An exemplary corporate social responsibility program distinguishes Toronto’s hospitality community.
Earlier this year, I enjoyed a comfortable and relaxing stay at the InterContinental Toronto Centre as part of a Tourism Toronto-sponsored familiarization tour for some 25 association meeting planners and media. Upon entering my suite, the first good discovery was the breathtaking view of the adjacent CN Tower. The second was the inspiring, heart-warming note on the desk, saying that in lieu of a welcome gift, $100 was being donated on behalf of each FAM participant to Tourism Toronto’s “Relax, Recharge, Renew” (RRR) program.
As we would learn at a breakfast presentation the following morning, the award-winning program, launched in August 2008, provides area parents of special needs and medically fragile children with all-expenses paid local weekend getaways. In most cases, the children require round-the-clock care; the stories of devoted parents enduring endless sleepless nights and years without a holiday break were moving in the extreme.
“Relax, Recharge, Renew” is confidently, lovingly up to the task, though. With well over 200 local tourism partners participating, including most of Toronto’s hotel community, each weekend sees two families treated to Toronto’s top hotels, restaurants, theatre shows, sporting events and major attractions. The tailored two-night, three-day package includes limo service to and from home; the children are cared for in a high-quality, provincially funded respite care facility.
Along with sustainability and student scholarships, helping families in need is a pillar of Tourism Toronto’s commitment to contributing to the social, environmental and business welfare of the Toronto community. “Most programs help the children, for whom you can never do enough, but here we saw an opportunity to help the parents,” says Andrew Weir, vice president of communications for the association of some 1,200 Toronto-area hospitality and tourism members. “It had to be more meaningful than simply writing a check, though,” he continues. “The answer was to leverage all the assets of our local industry.”
Careful steps were required to get the program started. “For RRR to work, we knew that we needed widespread support from our partners,” explains Weir. “A small cadre would not have been effective—this needed to be a symbolic rallying point for the entire Toronto hospitality community.” Part of the strategy was not “cannibalizing” family help initiatives already in place at many of Toronto’s hotels. “We were sensitive to walking in and taking over,” Weir continues. “It was a matter of putting our stamp on a distinct new program.”
For Tourism Toronto’s part, RRR is a budgeted line item supported by significant staff time; securing partner support was never an issue.
“When Tourism Toronto reached out to us about their RRR Program, we didn’t hesitate to say yes,” says Mark Ive, general manager of the Renaissance Toronto. “Being a Marriott brand and having Marriott’s “Spirit to Serve” culture deeply ingrained in our DNA, we are proud and delighted to help those local families looking for a respite from the situational stress they are under.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Yola Marshall, director of sales & marketing for the InterContinental Toronto Centre. “Hitting home on a personal level with friends who have experienced the huge pressure of caring for special needs children, RRR was a quick draw for us,” Marshall says. “There’s also the bigger picture of a unifying CSR program that the entire local hotel industry could support as a common cause.”
The number and diversity of Toronto-area RRR participants is truly impressive, from hotels and restaurants to retailers, transportation companies, spas and museums. “Even partners that cannot provide a direct service, like audio-visual companies and meeting planners, have helped the program,” Weir says.
Among RRR’s biggest supporters is the Delta Chelsea Hotel. “We were introduced to the program at its outset, and immediately confirmed our participation,” says Tracy Ford, the hotel’s public relations director. “RRR parallels our Chelsea CARES program, which provides free guestrooms to qualified families visiting hospitalized loved ones at Mount Sinai, Hospital for Sick Children and University Health Network hospitals, all located within two blocks of the hotel.”
Sharing Toronto Tourism’s CSR ethos (really, the spirit of the city’s entire tourism family), the Delta has organized an annual charity golf tournament over the past decade that has raised over $600,000 for Special Olympics (2002-2007) and Habitat for Humanity (2008-2012). “It is very important to us to show our appreciation and give back to our community,” Ford says. “The RRR program provides us with another opportunity to do so, and we hope to welcome more families throughout this year.”
The strain on participating families is profoundly affecting. “Although we love our son more than anything in the world, we were so exhausted by having to constantly be on the lookout to ensure his safety and monitor his behavior,” wrote one set of parents.
“There is an old saying that ‘a change is as good as a rest,’ and for those RRR guests staying with us, I like to think the change of surroundings and the associated rest gives them the strength to return to their stressful situation,” says Ive.
In this regard, the program continues to prove vitally beneficial. Consider this testimonial from another pair of parents after their RRR break: “Wow, what a fantastic weekend! We didn’t think that we would have so much fun and be pampered like we did. We are very appreciative of the fact that Tourism Toronto and Respite Services truly understand the needs of parents who have a special needs child. It is often the parents who sacrifice for their special needs child at their own expense. It is really nice to know that others understand our daily challenges and realize we need a break once a while to recharge and re-focus.”
Recognized by Destination Marketing Association International, IMEX and other industry bodies, RRR, while drawing outside inquiries and interest, remains localized in the Toronto area. “It is part of reinforcing our commitment to the community,” says Weir. “If our efforts inspire others in their own communities, we would consider that one more achievement and an even greater source of pride.”
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