Damon Lawrence knew he wanted to be a hotelier as soon as he fell into the industry in college. He also felt a passion to create a new narrative. With a vision and knowledge of operations under his belt, he created a hotel brand for and by African Americans in urban locations: Homage Hospitality. We talked with Damon about the story behind the brand, how a property pays homage to the history and culture of a city and which markets are on the map for development.
Come see Damon Lawrence speak at the 2019 INDIE Congress on October 17th!
How did you get introduced into the hospitality industry?
I fell into hospitality. I was searching for a new job after working at a gym during college. Honestly, I sent my resume to any job offer that looked more appealing than where I was. The first interview I ended up getting was at the Donovan House in DC which was a Thompson property at the time. I was hired and started with the opening team. I remember even during the interview I had to put on a hard-hat to get to the HR office. It was such an amazing experience to be involved in a hotel opening. I was able to witness the process as it all came together which was really transformative for my career. I remember doing more and more research on the industry during my down time. I use to go to a website that was around at the time called HotelChatter just to see what was happening in the space. From that time forward I was hooked.
Who are some of your biggest role models in the industry?
I’m such a student of the industry. I’ve always looked up to and admired Barry Sternlicht, Jason Pomeranc, Ian Schrager and Chip Conley. They all brought a new and fresh perspective into the space and continue to innovate, reinvent themselves and create amazing products. I hope to be in this industry a very long time. I have so many ideas that I want to iterate on. The landscape is soon to change as more diversity enters the market. I think some of my largest role models are quietly building their brand right now. The future looks bright.
What’s the story behind Homage? How did you and Marcus link up?
I knew from my experience at Donovan House that I wanted to start my own hotel brand. I just wanted to learn as much as I could first and feel like I knew as much as possible about hotel operations. After about 8 years of working for a number of hotels in different roles I finally got fed up with working for other people. Something else happened too! I watched what happened in Fergeson, I saw the Trayvon Martin verdict, I watched the Walter Scott case video and I fond myself frustrated and angry. Being creative and creating a new narrative was something I got passionate about.
I started doing research to see if there were any independent boutique hotels that were owned or led by African Americans and I couldn’t find anything new. All I kept finding were these historical references. That's where the name Homage came from. I said to myself, ‘If I can’t find anything current let me pay Homage to the history, the legacy and the community.’
Marcus and I met at a day party in Oakland over 3 years ago. I had started to receive press locally and he recognized me. He came over and mentioned that he was following my progress and wanted to link up soon to discuss it in detail. At the time I was looking for a partner to assist in the finance and capital side of the business. It was a great fit at the perfect time. We got coffee and had a really great conversation about hospitality, hotels and the spaces that inspire us. I asked him to join me on this journey and he agreed. Now here we are
Your first property, The Moor, is located in New Orleans. Why New Orleans? Why not Oakland or D.C.?
We initially hoped to launch our first hotel in Oakland but at the same time prices started to skyrocket and we quickly got priced out. We needed to get a proof of concept out to the market. When we looked at what that could potentially look like New Orleans started to become the easy favorite. New Orleans is so rich in history and its the birthplace of so much culture. We also noticed that its once of the few year round leisure markets that truly appeals to our core target demographic. It was the perfect fit at the right time and propelled the brand to new heights. It has now allowed us the credibility to go back to the capital markets to raise money for our larger projects in markets like DC and Oakland.
At ILC 2018 Peter Bittenbender, CEO of Mass Appeal, joined us as a speaker and emphasized to our audience that urban and Hip-Hop culture is the most important part of U.S. culture right now. How does Homage tap into the current vibe/culture as well as the African American history of a specific city? How is it executed through design, branding, amenities, programming, etc.?
With Hip Hop being the most listened to genre of music according to Nielsen, we are starting to see the ripple effect as it pertains to the in-real-life experiences that consumers are looking for. When we enter into a new market we do research and spend time there to fully understand the music scene, local vernacular and cultural nuances that make that city unique. It also requires us to ask the local residents what they need and desire of a space that pays homage to their home. We hate the idea of thinking were smart enough to dictate what it means to pay homage to a city that we aren’t from. So instead of thinking we know, we ASK! That means lots of meetings and focus groups. We’ve come to find out that people are generally excited to lend their time and knowledge when it comes to getting the narrative correct on their city.
There has been a lot of controversy regarding Airbnb hosts with clearly racial biases. I recently heard The Moor has listings on there. What are your demographics like in terms of guests who book through Airbnb in comparison to those who book direct?
Unfortunately there have been a number of really sad cases of racial bias on the Airbnb platform. We have partnered with Airbnb on content, marketing and distribution to address that very issue and thus far its been a really great partnership. For us listing on Airbnb proved to us that our product is for everyone. When we first launched we benefitted from a tons of cultural press which resulted in us getting all of our bookings direct and serving African American guests exclusively. Once we launched on Airbnb we completely diversified who we served with most of our bookings being non African American. That shows us that our spaces speak to our core demographic as spaces that are ‘made for them’ and everyone else just sees our spaces as ‘beautiful and desirable.’
The Moor is a mix of house and hotel with 4 guest rooms. What does the size, scope and locations look like for the next Homage properties?
The Moor is a proof of concept for us but our typical property size is between 75-150 keys and in primary or secondary markets. We currently have our sights set on a 94 room project in Oakland and a 117 room project in downtown Los Angeles. Additional markets include Harlem, Brooklyn, Washington DC, Atlanta and Miami.