Island resident pitches hotel give-back program


Dave Levenson saw a way years ago to raise money for island charities — without burdening residents to donate more.

He pitched the idea — an opt-out $1 per night donation, given to the charity of a hotel’s choice — to some West Hawaii resorts. No one was interested, said Levenson, who lives on Hawaii Island and in California.

These days, Hawaii Island’s hotels focus their charitable efforts on one big event, the Hawaii Hotel and Lodging Association’s Charity Walk, Levenson said.

“That’s hotel staff on their days off, going to work on behalf of the hotel’s management,” he said.

Employees get sponsors and the hotels get credit, he added. According to information he obtained from the Hawaii Island United Way, that group got $38,000 from the charity walk last year, and of that, only $3,800 was directly donated by the hotels.

The Hawaii Hotel and Lodging Association said Hawaii Island raised $194,000 in 2012 and $161,000 in 2011 during that event.

Eventually, Levenson met a hotel owner in California who allowed him to start a Hotels that Help pilot program at the Joie de Vivre hotels.

Today, Hotels that Help has more than 20 hotels participating, and in six years, the program has raised more than $1.5 million for California charities. Levenson said if all of Hawaii Island’s hotels were to participate, they could generate $3 million to $5 million annually. To put that number in perspective, he said, Hawaii Island United Way’s annual budget is $1.5 million.

He said recent attempts to get Hawaii Island hotels to try a year-long pilot program have again been fruitless. But Levenson saw an opportunity to try, one more time, to get a few hotels on board when he learned the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel was now part of the Preferred Resorts brand. That brand had endorsed a similar program, The Good Night Foundation, for its partner properties and was already doing that program, which collects $3 a night, at two mainland hotels. The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows is also part of the Preferred group. Messages left with both hotels’ managers were not immediately returned Monday.

“There’s really only one issue,” Levenson said, explaining why chain-branded hotels are typically hesitant to participate in a donation program, “getting the brand approval.”

Hotels owners typically get a franchise to use a nationally or internationally known brand — Hilton, Marriott, Sheraton, for example — and the hotel managers want brand approval for adding any kind of program. Hotel brands don’t want to tell their franchises to take on a task without knowing it’s going to make money, Levenson said.

In his experiences in California, guests respond extremely favorably to the program, though, he said, and the program can help with staff retention. That, in turn, saves the hotel on staff training costs, he added. Keeping in touch with guests after they stay and donate can have long-term benefits for the hotel, too, he said.

“You’re building a bond of trust with the guest when they leave your property,” Levenson said. “They’re trusting you with their donated dollar. You send a follow-up email with what you did with your donated dollar.”

Rod Crisp, communications chairman for Kona Mauka Rotary Club, said Hawaii Island’s hotels are typically very generous about giving rooms for silent auctions, but don’t generally provide monetary donations for service organizations or charities.

“We’ve tried to get them to sponsor things,” Crisp said. “It’s difficult. But hotel stays are as good as cash” because people will always bid on those.

He said he hadn’t heard of Hotels that Help prior to Monday, but said he could see how it could benefit both charities and resorts that got involved.

“If their employees got to pick (the supported charity), it could be a significant motivator to their staff,” Crisp said.

More information about the program is available at hotelsthathelp.org. Levenson said people interested in starting a pilot program can email him at dave@hotelsthathelp.org.