

Software choices offer another example. Hayduk realized that his hotel would need better than average operating software.

The property starts with Above Property Services (APS) “hotel in a box” software, which includes a full-service property management system.

“I said to them, ‘How do we get a young person with an intellectual disability to check in a guest with something like six keystrokes?'” Hayduk said. “They said they would find a solution, and they did.”

Some of the most commonly used systems for receiving duties are complicated and require weeks of training. This is why it is rare to see people with Down syndrome at the reception. The Shepherd Hotel wanted to change that. Although the decision was driven by workers with disabilities, all staff and customers can likely benefit from the simplified software.

“We want all staff to be excited to come to work,” said Aaron Shepherd, co-founder and CEO of APS. “Technology can drive a lot of that.”

A risky bet

The Shepherd Hotel will open in a location that is exceptionally walkable from campus compared to other properties. Developer Rich Davies thinks his restaurant and bar can help make it a local attraction, and a two-story spiral staircase from the lobby to the bar can make it Instagram-worthy.

The hotel will offer a high-end product, which the local market does not have. It can also help it stand out.

But many college towns don’t offer high average daily rates, so they tend to attract limited-service hotels, as Clemson did. The Shepherd Hotel may have to be very economically efficient to make the numbers work. Its investors are unlikely to see the property generate returns equal to, say, 20% of the income they might find elsewhere.

The history of The Shepherd Hotel is still being written. To make things easier, it will be soft-launched in June during a low season after the college semester ends. This will give staff a few months to train in a less stressful situation.

This fall, he will probably encounter failures and will have to adapt while learning. Still, the hotel is already highlighting some potential lessons for other travel companies.

Tour operators aren’t necessarily experts at dealing with the challenges that can hold people back. That’s why they should form partnerships with nonprofits, community groups, and universities like Clemson. These groups can help with the nuances, such as the fact that hiring often has to be part-time, as some people will lose their government benefits if employed full-time.

Workers in these neglected groups are often grateful to have been hired and remain loyal. Some studies suggest that attrition rates for well-run programs are lower than the norm for workers without disabilities.

“The hospitality industry talks a lot about workforce challenges,” Hayduk said. “But there is an untapped workforce there.”