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This innovative hotel is championing inclusive employment

12:25pm December 01 2023

Etico, located in Mount Victoria in the Blue Mountains, is Australia’s first social enterprise hotel. (Josh Wall)

Hotel Etico may look like any other boutique establishment, but its inclusive approach to employment makes it a pioneer in Australia’s tourism industry. 

Etico, located in Mount Victoria in the Blue Mountains, is Australia’s first social enterprise hotel. It employs people with disability and trains them in hospitality with a live-in program that also helps them to develop valuable life skills. 

“We strongly believe that work is the key to independence and to a society that is not just more productive, but inclusive, happier, and more progressive,” says Andrea Comastri, co-founder and CEO of the hotel, which offers 15 rooms in a beautifully renovated 19th century manor house.    

Comastri was recently awarded a Westpac Social Change Fellowship in recognition of his work at Hotel Etico. He will receive a $50,000 Fellowship from the Westpac Scholars Trust to help develop his leadership skills and position the operation for its next phase of growth. 

Juliet Liddy, a trainee at the hotel, admits it was challenging at first being away from home and getting used to working with different people, but says her confidence grew quickly as she gained experience.  

“They’re in charge of their own life here,” says Saraya O’Connell, the hotel’s general manager. “They learn to cook for themselves, they learn to live with others.”

The concept for Hotel Etico traces its origins back to Italy, where in 2006 a young man with Downs Syndrome called Niccolò Vallese started an internship at his local ristorante. Niccolò’s ability and enthusiasm so impressed the owners that they established a permanent program of internships for people with an intellectual disability. 

The program was developed over the years leading to the establishment of the Associazione Albergo Etico Onlus (Hotel Etico Not-for-Profit Association) in 2015. Its mission is to break down the barriers preventing people with disabilities from achieving their full potential. 

Comastri and his business partners brought the Etico concept to Australia in 2017, and have gone from strength to strength since the hotel first opened its doors in November 2020. In 2022, the hotel’s work was recognised with an award for innovation in employment programs at the Australian Disability Service Awards. Its first cohort of trainees have gone on to work at top hotels across Sydney, as well as Etico itself.  

At a time when the hospitality industry is struggling to attract and retain staff, it makes sense to adopt a more inclusive approach, says Ben Gauntlet, former disability discrimination commissioner with the Australian Human Rights Commission.  

“Employing people with disability throughout organisations in Australia is a natural untapped resource that we all should be taking advantage of,” Gauntlet says.  

Westpac has been a backer of the hotel from the beginning, offering grants as well as other non-financial means of support.  

“Hotel Etico participates in our Board Observer program and the Community Ambassador program and that’s where they have access to Westpac employees that come and bring their skills,” says Amy Lyden, CEO of Westpac Foundation.

“It’s a great social leadership development opportunity for our employees and also a great opportunity for Hotel Etico.” 

The hotel “aligns perfectly” with the Foundation’s goal to help social enterprises create 10,000 jobs by 2030, Lyden adds. 

“It’s wonderful to see Westpac engaging with Etico to create social impact that’s not just good for the individuals involved, but good for the local community and the wider community,” says Gauntlet.  

Josh Wall is the Head of Video at Westpac Wire. Prior to joining the team, he spent 10 years as a video journalist and documentary filmmaker, most recently as Head of Video for the Guardian Australia. He also worked across numerous News Corp mastheads in Sydney as a presenter, producer, writer and video journalist. Josh is originally from Perth, Western Australia where he began his career by co-creating a video magazine that focused on music and the arts.

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