Hotel Etico, Mount Victoria, NSW: Australia's first 'social enterprise' hotel assists young adults with learning disabilities

Hotel Etico's 19-year-old bar assistant Quinn can barely contain his excitement. The following week, he tells us as he clears our table, he will be gaining his RSA certification: "Then I can pour wine, make cocktails, the whole didgeridoo!" Quinn's enthusiasm for his job is not only refreshing, but also heart-warming – for this young man is being given an opportunity he had never imagined.

Located in a historic mansion in the misty hamlet of Mount Victoria in NSW's Blue Mountains, Hotel Etico is Australia's first "social enterprise" hotel, providing vocational training and independent living skills for young adults like Quinn with learning disabilities, helping them to transition to open employment and fulfill their dreams of independence.

Opening its doors in November 2020 at the former Mount Victoria Manor, Hotel Etico's six inaugural trainees came onboard in February 2021, with the on-the-job training program – albeit chequered by COVID-related lockdowns - covering all aspects of hospitality including kitchen work, reception, housekeeping and bartending.

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

Serendipitously, the availability for lease of the newly-renovated Mount Victoria Manor – a sprawling mountain retreat built by John Fairfax in 1876 – coincided with philanthropic support of the Hotel Etico concept by the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation, with further funding provided by NDIS revenue and other grants to cover the first three years of operation.

At the heart of the program are the trainees, who are front and centre of the hotel operation. From check-in to breakfast service, they are the friendly public face of the hotel, keen for a chat with guests and happy to explain their involvement in the program.

"The traditional way of employing people with disabilities has been in sheltered workshops, back of the warehouse packing things," Project Etico Australia director Andrea Comastri says. "The way of knocking down barriers is to expose people to that 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 way to dignity and a way to independence."

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

"Working at Hotel Etico means everything to me because it is special to connect with people and learn from each other," says 26-year-old trainee Katrina. "The skills I have learned have made a huge difference to me. I have learnt to work in a team, and found some very special friends. It has really boosted my confidence.

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"Hotel Etico has really inspired me to open doors to possibilities that I haven't noticed before and to job options in the future."

Meanwhile, guests at Hotel Etico cannot help but be touched by the enthusiasm and positivity of the trainees, while the nurturing environment is equally impressive.

"The response from the guests is fantastic - they love it," Comastri says. "Mostly it's anecdotal comments, you hear them on social media or hear them here talking, and there's a switch. By the time the guests leave, they realise you can talk and interact with a person with an intellectual disability the same as anyone else."

THE DETAILS

STAY

Rooms from $219 a night including a full breakfast. Dinner is also available at Niccolo's Restaurant (open to the public), while the bar features live music on selected Friday nights. See hoteletico.com.au

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

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