Lodging industry leader, Marin entrepreneur launch $1-a-night donation program

[caption id="attachment_10822" align="alignleft" width="151" caption="Jim Abrams"][/caption]

SAN ANSELMO - Recently retired California Hotel & Lodging Association Chief Executive Jim Abrams and San Anselmo entrepreneur Dave Levenson this month officially launched the Hotels that Help program, a program that raises funds for local nonprofits by adding a dollar onto the room rates of participating hotels.

The Marin-based foundation, already giving away $20,000 a month, just completed a two-year pilot project this summer and hopes to raise more than $10 million by asking hotel visitors to donate a buck a day.

"The biggest initial obstacle was getting hotels to buy in, but what they find is they are getting real public relations value and guest value, and also a good way for employees to get involved," said Mr. Abrams, who is serving as president of the program.

"Hospitality is known for having a high employee turnover, but this gives them something to believe in their employer."

The organization founded by Mr. Levenson took two years to refine the best model for the program and create a self-service Web site to ease enrollment. So far, about 25 Bay Area hotels have committed to contributing.

"When someone like Jim Abrams, a mentor to the hospitality industry for 15 years, comes and says he wants you to look into something, you pay attention," said Inn Marin owner Robert Marshall. He is looking to officially start the program at his hotel July 1 and will send donations to the Marin Community Food Bank.

Mr. Levenson, once a Realtor and property developer, imagined the beginnings of the project while working on a shopping center in Hawaii. The only other commercial buildings in close vicinity were a homeless shelter and a hotel, and he decided to see if he could partner with the resort to help their mutual neighbor.

Although the effort ultimately failed, it inspired him to find a functional model. Eventually, he enlisted successful San Francisco hotelier Chip Conley to test the preliminary program with his company, Joie de Vivre Hospitality.

The $1 donation, or more if the guest chooses, is automatically added to rates, and visitors can opt out if they don't want to participate. So far, hotels have reported about 70 percent to 80 percent of their guests agree to the fee.

The charge is clearly printed on receipts and can be advertised through different methods offered by Hotels that Help and customized for the hotel. The program is zero cost to the business, though it is asked to make an optional $100 donation to the program per year to pay for informational door hangers and other marketing materials. The group can also provide on-site training or host Q&As about the program at hotels.

Hotels that Help does not collect any of the guests' donations. The revenue is passed directly on to the nonprofit chosen by hotel's leadership. Participants are asked to choose a community nonprofit that helps families, children, the sick or homeless, but they can pick any organization.

Mr. Abrams said the group wants to enroll at least 1,000 California hotels between now and next June and generate about $10 million in donations. In 2011, the program will go national with the ultimate goal of giving $1 million a day.

Hoteliers can sign up through the organization's Web site located at www.hotelsthathelp.org.

The nonprofit is a program of the Kohala Foundation, which is also operated and funded by Mr. Levenson and based out of San Anselmo. Koala functions as a sort of incubator for emerging nonprofits.

For more information, visit www.kohalafoundation.org.