Room ser­vice


National Post (Latest Edition) - - FINANCIAL POST - Elisa Birnbaum Elisa Birnbaum is the pub­lisher and ed­i­tor of SEE Change Mag­a­zine. elisa@ seechangem­agazine. com Twit­ter. com/elis­abirn­baum

Dave Eddy isn’t one to shy away from the un­con­ven­tional — even if not ev­ery­one is equally en­thused. So it came as no sur­prise when in 2014 the CEO of Van­cou­ver Na­tive Hous­ing So­ci­ety ( VNHS), a non-profit Abo­rig­i­nal hous­ing provider in Van­cou­ver, launched Canada’s first bou­tique Abo­rig­i­nal ho­tel, Skwachàys Lodge, a so­cial en­ter­prise de­signed to tackle the city’s hous­ing chal­lenges.

Along the way, Eddy stum­bled across a pow­er­ful in­ter­sec­tion be­tween art, cul­ture and the re­vi­tal­iza­tion of com­mu­nity.

For years, VNHS had been work­ing with provin­cial and fed­eral gov­ern­ments to cre­ate fund­ing streams for sup­port­ive af­ford­able hous­ing for Van­cou­ver’s Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity. Upon the ex­pi­ra­tion of some of those con­tracts a few years ago, a search be­gan for new rev­enue-gen­er­at­ing busi­ness mod­els.

Be­liev­ing so­cial en­trepreneur­ship to be a more sus­tain­able ap­proach than the al­ter­na­tive, one that could of­fer longer-term so­lu­tions for the In­dige­nous com­mu­nity, Skwachàys was de­vel­oped at the cusp of Van­cou­ver’s trou­bled down­town east­side. Mod­elled on Toronto’s Glad­stone, a bou­tique ho­tel with an em­pha­sis on art, this western in­car­na­tion put its em­pha­sis on Abo­rig­i­nal art and cul­ture.

The ini­tia­tive came to­gether thanks to an im­pres­sive col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween renowned de- sign­ers — of­ten work­ing pro bono — and six Abo­rig­i­nal artists. Each of the ho­tel’s 18 rooms, are uniquely de­signed and themed us­ing Abo­rig­i­nal nar­ra­tive and orig­i­nal art work. And those rooms help fund 24 Abo­rig­i­nal artists who hold res­i­den­cies on the re­main­ing floors of the ho­tel (a lot of the fur­nish­ing came pro bono as well).

Skwachàys pro­vides pa­trons with tra­di­tional of­fer­ings such as a smudge room for Abo­rig­i­nal cer­e­monies and a sweat lodge on the rooftop ter­race. A lodge keeper who lives nearby per­forms spir­i­tual cleans­ing rit­u­als. There’s also an Abo­rig­i­nal fair trade art gallery in the lobby, which fea­tures a few hun­dred new and up­com­ing In­dige­nous artists and of­fers space for ex­hi­bi­tions and events. The gallery has emerged as a sig­nif­i­cant mar­ket­ing ve­hi­cle and rev­enue gen­er­a­tor for the com­mu­nity in its own right.

“That’s the thing I re­ally like about the ho­tel,” said ho­tel gen­eral man­ager Mag­gie Ed­wards, ex­plain­ing that many west coast bands cre­ated so­phis­ti­cated art­work but l ack ex­po­sure. Peo­ple stay at the ho­tel for any num­ber of rea­sons but the gallery pro­vides an in­tro­duc­tion to a broad spec­trum of work in many medi­ums. “The work hasn’t achieved fair value in the mar­ket­place but the ex­po­sure will change that.”

Hav­ing left his home­town of Whitehorse at 16, Clifton Fred even­tu­ally made his way to Van­cou­ver. At­tracted to the op­por­tu­nity at Skwachàys, Fred was a part of the first co­hort of artist res­i­den­cies and got the chance to work with a de­signer on three sep­a­rate rooms. Pleased with the re­sult of his work and the pro­gram, he was mostly thrilled with the no­tion of help­ing like­minded cre­atives.

“My art will help other artists who are at a time of need. It’s a small of­fer­ing but it makes me feel good,” he said at the time.

Fred has since com­pleted his three-year res­i­dency and Skwachàys wel­comed its sec­ond round of artists this spring. Shar­i­fah Mars­den is a 30-some­thing-yearold jeweller, mu­ral­ist and gen­eral artist from On­tario. As part of her ap­pli­ca­tion to the res­i­dency, Mars­den had to cre­ate a three­year plan of per­sonal and pro­fes­sional goals, a plan that helped fast-for­ward her ca­reer tra­jec­tory since ar­riv­ing at the ho­tel, cul­mi­nat­ing this sum­mer in a large mu­ral project she com­pleted with two other artists.

Aside f rom ac­cess to art space, Mars­den is ap­pre­cia­tive of the op­por­tu­nity to col­lab­o­rate with her peers and the much- cel­e­brated sub­si­dized rents. “That takes a real weight off,” she said. “You have more time, more space and more en­ergy to be creative.”

The res­i­dency also of­fers a range of pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment work­shops. From health and well­ness, grant-writ­ing and en­trepreneur­ship to busi­ness skills train­ing, fi­nan­cial lit­er­acy and cul­tural prac­tice, the ob­jec­tive is to give artists a strong foot­ing in their ca­reer and life, said artist Olivia Davies, the pro­gram co-or­di­na­tor. “The pro­grams are de­vel­op­ing from the in­side out; it’s very ex­cit­ing.”

It’s about find­ing new ways to tackle on­go­ing chal­lenges. “We al­ways want to have fresh ideas around so­cial en­ter­prise,” said Eddy, ex­plain­ing how Skwachàys came to be seen as a suc­cess­ful ve­hi­cle in sup­port­ing hous­ing and com­mu­nity sus­tain­abil­ity.

“It may not be a stan­dard eco­nomic model that a ho­tel would fol­low but we strongly be­lieve that peo­ple will catch on to the idea of so­cial en­ter­prise and its value, the so­cial re­turn on in­vest­ment.”

Though not al­ways eas­ily quan­tifi­able, so­cial en­ter­prise can have a very real im­pact, par­tic­u­larly with the client groups that his or­ga­ni­za­tion deals with. Re­duced in­ter­ven­tions with the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and med­i­cal sys­tem to name just two of the model’s po­ten­tial value-add.

At the same time, the ho­tel and gallery are mak­ing money. “There aren’t too many so­cial en­ter­prise ho­tels out there and the tie- in with art is very good for busi­ness, for the gallery; it feeds off it­self,” Eddy said. “It has a promis­ing fu­ture and we’re do­ing ex­tremely well.”

That’s a strong state­ment for a rel­a­tively large so­cial en­ter­prise that’s taken a big risk in a very tra­di­tional in­dus­try. At min­i­mum, the ho­tel has to bring in $ 160,000 to $ 170,000 a year to meet the ba­sic fund­ing needs for its 24 artist res­i­den­tial units. That it’s at­tempt­ing to ef­fect change in the hous­ing sec­tor, a space nor­mally funded by con­ven­tional means only adds to the im­pres­sive re­sults seen so far.

Many pa­trons are at­tracted to Skwachàys be­cause of their in­ter­est in Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture and tra­di­tional cer­e­monies. Oth­ers are fond of the lo­ca­tion and price point, while still oth­ers are so­cially re­spon­si­ble trav­ellers look­ing to spend their money in a way that pro­duces im­pact.

No mat­ter what brings them, rooms have been at ca­pac­ity since the doors opened, help­ing VNHS in its mis­sion of sup­port­ing hous­ing and artists in the com­mu­nity. “That’s our rai­son d’être and we’re do­ing re­ally well,” Ed­wards said.

“Above and be­yond that, we hope it’s a model that can be repli­cated in other com­mu­ni­ties,” with the par­tic­u­lar theme vary­ing depend­ing on each or­ga­ni­za­tion, she said. “It’s just about see­ing how you can best cre­ate rev­enue streams through so­cial en­ter­prise.”



Clifton Fred, one of the first artists in res­i­dence, sits in one of three rooms he de­signed at Skwachàys Lodge.

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