Harsha Chanrai’s career in hospitality is deeply rooted in a passion for helping others. Her father was a well-known philanthropist, so she was raised with a foundation in giving that many entrepreneurs are not lucky enough to have. Today, she’s the founder and CEO of Saira Hospitality, a non-profit organization that partners with hotel owners and operators to create pop-up and permanent hospitality schools for less privileged locals who live in thriving hotel markets.
Saira’s pop-up hotel schools create a win-win situation. A hotel in a remote location gains access to a wealth of employees trained specifically to perform the tasks needed to keep the property running, without having to pay to bring in people from more metropolitan areas. In turn, locals who had previously not had access to employment opportunities with luxury and lifestyle hospitality brands gain the hospitality training and professional development skills necessary to build a successful career. Saira has worked with properties in emerging markets both in and out of the United States.
Though she is now deeply immersed in the hotel industry, that hasn’t always been the case for Chanrai. Her story begins in London, where she grew up and attended university. Upon graduation, she entered the real estate business, but after a few years, she wanted a new challenge. This started a string of career decisions that took her from London to New York to Ibiza to Bangkok. Throughout the years, she accumulated experience and her career evolved as she went. Eventually, it pointed her toward the hotel sector. She applied to the Cornell School of Hotel Administration and was accepted. “That was unexpected. I have always been more street smart than book smart, so I accepted before they realized they had made a mistake!” she says, laughing.
But it wasn’t just Chanrai’s experience at Cornell that inspired Saira Hospitality. It was actually a girls weekend in Cambodia that sparked the idea. “I came across brick-and-mortar non-profit hospitality training programs that had a simple mission. They offered training mostly for women to work in entry-level positions in hotels, and had an over 90 percent success rate in placing students into line-level positions. It got individuals off the street and started them on a path toward a career. The problem was, they relied 100 percent on donations and required 11 months for training, which was a red flag for me in terms of scalability and longevity for maximum and immediate impact,” she says.
Saira Hospitality launched its first pilot in downtown Los Angeles in 2015 and hit the ground running. It currently has pop-up schools in the works all over the world. Most recently, the organization announced a partnership with the Costa Palmas Los Cabos, a resort community in Baja. At this pop-up school, Saira will educate between 90 and 100 students in an intensive, seven-week program.
The organization’s programs have an outstanding record of graduating and placing students with zero turnover rates. However, while the benefits to hoteliers are readily apparent, Chanrai says that the most important impact that Saira’s pop-up schools have is on the local community and the lives of the trainees. “I’ve had students of all age groups and from walks of life, some of whom have never had a proper job with a steady paycheck before. For example, there was a woman who signed up for our program and was employed as a server at Jazamango, a recently opened upscale restaurant owned by the hotel developer of Hotel San Cristobal. During the dinner service, I noticed she was a total natural. When I asked her to remind me where she had worked previously, she told me that this was her first job, ever. Her shift ended two or three hours before we had sat down for dinner, but she waited for us to arrive to let me know that in just eight weeks, the program had a major impact on her life. She’s realized she has the ‘hospitality gene’ that Saira teaches and has never been happier.”
For Chanrai, Saira Hospitality is simply another way to express the values inherent in hospitality work. “On a personal level, it speaks to me. I’ve been fascinated with this industry for a long time and have always been very conscious of all the work that goes on behind the scenes to create and run a hotel that is a sanctuary for travelers,” she explains, adding that philanthropy ties into this mindset quite easily. “Hospitality is based on a desire to serve guests, and philanthropy is the desire to serve humanity. Anyone who wants to serve and has the hospitality gene can find a way to do that in the hotel industry.”