Notes and Narratives goes “On the Record” with Hotelier Damon Lawrence

by: Cathy Foreman

In the circles I travel along with the many people and outlets I follow, black culture is all a buzz about two black hoteliers, Damon Lawrence and Marcus Carey, founders of Homage Hospitality Group.  Surprisingly, some people that are closest to me have not heard this news and it leads me to wonder, what rock have they been under? And that is where I come in, to put them in the know and to share this amazing feat.

Now let me make sure you understood what I said, “two black hoteliers”, who also happen to be HBCU graduates. Yes, they both are alumni of the prestigious Howard University. I mean can this get any better? Why yes, it absolutely can. These gentlemen opened their first Hausotel, The Moor, in what just may be the blackest area next to Washington, DC … New Orleans. Talk about making a splash. This is indeed what they have done, and Black America is, at least the ones who know, are 100% here for it and in full support.

First, for your clarification and mine, let’s find out more about this term “hausotel”.  So, I sent Damon a series of questions with a description of this being one.

N&N: “Hausotel”, it looks to be a mashup of two or maybe three words creating this unique description of what Home Hospitality offers, can you tell us more about that?

Damon: YES, Hausotel is a brand I actually created nearly 4 years ago right when AIRBNB started under the belief that people wanted what Airbnb could offer but would appreciate if there was a hotel like standard of service that accompanied it to take out the uncertainty of not knowing what to truly expect. I ended up switching gears and focusing primarily on Homage but now we’re adding the Hausotel model to our brand. The word is a mashup of the German way of saying HOUSE which is Haus and Hotel and pronounced “HOUSE-HOTEL”

I worked in the hospitality industry for a little over three years as a HR Manager, sometimes splitting my time between two properties. Traveling and seeing how other properties functioned made me acutely aware of the industry as a whole, so this story …. this story of Damon and Marcus is curious but yet somewhat familiar to me.

Unlike Damon, while working within the industry, not once did I ever think about creating my own establishment. So this idea made me even more curious and I wanted to know about his “jump”.

N&N: Tell me about the jump… tell the aspiring entrepreneur about what that moment was for you. Was it a straw that broke the camel’s back type of reality or something more of an epiphany? What did that look like for you?

Damon: We were leasing our vehicles to drive for Lyft and as we got closer and closer to our first contract it got harder and harder to muster up the energy to drive. We had started the negotiations and I took a leap of faith and returned my vehicle to Hertz. Mind you we had no money and really no guarantee that we were going to solidify the contract, but I did it anyway. A week later we got our first check and the rest is history. That was last June. The jump was one of faith. Faith in the work that we’ve accomplished so far. Faith that our journey was intended for us and if it weren’t we would’ve been stopped a long time ago. So, the jump was nothing more than a leap (of faith).

I will say that working in that industry made me appreciate the time and hard work each employee puts in during his/her time. I was willing to bet that Damon agreed with me. I was also willing to bet that he’d agree for all the work that goes into maintaining a hotel, the pay for those hard working staff members is incredibly low, which accounts for more than half the turnover rate in the hospitality industry.

N&N: In the Hospitality Industry, the turnover rate is pretty high, especially with line-level staff. From the outside, it appears that you guys are really focused on the ascetic and overall feeling that Homage re/presents, but what are you doing to ensure that you are recruiting staff that are in line with your agenda and ultimately how they represent your brand. Also, what means are you using to ensure their commitment to Homage and all that it stands for.

Damon: We’ve given that plenty of thought especially since I once worked in the industry and I understand the turnover takes away so much from the business (time, energy, resources etc). For us we want dynamic employees that have multiple interests and desires outside of their time with us and we want to nurture and accept that. We want creatives that love to hustle and there is no better example of that than a employee that doesn’t spend all of their time only working with us. If we can assist our team both inside and outside of their employment we will. For example, one of our housekeepers in New Orleans is an amazing visual artist. Soon we’ll be showcasing and selling her art though our property and website. That is how we keep our employees engaged and hopefully whether they work for us or not.

This is what I’m talking about. We just saw where actor, Geoffrey Owens, famous for is role as Elvin on The Cosby Show,  is being shamed for working at Trader Joe’s. As if to say that his need and desire to make a living for himself makes him less of a man because he’s working a job that to many seems  beneath him. Then Tyler Perry enters into the equation offering Geoffrey a job working on one of his series featured on OWN. If people of color, in positions which allow them to reach back and pull up, do simple things such as this, for people who are and want to succeed, imagine the difference we would make. So for Damon and Mark to re-invest in their employees, in such a manner is both outstanding and inspiring.

Now I want to delve a little deeper and show you all how these gentlemen are making it work and what more the world can expect as I go on the record with Mr. Damon Lawrence, Creative Director and Co-Founder Homage Hospitality Group.

The Moor is the first property for Homage Hospitality Group, opened on July 4th and is located in Mid City, New Orleans.

The Moor is the first property for Homage Hospitality Group, opened on July 4th and is located in Mid City, New Orleans.

N&N: How has the reception of The Moor been, particularly in New Orleans? I was looking at your booking calendar … correct me if I am wrong, the weekends seem to be locked through the first week in December. What’s going on with the weekdays and how will you combat that lag time during the week?

Damon: We were taken back by the response that we received the first few days that we launched. We anticipated that we would get 10-20 bookings the first few days however we ended up getting over 150 during that time period. Those bookings pretty much filled our entire calendar of weekends. We focused primarily on direct bookings for our strategically. In doing so our hope is that we can become the premier site for people of color when booking lodging. As we enter the new year along with the opening of our second location we will be opening up rooms on a number of different distribution sites and online travel agencies.

N&N: You and Marcus speak fluently about the cultural tie and experience you are providing with The Moor and soon The Freeman (Treme) and The Town (Oakland). in addition to these locations, I’ve read you are eyeing locations for DC and Detroit as well. What other areas are you focusing on and will they be specific to the black history of the area/s you choose? … for instance, with Detroit being Motor City and known for its Motown roots.

Damon: We are focused on making sure that we select cities that have interesting stories to tell within black culture. But each market we want to dig a bit deeper than the history everyone knows. We are looking to tell stories that leave guests knowing more when they leave than when they came. For example, The Moor in New Orleans tells a story of the multi-cultural nature of NOLA’s heritage and our second property recognizes that New Orleans is home to the first-place freed people of color were able to purchase property. So, when analyzing what cities were going to add to our portfolio we focus on the city first and build out our product second.

N&N: I read that you wanted the first hotel to open in your own backyard of Oakland, what changed? And how do you think the opening in NOLA will benefit the opening in Oakland?

Damon: That’s correct! Actually, over a year ago New Orleans wasn’t even on our radar. However, as things started to slow down as far as development was concerned on our project in Oakland we felt like we needed something small that would allow us to push our brand forward sooner. When we found our properties in New Orleans we felt like that market was a great place to start. Since we were able to get the brand out there and generate buzz we hope that Oakland will be able to benefit from the momentum and brand awareness. Our second property opening in NOLA will only help bolster our case.

N&N: Things never seem to go as we plan … they say, “you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” Can you share what kinks you’ve encountered during your first few weeks of operation and what are the takeaways for the openings of The Freeman and The Town?`

Damon: There were two things that we mistakenly overlooked during our first week. First, we didn’t have fridges in each room and we thought that guests really wouldn’t need them, but we were so wrong. The reality is that food portions in this city are always big, so you can always anticipate having leftovers and guests need a place to store them. We also didn’t have an iron and ironing board in each room. This was an oversight on our part with everything going on during our opening week. We ended up having to rush to Bed Bath and Beyond to get them during the middle of Essence Fest. Needless to say, we will have an extensive punch list for the next properties we open.

N&N: I’m curious, why the two-day minimum requirement; does that have anything to do with the number of rooms at this particular location?

Damon: That really has more to do with our housekeeping staff and the fact that we only have 4 rooms as 1-night reservations would put a serious strain on our small staff.

N&N: Will that be a consistent theme with all your properties?

Damon: Not at all. Our next locations will allow bookings of one night and up.

N&N: Clearly, you’re a self-made man. I saw you tweeted about driving for Lyft about 13 months ago and now you’re taking Lyft from one property you own, to another; that has to be the most surreal thing for your right now. What other jobs did you do to help supplement your grind on your way to getting The Moor up and running.

Damon: I like to consider myself self-directed, self-managed and self-motivated, but definitely far from self-made. There are so many people that helped me get to the place I’m at today. Yes, I’m very vocal about my time driving for Lyft. It was such a special part of the journey for us. That’s really what helped us stay afloat as we worked towards our goals and it was a great supplementary means of income. It kept us close to our industry as driving was a form of hospitality. I learned so much during that experience. One thing of note was how to curate a playlist that was comfortable for me to drive to yet was also enjoyable for all. That was such an important key insight for us as we move forward with programming.

N&N: #ThereIsMoor it’s pretty specific and poignant to what you’re doing in the world of hospitality. #IsThereMoor to the meaning… see what I did there? Or is it as simple as the reference to the hotel?

Damon: For us “#ThereIsMoor” represents what we want our company to represent to the world. There is Moor from us and our properties. There are untold stories and discoveries yet to be made. We are excited for what the future holds for us and the brand and when we think of #ThereIsMoor it’s a reminder of our first property as well as the unlimited potential that we possess. Each day we aim to get better at what we do. I cannot wait to show the world exactly what we’ve been working on the last few months as there are plenty of changes were making to our company as we grow in different markets. Stay tuned because #ThereIsMoor to come from Homage.

I’m excited to see what the future holds for these gentleman and will be watching and rooting for them. For sure, on my next trip to New Orleans, I will be booking my stay at one of their properties. Kudos, good luck and God Bless!

To find out more follow them on IG at @STAYHOMAGE