Ranked the number-one Granada hotel on the influential webpage TripAdvisor, Hotel con Corazon is a business that goes beyond good customer service.
The first hint is its name, a Hotel with Heart. But the half-hearts that adorn the staff ’s red shirts and logo are more than just a smart advertising gimmick.
Indeed, dotted throughout the hotel’s reception area, the giant courtyard and in each of the 16 rooms are small mentions of the hotel’s mission: To invest in a sustainable future for Nicaragua through employment and education.
The enthusiastic manager, Freek Sanders, from the Netherlands, says “Certainly, people come here because of the story.”
And the story is unique. Unlike most hotels, Hotel con Corazon’s profits don’t disappear into the bank accounts of the owner.
Whatever profits the hotel makes each month after paying the bills and staff and buying locally produced supplies, goes directly toward education projects in the surrounding community.
Since January, the hotel, which averages a 45 percent occupancy rate, has made about $2,500 a month in profits – all of which is earmarked for community projects, Sanders says.
But Hotel con Corazon is also careful not to just throw money at community projects without any controls, planning or evaluation of success.
“We are business people – we like to see the facts (before investing),” Sanders says. “We have to understand what is working and what is not working.”
Sanders stresses that his business model is intended to be sustainable in the longterm.
Before giving money to any community education projects, the hotel spends months researching, interviewing parents and teachers, working with the Ministry of Education and analyzing information to create a master plan.
In Nicaragua, only 29 percent of children finish primary school, and it takes an average child 10.3 years to complete those six years of primary study. Hotel con Corazon wants to increase the number of children who finish primary school, help them do so faster and stimulate students to continue with their education.
The foundation has set five and 10-year goal markers. For 2009, the objective is to sponsor 300 children so they can go to school and finish their education.
With the preliminary details taken care of, the foundation moved to its next phase – a pilot project to identify how to help the children. This included hiring seven local tutors, all of whom had to pass various tests to prove they are qualified.
On a warm Thursday morning in July, seven people, including Sanders, set out to San Pablo school, 10 kilometers outside Granada. The team, including Dutch volunteer Marijke van Roij, is looking forward to seeing the results of an assortment of tests and questions to assess the children’s reading levels.
In all, the team is visiting four schools. The tutors will start working with the students in August and repeat the same tests in three months to measure progress.
Equipped with a weigh scale, height chart and stopwatches, the aim is to spend the morning with first, second and thirdgraders with a focus on teaching reading skills.
The school is a set of drab and crumbling buildings in a grassy area without a playground.
The wooden door to one classroom remains kicked in from a previous theft. Even the fence to the schoolyard was stolen, the teacher says.
“They have a room, chairs and teachers. That’s it,” Sander says.
Testing the Students
After an introduction to the kids with a “How are you?” and a collective “Bien” from the students, the team sets up.
Arelis, a six-year-old girl, is the first of the youngest group of children to be called by her teacher to take the hand of a tutor and walk over to the exercises. She’s visibly nervous and having a hard time answering. So the tutor tells her to answer with a nod for questions such as, “Do you have breakfast before you go to school?”
The team quickly adapts to other challenges.
During the vision test, one little boy answers “A” for every single letter. It takes quick thinking by a tutor to ask him to draw each letter in the air with his finger – which he does, indicating perfect vision.
The brief morning session gives the tutors better insight into the children’s needs. Some lack toothbrushes, while others have no books to read.
The team’s enthusiasm is tempered by knowledge of the hard work they have ahead of them.
Alfredo Urbina, a tutor and hotel staff member, says, “We cannot complete the goal if we do not work hard.”
He said the hotel staff understands that by working at Hotel con Corazon they are helping the local community.
More Than Heart
A short walk from Granada’s Central Park, the hotel’s plain white façade transforms into a large airy courtyard, where guests can enjoy their large included breakfast, relax in the hammocks, play with the child-size chess pieces, or admire the photographs on the walls taken by children in the community.
Equipped with a pool, bar, WiFi and airconditioning within the simple, modern rooms, the hotel also offers Spanish lessons, has an in-house travel agent, hosts weekly salsa dance nights and offers a free space for volunteer organizations to hold events.
One former guest, Delores Bushong, said, “I really liked the idea that I was supporting a business that was helping Nicaraguans.”
At a rate of $48 a night for a single room, and $60 for a double, she called the hotel “even better than I expected for the great price.”
Less than a year old, Hotel con Corazon was the brainchild of Marcel Zuidhof and Onno Oostveen, two Dutch businessmen. Sanders, their friend, recalls that the initial idea began several years ago when they “had the idea to do something good for the world.”
Drawing on an example of a hotel in Peru that fed poor children, they re-applied the model to instead focus on education, and looked towards Nicaragua for its emerging tourism industry and poor education system.
“This country has so much to offer – why is it so poor?” Sanders says.
But by consulting with parents and teachers, and doing their research, he and his team hope to find real solutions to help Nicaraguan children.
While Hotel con Corazon may be best known for its big heart, to be successful in the long run it’s using its ears and brain, too. For more info, www.hotelconcorazon.com <http://www.hotelconcorazon.com>