Australia’s first ‘social enterprise’ hotel helps young adults with learning disabilities

Quinn, the bar assistant at the 19-year-old Hotel Etico, can barely contain his excitement. The following week, he tells us while clearing our table, he will obtain his RSA certification: “So I can pour wine, make cocktails, all the didgeridoo!” Quinn’s enthusiasm for his job is not only refreshing, but also heartwarming – as this young man is presented with an opportunity he never imagined.

Set in a historic mansion in the misty hamlet of Mount Victoria in NSW’s Blue Mountains, Etico Hotel is Australia’s first ‘social enterprise‘ hotel, offering vocational training and independent living skills to young adults like Quinn with learning disabilities, helping them make the transition to opening a job and achieving their dream of independence.

Opening in November 2020 in the former Mount Victoria mansion, Hotel Etico’s first six interns arrived on board in February 2021, with the on-the-job training program – albeit thwarted by related lockdowns to COVID – covering all aspects of hospitality including kitchen work, reception, housekeeping and bartending.

The program is based on an Italian model, established in the Piedmont region in 2006 with the aim of helping Niccolo Vallese – a young man with Down syndrome – achieve his dream of working in a hotel. The Albergo Etico franchise has since been replicated in several other Italian cities, as well as Albania and Argentina, with this Blue Mountains property being the first of its kind in Australia.

Coincidentally, the availability for rental of the newly renovated Mount Victoria mansion – a sprawling mountain retreat built by John Fairfax in 1876 – coincided with the philanthropic support of the Hotel Etico concept by the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation, with additional funding provided by NDIS revenues and other grants to cover the first three years of operation.

At the heart of the program are the interns, who are central to the operation of the hotel. From check-in to serving breakfast, they are the friendly public face of the hotel, eager to chat with guests and happy to explain their involvement in the program.

“The traditional way of employing people with disabilities was in sheltered workshops, at the back of the warehouse, to pack things up,” says Andrea Comastri, director of Project Etico Australia. “The way to break down barriers is to expose people to this reality. We all have challenges, some more than others – it’s just a matter of supporting people. And we strongly believe that work is a path to dignity and a path to independence.”

Learning to live independently is also a key part of the one-year internship. For some of the interns – aged 19 to 31 – it’s not just their first job, but the first time living away from their parents, with supported accommodation provided during their three-day working week at the Independence Academy on site. Here, interns learn to live in a shared space, cook and feed themselves, and learn useful skills such as ordering groceries online; while the camaraderie and friendships they gain are also invaluable.

“Working at Hotel Etico means everything to me because it’s special to connect with people and learn from each other,” says Katrina, a 26-year-old intern. “The skills I learned made a huge difference for me. I learned to work in a team and found some very special friends. It really boosted my confidence.

“Hotel Etico has really inspired me to open doors to possibilities I hadn’t noticed before and job opportunities in the future.”

Meanwhile, Etico Hotel guests can’t help but be moved by the enthusiasm and positivity of the interns, while the nurturing environment is equally impressive.

“Guest response is fantastic – they love it,” says Comastri. “It’s mostly anecdotal comments, you hear them on social media or hear them here talking, and there’s a shift. By the time guests leave, they realize you can talk and interact with someone with an intellectual disability like anyone else.”

THE DETAILS

TO STAY

Rooms starting at $219 per night including a full breakfast. Dinner is also available at Niccolo’s restaurant (open to the public), while the bar has live music on select Friday nights. See hoteletico.com.au

Julie Miller was a guest at the Etico Hotel. Chef Antonio’s Recipes for Revolution, a film about the original Etico Hotel, is screening in NSW and Victoria. See antidotefilms.com.au

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