The trend-setting Vienna hotel run by refugees turns one

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A chic hotel just minutes from Vienna’s Prater fairground has become the surprise location for an innovative work programme for refugees. magdas HOTEL was opened in the Austrian capital last February by the Catholic charity Caritas, which wanted to train refugees in hospitality and customer services so they would have a better chance at entering the job market.

As magdas celebrates its one-year anniversary on 13 February, the 88-room hotel currently employs 30 staff, two-thirds of which have an asylum background. The other third are experts from the hotel and hospitality industry; all staff speak more than 20 languages between them.

Hotel manager Gerhard Zwettler tells Equal Times that, as a social business, the hotel’s main aim is to support refugees but, initially financed through crowdfunding and a €1.5 million (US$1.6 million) loan from Caritas, it receives no donations and also needs to be self-sustainable.

“It’s a business but maximising profit is not the main idea,” he says. “The idea is to help refugees into work. Finding the right balance between the two, that’s a challenge.”

Asylum seekers are not allowed to work in Austria so the staff at magdas are people who have already received refugee status. Many of them have been in Austria for years, even decades, waiting for a decision on their asylum application and in some cases working illegally.

When they finally do get a work permit, a lack of experience, low self-esteem, or the reluctance of some employers, means it can still be difficult for them to find employment.

This is where magdas – which comes from the German “Ich mag das”, meaning “I like it” – steps in. “We want to train them, to bring them a level where they can accelerate into work,” explains Zwettler. Although staff get industry standard wages, “a couple of people have already found ‘better’ jobs. That’s what it is about really, to get them into the job market.”

Nicholas Isikhueme, 37 and originally from Nigeria, began working at the hotel in July. Having lived in Austria for 13 years, he was helped to register with the police by magdas staff and then started working at the hotel bar after receiving a work permit last year.

“Most of us – the refugees – started without experience. We get trained here, how to make coffee, how to treat guests and approach them, how to explain things to them,” he tells Equal Times, adding with a laugh: “The bosses are very patient.”

He explains that some people have already left to work elsewhere. “One person has got a job in another hotel. With the skills he learnt here, he will do well,” he says. “I want to stay but it depends what the boss says. I would feel sad if I left but I would have the confidence that magdas has built for me.”

Integration is key

Integration between locals and staff is also a fundamental part of the philosophy behind the project. As well as its 88 rooms, restaurant, library and bar, the hotel puts on regular cultural and music events and collaborates with local kindergartens and universities, including offering a room to a student studying at the nearby University of Applied Arts.

“We want to establish a place for people to come together,” explains Zwettler.

To help improve the refugees’ chances of finding work elsewhere, magdas also organises IT and German language classes. Last month some of the staff spent three days working in restaurants in Vienna’s tourist district so they could receive feedback from the type of people who might hire them in the future.

“It was so nice,” says Isikhueme, who took part in the programme. “I got good feedback.”

Although the hotel is widely celebrated for its work helping refugees into employment, marketing manager Sarah Barci explains that around 50 per cent of its guests are unfamiliar with the magdas concept as they book through hotel comparison websites.

“This is great because it proves the hotel is a nice place to be,” she says, as she presents some of their kitsch, mismatched rooms decorated with up-cycled furniture from the building’s previous life as a nursing home.

Combined with work from local art students, the end result is a trendy boutique hotel with only the staff portraits hanging in the reception to suggest there is something different going on.

Seeing an average occupancy last year of 60 per cent, reaching 80 per cent at the end of the year, Barci is cautiously optimistic about the hotel’s future. “It is good considering that we did not have the budget to do much marketing,” she says. But she adds: “It is not enough. It will need to continue increasing this year.”

Proving that the concept works in the next few years is critical, as the magdas HOTEL project is only due to run for five years. Zwettler says in that time they want to encourage other hotels to try similar things.

“We would like to promote the hotel as ’open source’,” he explains. “We have a great team showcasing the project and looking at how it would work elsewhere. We want to show other hotels that they can give refugees the opportunity to integrate as well.”