Galen Barrett, vice president strategic development, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, recently spoke to LODGING about the company’s initiative designed to encourage hotel ownership among Black would-be hoteliers, who may face unique obstacles to their path. Black Owners and Lodging Developers (BOLD), he said, was established to engage and advance Black hoteliers by providing access to the scale, relationships, and resources of Wyndham. He pointed to the success enjoyed by Nigerian twin brothers Dubi and Chuchu Ajukwu, co-managing partners of the real estate development platform VANA, whose move into the growing extended-stay sector with ECHO Suites Extended Stay by Wyndham was facilitated by BOLD opportunities.
Barrett cited data provided by the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers (NABHOOD) reflecting the “immense gap” between Black employment in the hotel industry (nearly 20 percent) and ownership (less than 2 percent) as the inspiration for BOLD. “As a company, we are committed to a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) across the organization,” he said. “We had already created Women Own the Room to advance and empower women entrepreneurs to break through the predominantly male-dominated hotel industry, but we realized that we hadn’t done a great job of engaging with the Black entrepreneur and the African American community.”
He said the first step in rectifying the problem was to approach Black entrepreneurs in Wyndham’s existing network who were already having some success with hotels or were engaged in the process of trying to source opportunities. “We wanted to hear from them about how they might have been better supported by the brand during their path,” he explained. Based on their feedback, it was determined that Wyndham’s expertise could help the entrepreneurs in various areas, including construction, operations, revenue models, technology, and funding—not just to get things up and running, but also to keep the operation going, to make payroll.
The program is built around two key pillars: The first, promoting hotel ownership as a vehicle for potential wealth creation, is mostly about raising awareness of the opportunity among those unfamiliar with hospitality through education, tools, and outreach. The second, accelerating the path to hotel ownership, Barrett said, is geared toward helping prospects who are already qualified and interested break into what he calls “the ecosystem of pathways.” Essential to the second aim are relationships—many built over generations—that support developing staff and operating hotels, managing hotels, and securing capital. “What we try to do is engage them with our vast professional network and on a very case-by-case basis, try to find solutions for the challenges that each one of those entrepreneurs may face as they are looking for opportunities with hotels. There are also developer incentives and other forms of support to help them raise the amount of capital that they need to make a successful development,” he explained.
“It’s crucial that players like Wyndham find and champion new opportunities to drive diversity,” said Barrett, adding that the program has already garnered nearly 20 hotels in the Wyndham pipeline.
Among those owners are the Ajukwu twins, who learned about the BOLD program through LinkedIn. Admittedly, the two were well positioned to capitalize on the opportunity after attending elite English and American institutions—Dartmouth followed by Harvard Law School for Dubi and Harvard Business School for Chuchu—and holding high-level corporate real estate positions. They even had exposure to the hotel business—their parents had two independent properties in Nigeria geared toward the corporate and expatriate community. Although the hotels were not called “extended stay,” guests rarely stayed less than a month, and some stayed as long as two to three years.
Still, the Ajukwus said, they needed help in overcoming what Chuchu called “fear from hotel brands about partnering with unestablished hotel developers that are not firmly ingrained in the hotel industry.” He said he and his brother were attracted to the level of commitment Wyndham demonstrated through the BOLD initiative, commenting, “It’s one thing to open the door to having a more diverse range and profile of owners, but quite another thing to make sure that once you open the door, you are setting these individuals up to succeed.” Wyndham did this, said Dubi, by providing insights about the industry—especially on the extended-stay market the twins wished to occupy—and enabling them to get into the market they’d chosen. “We knew we wanted to be in Florida, and Wyndham was very accommodating in getting us into the best markets there. In addition, they provided financial incentives via key money contributions and collaborated with us to figure out how best to execute upon this opportunity.”
As Dubi put it, “Every hotel group wants to have more owners, but a real differentiator in our conversations with Wyndham was their commitment to putting us in the best position to succeed.” He mentioned, too, Wyndham’s level of investment in their enterprise through the BOLD initiative: “Wyndham really did put their money where their mouth is, devoting a lot of time and resources to us.”
Noting that “it’s still a relationship-driven industry,” Chuchu said their success can provide a pathway for other diverse owners. “When the brands trust you with a market, they are betting that you are competent and capable of executing the intended business plan. If we can execute and develop these hotels successfully, it should encourage hotel brands to partner with more diverse owners.”
The brothers recognized that they entered the industry with distinct advantages and relevant experience, and said they feel an enormous obligation and intense desire to “pay it forward.” One way they can do that, said Dubi, is just by succeeding and, in that way, being the face of success. “I think representation matters. The fact that Chuchu and I are doing it gives diverse people, especially Black people, a lot of belief that it’s actually possible to be a hotel owner.”
Beyond that, he said, the brothers want to be a resource for others, to help them make better choices. “We plan to be pretty vocal in sharing some of the lessons we’ve learned by starting this hotel venture. We can tell prospective diverse hoteliers about the things we’ve done well, and those we could have done better. We can also advise them of questions they should be asking potential hotel partners in terms of market selection, financial incentives, financial operating performance, and working with property managers and consultants.” Ultimately, he said, they would like to be even more hands on. “We would love to also have a cohort of Black investors and diverse investors in our projects, so we can provide an opportunity for them to participate in the success of the extended-stay segment and wider hotel industry.”
Chuchu noted that by succeeding alone, they provide a kind of proof of concept—evidence that Black hotel owners are an untapped resource, a pool of future owners—that gives those who have thus far been reluctant the courage to reach out more. “I think the best thing we can also pass on is our relationships. Once we get accepted into and involved in these networks, we can open the gates and invite others who look like us to be part of that network,” he said.