The Lighthouse Project

Two-thirds of the employees at the Hotel Magdas are refugees who receive training and career prospects here. After a year, the hotel has proven one thing: It is possible to integrate asylum-seekers into working life.

text: Stefanie Bisping  //  photography: Arnold Pöschl

At reception, Afghans sit beside Iraqis, Syrians and Somalis. What they all have in common is not just the friendly smile with which they greet guests, but also the desire to gain a foothold in a foreign country.

Two-thirds of the 30 employees at Hotel Magdas fled from their home countries. They are of 16 different nationalities and speak 23 languages. In addition, most of them work in a sector that is unfamiliar to them. The ten hotel professionals who work at the hotel – like for example the Polish front office manager – give them training which is closely based on the classic hotel management training course. "From beverage expertise up to dealing with guests, we cover all areas," Gerhard Zwettler, manager of the Magdas, recounts.

Not just a drop in the ocean

"Usually, you want to retain trained employees as long as possible at a hotel," he explains. "In contrast, as a training workplace, we are pleased at every job move." As soon as they have a firm grasp of their job, the employees should apply for work elsewhere – and better themselves.

The first three have succeeded in doing this just one year after the hotel opened: The risked the leap into the unknown and found qualified jobs in other hotels. Zwettler: "It seems like a drop in the ocean. But we want to prove that it's possible to integrate people with a refugee background into the labour market. We see ourselves as a lighthouse project and would like to send out a signal to others to do likewise."

Employees of 16 nationalities
Integration in practice:
Employees of 16 nationalities
Culture of welcome
Unequivocal statement:
Culture of welcome
Upcycling and crocheted accessories
Collection of donations:
Upcycling and crocheted accessories
Students' works in the former pensioners' home
Art in the building:
Students' works in the former pensioners' home

A retirement home and €1.5 million

This project kicked off with the simple realisation: It is difficult for asylum-seekers to find work. The charity Caritas in the Archdiocese of Vienna was looking for an economically viable option for creating qualified and qualifying jobs for these people. The solution: It established Magdas Service GmbH, which apart from the hotel also currently operates the Magdas Kantine restaurant in a converted factory in Vienna. The name ("mag das" - like it) already indicates: Many people like this project.

The Viennese Caritas owned a property it could use for the project, a former retirement and care home, which most recently had served as accommodation for homeless people during one winter season. In addition, it provided €1.5 million for the conversion. Over the course of five years, the hotel has to bring in this amount again. Whether it will keep going afterwards has not yet been decided. The Magdas was conceived as a pop-up hotel for a limited period of five years.

The task of bringing to life the idea of a hotel that is a social enterprise fell to Gerhard Zwettler, whose biography had lead him to this position with the most perfect logic. Born in Graz, Austria and with many years of experience as a hotelier, including at Marriott and subsequently as destination manager for promoting Austria in Paris, he had fulfilled his dream of a one-year trip around the world – and at the same time had resolved to make people, and not hotels, the focus of his work in the future. Thus he studied intercultural competence and organisational development and then worked for a non-governmental organisation before going into business for himself with a consultancy firm for social businesses. Initially, he provided consultancy services to the Viennese Caritas, then he implemented the concept as manager of the hotel and the restaurant. "Everything that's important to me came together here: A non-profit organisation, an intercultural project and on top of that the hotel business," Zwettler says.

Antique furniture and modern art

There was only one thing missing: Money. He made a virtue out of necessity – and a concept as well. Zwettler: "We received a great deal of support right from the start, both from companies and from private individuals. Ten people crocheted covers for every single lampshade in the hotel, a group of women gardeners designed the garden." Cloed Baumgartner, founder and designer of a Viennese upcycling fashion label, launched two crowdfunding campaigns. They brought €50,000 into the war chest.

Architecture firm Alles Wird Gut also elevated scarcity into an aesthetic programme. In an upcycling process, old treasures from the former pensioners' home and from donations were restored. The result is a cool clearly Sixties look. Modern art provides highlights between the refurbished furniture – without any need for investment. The works were donated by students from the neighbouring Academy of Fine Arts, who also designed the façade. At the end of the five years, the works will be auctioned and the proceeds will go towards the project.

Thanks to the art works, each room has an individual look. However, luxury – and television sets – are reserved for the suites, which offer flat-screen televisions alongside the vintage design features. Guests in the standard rooms who would like to watch an episode of their favourite television series can borrow a tablet from reception.

The salon – a meeting place

The salon is the heart of the house. "It is used intensively by the Viennese too," says Gerhard Zwettler. In the mornings, mothers meet for coffee; at lunchtime, employees from the area come in. There is a co-working table for them to hold meetings. In the afternoons, the ladies from the neighbourhood meet for coffee and cakes, and they are followed by the after-work crowd for drinks and Syrian meze made from organic products. In the evenings, there are often readings, concerts or "social dinners" on the programme. At these, around 30 Viennese meet the same number of refugees, get into conversation and get to know each other. "These dinners are always booked up," Zwettler smiles. "This just shows how the barriers between people can fall."

Zwettler, 51, purposely calls himself the manager of the hotel, and not the general manager. We have a flat hierarchy. I am constantly in contact with everyone to the same extent, whether they are employees or management team. The title of "general manager" doesn't fit in that context." He regularly holds seminars for his employees to sound out cultural differences and solve problems before they interfere with the smooth running of the hotel. "They are almost always little things that result from differences in polite forms of address, or from a lack of familiarity with guests' expectations."

Positive feedback

To intercept the latter, each employee is a guest in their own hotel once. "If a colleague follows a guest's entire stay at the hotel, from booking through arrival right up to breakfast the next morning, he will realise a lot intuitively form this experience which is very difficult and time-consuming to impart in theory," Zwettler says.

And anyway, guests are very sympathetic if something doesn't quite work on occasion, he says. Half of them actually purposely choose the Magdas so that their overnight stay generates social added value, he says. "The other half book because of the attractive price and are totally delighted with our concept once they arrive at the hotel."

Right from the start, companies were also interested in the Magdas – not just in order to book rooms there, but also to do good in the area of their corporate social responsibility without (economic) profit objectives. Employees of oil and gas company OMV, for example, supported the lateral entrants at the Magdas with language and computer courses and gained new insights through this volunteer work.

It is particularly important to Gerhard Zwettler that queries are coming in from hoteliers from across Europe in the meantime: "We're now at the stage where we can pass on our experience, for example in round-table discussions." Even a franchise system would be conceivable, he says. Thus an important goal has been achieved after only one year: to multiply the idea of a hotel with social added value and encourage other hoteliers to hire people with a refugee background.

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