Up to a third of the staff at a new Cape Town hotel are deaf, making the Park Inn by Radisson a world first. Opened in 2014 on the site of a former community centre below Table Mountain, the hotel is partially owned by the Deaf Federation of South Africa (DeafSA) and was part-funded by state investment.
It’s the third Carlson Rezidor hotel in the city where the Belgian group chose to begin expansion into Africa in 2000.
The group has combined a development opportunity in a sought-after area with the chance to provide jobs for disabled people and make the 122-bed hotel a symbol of diversity.
Of 93 employees, 28 are deaf and none had previous experience of working in a hotel. The group trained them and is teaching hearing employees sign language.
Hotel manager Clinton Thom says: “We have integrated deaf staff in every department. There have been extra costs, but the benefits outweigh the costs.”
There are 1.6 million deaf and hard-of-hearing people in South Africa – 3% of a 53 million population – and 70% are unemployed.
The Rezidor group is expanding aggressively in Africa. In February 2015 the company identified the continent as its most important growth market. It has hotels in 24 countries – the most recent overlooks the White Nile in Juba, South Sudan. It has a regional office in South Africa and is the largest hotel operator in the country.
Other openings include Radisson Blu hotels in Mozambique and Zambia with future launches planned in Kenya, Rwanda and a fifth in Cape Town later this year.
“Africa offers excellent opportunities due to its huge natural resources and workforces, improved infrastructure and a growing middle class. We want to grow further on the continent with our existing and new partners through transparent and responsible long-term business relationships,” says Elie Younes, executive vice president & chief development officer.
“We also want to be a leading employer in Africa. By creating new jobs for local talent and by contributing to the communities we operate in, we can make a huge difference.”
At the end of 2014 the group announced it had equity financing from several Nordic Development Funds (DFIs) through Afrinord. This builds on a 2005 joint venture to develop hotels in South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Mali – creating 1,500 permanent jobs, 40% of them for women.
Afrinord accelerates the group’s growth strategy. It is considering buying regional management companies and targeting Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Angola, Kenya, Tanzania, as well as more locations in South Africa.
The group has an award-winning “responsible business” programme and owns more than 1,300 hotels in 80 countries. It is one of the fastest growing hotel companies in the world.
There were communication challenges for all employees at the new Cape Town hotel but an interpreter was hired, and four months after opening hearing staff had started to learn the basics of sign language.
The company points out that it is an expressive form of communication. Facial expressions are important and this has led hearing employees to smile more – benefiting the way they relate to guests. Guests are leaving positive comments on travel websites.
Employees have offered to create basic sign language guidance for the group’s training programme. It is working on how to adapt conventional business school materials for deaf staff.
The project goes beyond standard sustainability practice as a result of partnership with DeafSA. While it was aimed at generating revenue for deaf people to reduce dependence on government funds, the group took diversity further in its new mid-market hotel. It has gone far beyond the legal requirement of catering for paraplegic guests and provides five specially adapted rooms.
There have been consequences. Training cost more and took longer because the deaf employees had no hotel skills. The hotel has had the extra cost of an interpreter and even though guests are informed on check-in about the disability of some staff, some are impatient.
Dale Holmes, supervisor of meetings and events, says: “It is sometimes challenging when people are impatient and give up on us. We can lip read, but sometimes people speak too fast.”
The hotel is within walking distance of the Cape Town International Convention Centre. It is the first hotel in the city’s southern suburbs and is close to the University of Cape Town, South African rugby headquarters and the Sports Science Institute of South Africa.
DeafSA holds 40% equity, with the International Development Corporation (which is a government-owned development finance institution) and Meridian each holding 30%. DeafSA’s Cape Town HQ in Newlands was a community centre called Bastion of the Deaf. Historically, the area had been home to a relatively integrated community before the Group Areas Act and forced removals in 1966. As part of the Rezidor development, DeafSA also has new offices.
Rezidor Hotel Group is the 2015 winner of the innovation award in the diversity and inclusion category of the Guardian Sustainable Business Awards.