One of the most important factors of the hospitality industry is the experience. When travelers plan a trip to a new destination, they want to escape their normal lives. Patrons are demanding to get their money’s worth and refuse to settle for anything less.
In Baltimore, there are two Black men who are redefining the standards of the hospitality industry: Donte P. Johnson and Jason Bass. They are the Black hoteliers behind Hotel Revival.
Hotel Revival is a boutique hotel in the historical Mount Vernon neighborhood in Baltimore. Known for its modern decor within the building’s 100-year-old architecture, Hotel Revival has built a name for itself. The hoteliers have found a way to integrate the city’s social scene. They have done this through outreach and events curated by Black creatives. Local socialites enjoy the hotel’s atmosphere because of its rooftop restaurant, speakeasy-style bar and private rooms.
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Johnson, the general manager, and Bass, the director of culture and impact, have developed a new format in Baltimore’s hospitality scene. The hoteliers give the city’s creatives a chance to showcase their talents. By providing local creatives a home to shine, Hotel Revival continues to grow and evolve. Johnson and Bass have made the hotel a resort for the city’s arts and culture scene.
The hospitality duo recently spoke with Travel Noire about the hospitality industry, Hotel Revival, Black culture’s impact on the travel industry and more.
Travel Noire: Can you tell Travel Noire readers how much the hotel has changed since you started in your position?
Donte Johnson: [Almost] everything except the physical building is different in some way. We’re here to make lives better in Baltimore and beyond. One of the first things we did was create a position: [the] Director of Culture and Impact. [Bass is] specifically tasked with connecting the hotel to the culture of the city and to lead our efforts to create access and drive positive impact into the community.
[Hotel] Revival is uniquely positioned to challenge many long-held industry norms, such as uniform programming and grooming standards. Both of which we’ve blown up, since I arrived at the hotel.
Jason Bass: The building was beautifully designed and furnished on day one, and those elements exist today.
People tend to believe that beautiful décor is all it takes to get people in the door. Some people may come to see and experience it, but most won’t return or share their experiences because [there was] no real connection made. We’ve built an inclusive and impactful culture that hasn’t been seen in other hotels. We are proving every day that there is a return on investment and a return on impact.
TN: Speaking of the new title, can you give Travel Noire readers some insight on how you acquired it?
JB: It all started with an introductory email.
I reached out to the [General Manager] at the time and asked if she would introduce me to her replacement. The purpose of my email was to continue the relationship [that] I had with the hotel. Donte took his time to vet me and learn about my previous projects to form his own opinion. After he was convinced, I would make a good local partner to work with for programming needs, we started planning. We hosted an event or two, [and] it grew into an offer for me to help with programming as a consultant starting January 2020.
Planning started in January, and February was the first month of successful, culturally relevant, impactful and community-supporting activities in all areas of the hotel. March was scheduled to be as rich with events; however, COVID had other plans.
We quickly pivoted into a community hub that provided fresh produce, hot meals and personal supplies to people that needed it. After about three months of weekly community efforts, Donte proposed the idea of becoming a full-time employee and the first Director of Culture and Impact for Hyatt. It was a dream role consisting of everything I felt passionate about, and I was grateful to get a job during a pandemic.
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TN: You’ve earned the title of “expert on diversity” in the hospitality industry. Could you describe the moment you experienced hotel brands begin to care about the Black dollar?
DJ: The shock to the system that resulted from the impact of George Floyd and COVID shifted the way the industry engages with the Black community. These two devastating events have cleared the way for the community to be seen and valued in a profound way.
TN: Have you seen other hotels inspired by some of the experiences that Hotel Revival provides?
JB: Absolutely, but the change is slow.
I see attempts in the form of programming. In many cases, their attempts feel empty or inauthentic to their brand. Consistency would help to build trust and develop a culture at these inspired hotels, but that would take a commitment to a set of ideas that [is not] based on a hotel or corporate traditions.
I can share the recipe, but the meal won’t taste the same. I hope that sharing our efforts and being open-sourced will save them time and cause more people to dedicate resources to impact hospitality.
TN: I love how the hotel’s toiletries and products are from local or Black-owned businesses. Was this an initiative you purposely took or did it evolve into incorporating homegrown brands?
DJ: It’s intentional.
Our community impact strategy is oriented toward supporting Baltimore youth and local entrepreneurship. We’ve all heard the [statistics] around [venture capital] funding disparities. When we look at the businesses locally and beyond that would benefit most from our support, it’s women and people of color. Products are featured in the Corner Store Gift Shop in the lobby and throughout the property.
TN: What is the biggest contribution Black culture has made to the Travel industry?
DJ: Much of our culture has been woven into what happens at hotels and restaurants daily. It becomes increasingly difficult for the untrained eye to identify origins.
I love seeing less gatekeeping and more holistic acceptance of the culture in its most authentic form. As customers become less tolerant of the “a la carte” selection, we see whole versions of Black cuisine, music, fashion and art prominently displayed in formerly “sacred” spaces in the industry. I’m here for it, and I will continue to push to create access wherever I can.
JB: [The Black community has] contributed greatly. Our community of mavericks are taking the risk [and] traveling to places our parents may have never been able to visit. [We are] being bold enough to experience new and challenging moments.
The industry is having to make changes for the Black traveler. Our voice on social media, and our dollars are having an impact. So far, we are doing a great job in roles of leadership and providing strong representation. [We are] making space for individual identities and creating a sense of welcomeness that previously did not exist. Black travel is the future and still has a long way to go before it’s fully understood or embraced.
This article has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.