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TINY UNIT, BIG IDEA: Tiny Urban Escapes this summer opened its first free-standing suite, called Heiress Ivory after founder Robin Staten’s grandmother. The unit is crafted from two ‘upcycled’ shipping containers and sits on leased land in a municipal park in Indianapolis. Staten is among an emerging group of hoteliers on a mission to tell the stories of Black Americans’ influence on our everyday lives and to elevate Black hotel owners and investors within the industry.

Black Hotel Owners Strive to ‘Make Something Beautiful’ Out of Chaos

Minority-owned ventures poised to launch into a new age of health, wealth and reconciliation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation defines heritage tourism as: “Traveling to experience the places and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present.”

Travelers in the U.S. spend more than $170 billion a year on heritage tourism. Or did spend – before the coronavirus pandemic shifted the tectonic plates bolstering the travel industry.

Two hospitality entrepreneurs are focused on making the best of a challenging time by creating products that promote investment in the future of lodging as well as answering the renewed call to recognize Black people’s deep influence on nearly every aspect of our everyday lives.

Robin Staten is founder of Tiny Urban Escapes, which “upcycles” shipping containers into upscale stand-alone boutique pods in cities green spaces.

Damon Lawrence is founder of Homage Hospitality Group, which is raising capital to acquire and reposition existing hotels into uniquely designed properties that celebrate Black culture through the arts.

The Time is Now

Our lives have changed. We shelter in place, work from home and attend school remotely. We’re struggling with the steepest drop in the U.S. economy since the Great Depression and we’re coming to terms with long-simmering frustration and anger borne of racism and inequality in our communities.

Travel has changed, too. It’s more leisure-focused. When people travel today, they’re seeking a break from the current events that weigh us down.

Staten thought of creating unique getaways several years ago, but her new venture might be considered good medicine for our current times.

The Indianapolis-based company repurposes metal shipping containers into stand-alone rooms. Staten opened the first pod this summer near downtown Indianapolis.

She came upon the idea in 2016 after watching HGTV shows that featured tiny homes. She also knew about home sharing in the travel industry and put the two concepts together.

After years of research and telling her story, Staten is set to start doing business by offering one-of-a-kind luxury boutique accommodations to people eager to get away from it all, all by themselves.

Though the product is a converted shipping container, Tiny Urban Escapes provides an experience similar to an upscale boutique hotel. The design plays on the concept of marrying steel and glass to build a modern atheistic. The room is stationary, not on wheels like some tiny homes, and connected to public utilities.

The first Tiny Urban Escapes pod made up of two repurposed shipping containers opened this summer on leased land in Eagle Creek Park, the largest municipal park in Indianapolis, Indiana. The park has lakes for swimming and boating, hiking areas, a fitness course and bicycle paths that complement Tiny Urban Escapes’ wellness-focused amenities.

ENOUGH ROOM: The living area of Tiny Urban Escapes’ property in Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis, Indiana. The upscale boutique project is made from two ‘upcycled’ shipping containers and incorporates the containers’ steel into its modern design.

Staten’s company also plans to construct two pods at 16 Tech, a technology innovation district near the White River in downtown Indianapolis. This site has special meaning for Staten as it is near the former Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Co., where Walker manufactured hair products for Black women. Staten’s paternal grandmother modeled for Walker, who is known as the first self-made female millionaire in the U.S.

Tiny Urban Escapes will co-brand with the complex’s developer. “That particular area is where I grew up,” Staten said. To be able to connect the project to her home city is especially meaningful for her.

The time to launch her business is now.

The community was once a thriving African American enclave. “There’s a rich history in connection not only to the community but when I look at the activism going on the country and this larger call to honestly to see us as Americans, as Black Americans, to see our contributions, acknowledge them and to respect what we have contributed,” she said.

Staten believes her advanced work in starting Tiny Urban Escapes has positioned the startup to do business amid unforeseen shifts in social, economic and political climates that have stoked new ways of thinking and responding in business and in life.

“There’s so much loss that we have experienced,” she said. “Tiny Urban Escapes brings us an opportunity to actually thrive and to create a space where you can find wellness and balance within the urban cities.”

If the coronavirus pandemic has a silver lining, its exclusivity and getaway concept “has allowed Tiny Urban Escapes to be elevated to a place that this may be the future of hospitality,” Staten said.

Navigating the Industry

Staten’s previous career was in financial services at Indianapolis University – Purdue University. She knows how to research, but her biggest hurdle in starting Tiny Urban Escapes was getting developers and investors to take her seriously.

She attributes the struggle to being female and Black.

Other challenges, she said, were figuring out how to learn the business of hospitality. To that end, she got a job as assistant controller for the Sheraton Hotels & Resorts in Indianapolis.

In summer 2918 Staten officially established Tiny Urban Escapes and New York Times magazine picked up on the project and featured it in an article. Staten said she immediately began to hear from family, friends and prospective guests. Soon after, Tiny Urban Escapes got the attention of Architectural Digest and HGTV.

The attention was overwhelming and Staten was forced into on-the-job-training when it came to handling the publicity around her venture. “I was still doing behind-the-scenes research,” she said. “The use of shipping containers was so innovative” but the media attention pushed her into an unfamiliar space, one that she was not fully ready to manage.

But she continued to learn as she developed the concept, attending conferences and connected to hospitality executives who have had decades in the industry. As a 40-year-old African-American businesswoman, Staten said she had to have an innovative product to gain real attention from investors – people who want truly want to contribute to the venture not just listen to her idea over a cup of coffee.

She and her husband bootstrapped the financing of the first project. Her friend Chasity Lofton also invested and became a partner. Another partner is Kriss Hillman, who manages operations.

The goal is to parlay financing into more units and scale Tiny Urban Escapes beyond Indianapolis.

Along with representing Black female entrepreneurs in hospitality, Staten feels a greater responsibility toward developing projects that tell the story of Black history and celebrates Black culture in America and beyond.

“I want to model the contributions that African Americans have made in every area and that have gone unnoticed,” she said. “You can’t walk the streets of America without seeing the impact of Black culture.”

Most of all, Staten said, Black women are woefully underrepresented in the hotel industry, less than one percent of hoteliers hail from that demographic. Staten wants to be the face of her brand as well as represent Black women in the industry. “I want us to be upfront. We have been behind closed doors. Our inspiration, our impact has been there, but the faces of the individuals have been hidden or have failed to be acknowledged.”

Staten believes her advanced work in starting Tiny Urban Escapes has positioned the startup to do business amid unforeseen shifts in social, economic and political climates that have stoked new ways of thinking and responding in business and in life.

SEIZING THE MOMENT: A guest room at The Moor, a boutique hotel in New Orleans, once owned by Damon Lawrence and Marcus Carey, co-founders Homage Hospitality Group. The pair stopped renovating the property when funds dried up, but Lawrence continues with his mission to create a hotel and a lodging company that celebrates Black culture through design and the arts. Listen to Episode 283 of Lodging Leaders podcast as Lawrence and another hotelier, Robin Staten, each share their unique concepts on how Black owners can stand out from the mainstream in the hospitality industry.

Telling Stories

While Tiny Urban Escapes provides safe and solitary getaways during the age of COVID-19, Homage Hospitality Group may finally see its hospitality concepts emerge from America’s reawakening of the impact of racism on our nation’s future.

Lawrence, of Oakland, California co-founded Homage Hospitality Group with the idea of converting existing properties into modern boutique hotels that tell the stories of Black culture through design, art and music.

A graduate of Howard University, Lawrence’s first job post college was as a front desk agent. He met fellow Howard alumnus Marcus Carey and the two hatched the idea for Homage in 2016. Carey left the partnership in February for a venture capital firm in Detroit. A third co-founder, artist Chimene Jackson, continues as Homage’s chief innovation officer, according to the company’s website.

Their first project was The Moor, a four-suite boutique hotel in New Orleans that used African and Moroccan design to appeal to Black travelers.

While Heritage Tourism was gaining a multi-billion-dollar foothold in the hospitality industry, Homage’s idea to create a space especially for Black guests was out-of-the-box thinking at the time.

More recently, however, the concept has become more embraceable as America is forced to reckon with racism and throw away the ingrained thoughts and practices that prohibit freedom of travel.

“In general, the conversation around Homage and why it is important has changed,” Lawrence said. “Years ago, the idea of celebrating the Black experience seemed radical.”

It was strange, he said, that other ethnic groups such as Irish Americans, Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans and Italian Americans could celebrate and share their heritages and cultures through food and other immersive experiences, but African Americans did not get the same support from investors or consumers.

“When I first started Homage it was really because I wanted to create something I didn’t see existing,” he said.

With projects like The Moor, Lawrence wants to appeal to the senses and sensibilities of the younger traveler who values experience and eschews mainstream expectations.

Mainstream is conformity and Lawrence wants to create a stay experience that is one of a kind, one that includes different concepts of space. To that end he has turned to dancers and choreographers to learn how they view and use space. He plans to talk to former prisoners to understand their relationship to space. All in an effort to create a product that invites everyone in.

WATCH:

DISSPELLING A MYTH: The African American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky on July 19 hosted a webcast that featured Black hospitality owners, investors and supporters aimed at identifying barriers to hotel ownership.

Starting Over

These days, Lawrence has been forced to add resiliency to creativity.

Homage Hospitality Group was close to finishing development of The Moor and to close on a deal to acquire a hotel in Oakland, California, when the pandemic cut off access to financing.

Lawrence’s recovery mission includes teaming up with Oak Impact Group, a fund manager in Oakland that supports Black-owned real estate ventures, and creating a council of advisers in hospitality investment, including Bashar Wali, former president of Provenance Hotels, and Tracy Prigmore, founder of TLT Solutions, an investment firm, and She Has a Deal, a program that helps women develop hotels.

The team is attempting to raise $60 million toward hotel development. It’s a new kind of equity fund that will collect enough dry powder to acquire and reposition existing hotels.

Homage also is working to raise $5 million in venture capital that will go toward hiring and marketing.

But it’s the equity fund on which Lawrence has pinned his entrepreneurial hopes as the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent economic downturn divide the chaff from the wheat. He is counting on hotel owners and investors to sell off part of their portfolios over the next few months. Rather than build new, it makes better sense to grab an existing property and invest in a value-add renovation and repositioning. “I want to have the capital ready to get those types of deals,” he said.

Homage’s equity fundraising is just getting started. Its closing deadline is Nov. 1. Lawrence said the goal is ambitious but he feels it needs to be this way to be able to take advantage of emerging investment opportunities.

A perfect storm is approaching, he said.

“We’ve been working at this for five years now. The beauty is if you can look at the bright side is pandemic forces us to stay home, forces us to pay attention and it forces us to think.”

Add to the virus outbreak the economic downturn, joblessness and racial and social unrest. “Everything we’re going through all at the same time has forced us to deal with the problem and these conversations are not going to go away,” he said.

Black entrepreneurs have difficulty attracting financing in the best of times. “My hope is that now the conversation can shift a bit and some of the questions that I had to answer two years ago are now understood, even at the basic level. If there were ever an opportunity, it is the opportunity to take the moment and run with it.”

Lawrence said he struggles with trying to capitalize on the social upheaval over race in America, especially knowing its origin is the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of police.

But Lawrence wants to act now to do something positive for the Black community and the industry as a whole. “The best thing I can do is make something beautiful out of what’s going on. The best thing that could come out of it is a beautiful property that employs people and gives others hope.”

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