Teaching hotel trains and hires disabled employees
Indiana’s first statewide hospitality training institute for people with disabilities will open in Muncie, Indiana, in a few short months. And it’s already attracting new business.
The Arc of Indiana Training Institute and Teaching Hotel (also known as the Courtyard by Marriott at the Horizon Convention Center) “is having a huge impact and is a game-changer for our facility and for our downtown,” said Joann McKinney, president and CEO of the Horizon Convention Center. “We’re able to attract business that never would have come to Muncie before. People want to support this project and be involved with it.”
The convention center, which lost its host hotel in 2006, has already booked four conferences for 2016, McKinney said. Overall, business at the convention center is projected to increase 30 percent with the addition of the hotel. The center also is receiving more local interest for social events like weddings.
Jeff Huffman first came up with the idea of the teaching hotel in 2011 out of frustration with the lack of post-secondary education opportunities in Indiana for his now 13-year-old son, Nash, who has Down Syndrome. The unemployment rate for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Indiana was 82 percent in 2011, according to Kim Dodson, associate executive director of the Arc of Indiana, an advocacy group for people with disabilities.
“The idea was built around a real, functional business that would pay taxes and make a profit while offering employment for individuals with disabilities and training under an internship-type model,” Huffman said.
Huffman and his wife, Jan Steck Huffman, own and operate Huffman Healthcare and Disability Consulting. Jeff Huffman works with businesses interested in hiring individuals with disabilities. Jan Steck Huffman focuses on special education consulting.
“Individuals with disabilities who pursue education and employment have a whole different path of life besides being caught up in the benefits system,” Huffman said. “We need to get beyond the belief that people think they’re doing good by giving a hand-out instead of a hand-up.”
About 120 to 200 individuals will be trained each year at the Training Institute for various segments of the hospitality, food service and hospital industries at all levels. Management, housekeeping, lawn care, concierge, accounting, cooking and laundry will all be options for training. The program is open to all, but Indiana residents will receive priority in the application process.
The Arc of Indiana recently announced it is pursuing an option for training in a health care environment and is working with local health care facilities to partner with the Training Institute. Training opportunities could include patient transportation, guest relations, and food, warehouse and environmental services.
Following completion of the program at the Training Institute, individuals will then have an opportunity to intern at the 150-room Courtyard by Marriott Teaching Hotel or in the hotel’s restaurant and room service provider, Thr3e Wise Men. Students will live at the hotel while attending the Training Institute. They will pay tuition, but the Training Institute will provide scholarships and work with Vocational Rehabilitation Services.
Profits from the hotel will be used to support the Training Institute and other initiatives of the Arc of Indiana. Dodson said the Arc of Indiana has set a goal for the $29 million project to be completely debt-free within three to five years of operation. Support for the project has been raised exclusively through fundraising, including a $5 million grant from the state of Indiana.
The Arc of Indiana is working closely with Ball State University, also located in Muncie, and other Indiana universities to potentially allow the program to translate to college credit.
The hotel is expected to employ about 130 people; at least 20 percent of those positions will be filled by people with disabilities.
There also will be two small business retail opportunities for people with disabilities in the lobby of the hotel, such as a flower shop, newsstand or shoeshine. Artwork in the hotel will be created by people with disabilities, and there will be opportunities to sponsor those artists.
General Hotels Corporation, which is affiliated with Courtyard by Marriott, will manage daily hotel operations.
“We are going to train people to work not just in our hotel, but to work in any hotel,” said Glenn Brooks, vice president of sales and marketing for General Hotels Corporation. “Our guests will be serviced by people with disabilities whose skills are the same, if not better, as people without disabilities.”
The Training Institute and Teaching Hotel will be open to all people with disabilities, including autism, Down Syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, cerebral palsy, loss of vision or hearing, and members of the military who have lost a limb or are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury.
Individuals with disabilities want to be meaningful citizens with the daily sense purpose a job provides, Dodson said, and they’re proven good workers. A recent study by Marriott found that the turnover rate for employees with disabilities was 46 percent lower than that of traditional employees. Walgreens has found that its employees with disabilities had an efficiency rate of 120 percent.
“People with disabilities are very loyal,” Dodson said. “They love their jobs, and they take great pride in earning a paycheck. That morale seeps into others.”
The hospitality industry is a good fit, Dodson said, because the industry offers jobs that can be repetitive and detail-oriented.
And the industry is always looking for good employees, Brooks added.
“The service industry is a labor-heavy business,” Brooks said. “It’s a never-ending situation to find good employees who are very hungry to get into the working world.”
After overcoming dead ends and “a lot of curves,” the Training Institute and Teaching Hotel “has taken fire,” Huffman said.
“We’re really changing beliefs about what people with disabilities can do,” Huffman said. “We’re standing on the shoulders of all the parents who came before us. We do what we do every day because of the parents who came before us.”