A Newfound Freedom & Creating Utopian Spaces with Damon Lawrence
Updated: Jul 12, 2020
Damon Lawrence, Founder & CEO of Homage Hospitality, has felt nearly every emotion over the last six months. Everything from grief and frustration to gratitude and liberation. In January, his founding business partner left Homage Hospitality. In March, COVID-19 rocked the travel industry HARD. He was ready to accept two more years of the unknown and even more barriers keeping him from scaling his vision: a Utopian place where everyone can rest.
When we spoke on Tuesday for Ahead of the Curve, I asked Damon if there was anything he wanted to cover that was especially top of mind for him. He said: "I think this is the perfect day to even do this because I feel free, personally. I had to do the dance of not being authentically 100% myself for such a long time."
Over the last 4 weeks, Damon has finally found freedom. Freedom to speak his truth. Freedom to create inclusive spaces truly made for everyone. Freedom to re-shape the hospitality industry. With the launch of A New Kind of Hospitality, it's time to let the brand speak for itself. Those who questioned his vision for years FINALLY get it. But the reasoning is obvious and his feelings about it are complex.
I've known Damon for about a year and have always respected him. Definitely a professional crush of mine. A lot of aspiring hoteliers are pretty vapid, honestly, and aren't getting into the business for the right reasons. But, that's not the case with him.
We did a Q&A last summer at the company I previously worked for and, looking back, because of how homogeneous the Hospitality industry is and due to my lack of autonomy, I couldn't ask the questions I really wanted to. But I now realize that Damon probably wouldn't have felt comfortable answering truthfully at that time, either.
Needless to say, I was just psyched to catch up. The last time we spoke was in January in New Orleans at an industry event. On Tuesday his tone was a mix of calm confidence and energetic determination. He had just launched his new website that morning with a beautifully and truthfully written tell-all post. There was a sense of release and relief in his voice.
We covered A LOT: the beauty and diversity of Black Culture in different American cities, brand call-outs, and the influx of long overdue capital attention following the murder of George Floyd. Like, really? This is nothing new.
You can either read or listen. Thank you, Damon!
TATIANA SWEDEK: For those who do not know Damon, he is the Founder of Homage Hospitality and a hotelier I truly respect. We met in October in L.A. and have had the pleasure of watching each other from afar over the past few months and cheering each other on. Damon, thank you for taking the time.
DAMON LAWRENCE: Thank you for including me in this.
TS: As I said, I talked to Bashar [Wali] earlier and he said “don’t ask how you’re doing in a pandemic” – he read it in some Forbes article. So, I’m going to ask you this: What have you done today to take care of yourself?
DL: Well, my day has barely begun. What was interesting and freeing was releasing my blog. I did that in the wee hours of the morning and that was really exciting. It gave me so much peace and there was a lot of anxiety over the last couple weeks. That has a helpful scenario to get that out today.
TS: For sure and congrats. Also, happy belated birthday!
DL: Thank you, Juneteenth too!
TS: Yeah, I love it. Like a lot of people in the industry, you kind of fell into it. Do you want to talk a bit about that and what your experience was like starting out?
DL: A lot of people just end up getting a job and either end up falling in love with the industry or falling out of the industry. I fell in love with it. I thought it was an interesting opportunity and I grew more interested in what ownership started to look like. My first property was at Thompson at the Donovan House in D.C. I started working there from the day it opened.
That was a very eye opening process to see something start from the very beginning.
I went to work for a number of other properties and opened about three or four other properties after that. It was very fun. From that moment, I was hooked. I told one of my managers “this is what I want to do.” I was going to school for pre-law and totally made a career change and never looked back.
TS: I’m from Northern VA outside of DC and I have to ask: Do you think Baltimore is part of the DMV?
DL: I do not think that Baltimore is part of the DMV. First of all, I love Balitmore. I love, love Baltimore….
TS: But it’s a different culture!
DL: Totally, totally different.
TS: Ok, you’re solid in my book then. You'd be surprised by how many people try to say Baltimore is part of the DMV. Now, talking about another city we both love…
DL: New Orleans!
TS: Yeah! NOLA! We both love New Orleans and we got to hang out down there in January but it’s also where your first property The Moor opened. It was very much a DIY project with great success. At the same time, when you were looking to grow you faced some criticism on The Moor in terms of it not being a “proof of concept.” But you continued to gain recognition from industry media. Talk about the success of The Moor and also that industry backlash when you were looking to scale.
DL: It’s interesting because the industry showed a lot of love and respect for the concept but the Capital Markets had all these different excuses. You know, I’ve seen a lot of articles come out in the last couple of weeks that suggested different things in terms of racial disparities. When I look back, some of the things that were said and the excuses that were made, it was evident that no matter what we did it was never going to be enough. Using the property size as an excuse was an easy one, right?
It was [an] interesting juxtaposition of having all this recognition, speaking, awards, and being asked to all this stuff on the basis of this small 4 room property. It was getting so much buzz but then, as you try to scale and go bigger, we had so many barriers in our way.
TS: Did you see any turning point since then?
DL: Yeah, we haven’t seen a turning point until recently. It wasn’t until over the last 3 weeks or 4 weeks, the conversations around capital just totally changed. What I have to say too, is that we were very blessed in the process, right? I can now look back and say: all those times we wanted things to happen over the last 2 years, man, am I thankful that it didn’t. Man, am I thankful that today we didn’t have 3 hotels and that I didn’t have to furlough people that I love, that I didn’t have to lay off people that I know their families and have invited them to my home. Today, I’m at a place that most hotel owners and hoteliers aren’t privileged enough to be in. That’s a place of total forward thinking. I’m projecting into the future when most are stuck with their current circumstances and putting out fires every day. We are probably positioned in the best possible way we could be in. The timing is just right for us. I’m thankful things didn’t happen.
I’m projecting into the future when most are stuck with their current circumstances and putting out fires every day. We are probably positioned in the best possible way we could be in. The timing is just right for us. I’m thankful things didn’t happen.
TS: Yes, a blessing in disguise. I know you’ll appreciate this analogy since we both are into commercial real estate. They always say it’s cheaper to build new and more expensive to rehab an existing property. In this case, you don’t have to deal with all that guilt in trying to turn things around with 3, 4, 5 or 10 hotels and try to come out of how COVID has impacted everything. You get to start right now. That’s a beautiful thing. There’s this shift happening. COVID has just been the catalyst for all of this change going on.
DL: It really sped up a lot of things. We already were headed in a certain direction. Like working from home – we were headed there. It just sped it up to another level. I think coming out of this so many things will change. It’s interesting you said you talked to Bashar. He’s one of the few people who I think gets it and got it immediately. There was only 1 think I thought he was a little too aggressive on and that was he thought we’d be back traveling by July. I never, ever thought that was going to be the case. I said to myself in late March that this was going to be a two-year thing. If I’m off by a couple of months, I’ll be shocked.
Some of these changes are really going to be long-term changes in the way that society operates. There’s going to be long-term ripple effects. It’s not just as simple as cleaning a room and leaving it vacant for 72 hours before the next person comes in. That’s temporary. The long-term changes in human behavior is what excites me. What’s business travel going to look like? What do you need in your hotel room when work can go anywhere you want to go? What is the length of stay going look like when people can work remote and you don’t have to hurry back to the office on a Monday? It’s an exciting time. I’m thankful to start at this point and have all of these things at my disposal, even in design, at this time.
TS: I agree. I think it was a few weeks ago, or it could’ve been a few days ago at this point, you made a pretty great statement on LinkedIn. You’ve always made it a point to position Homage not just for Black travelers but for everyone. I see this a lot in other spaces such as restaurants, too. Recently re-read a Philly Mag article from 2018 about how segregated Philly’s restaurant scene is. While a lot of these ‘highly praised restaurants’ are on the checklist for white diners, Black diners don’t feel comfortable there. That can be for a variety of reasons. But the article also pointed out that a lot of the Black-owned F&B spaces were made for everyone. The same goes for Homage. The hotel industry just hasn’t gotten that. Like, even from amenities to in-room products, etc. It’s targeting a certain traveler. And more often than not, it’s a White traveler. What has your experience been in regards to this? Whether as a consumer, traveler or a hotelier?
DL: I give a lot of thought to this specifically and I appreciate you asking the question. When you take care of the most vulnerable, no one loses. When you take care of the most marginalized, no one loses. But when you don’t, people get left out. You touched on the amenities and that’s such an easy one, right? That’s low hanging fruit. It’s not that if you have kinky, aka nappy, coarser hair and you need a certain type of shampoo, it’s not like everybody else can’t use that shampoo. If you have darker skin and you need a certain type of strong, really good, high quality lotion, it’s not like everybody’s skin can’t use that same lotion.
"When you take care of the most vulnerable, no one loses. When you take care of the most marginalized, no one loses. But when you don’t, people get left out."
The flip side: you can’t use it. If this lotion is like water when I put it on, I can’t use that. You might be able to use that. But I can’t. Let me go to CVS and get the products that I need or take my travel bag. That’s just an easy way to make sure you’re appealing to everyone
I think it even goes a step further. When you project who you are, you’re going to get back who you’re speaking to. That’s from employment, your patrons, your customers. Everybody who resonates with the brand, they’re going to come in and feel at home and at peace. It’s exciting to see what this space is going to look like and what the brand is really going to embody. For the first time, for a lot of us, it’s going to be a freeing and almost utopian feeling to be considered, thought of and heard.
TS: Yeah, for sure. That’s something I’ve been thinking a lot on this week. I think back to when I was a Sociology minor and was very much interested in urban planning in college. We talked about the ‘Curb Effect’ – you know, when they introduced the slopes down in the curbs to make them wheelchair accessible. That benefited everyone. Not just someone who may be handicapped. Everyone uses that. I use ramps. People need to start thinking that way. Not just in regards to public space, but also shared communal space in a variety of commercial real estate sectors. Just because a space that may seem like it’s inclusive, it’s not. You have to go the next step and really ask yourself “who is this made for?”
DL: That’s a very interesting statement. I think what we’ve seen is people faking the funk by saying one thing and totally not practicing what they preach. Without even going into detail of naming names, there were a number of hotel brands that made statements regarding Black Lives Matter and what’s been going on over the last month. The comments went crazy. The comments went in because people knew that ‘naw, you’re fake.’ You know what I’m saying?
"Without even going into detail of naming names, there were a number of hotel brands that made statements regarding Black Lives Matter and what’s been going on over the last month. The comments went crazy. The comments went in because people knew that ‘naw, you’re fake.’"
TS: I’ve been living for the brand call-outs. It’s been so fun to watch. Employees, or former employees or people who’ve been laid off, they’ll go on that Instagram and on that black square and go: ‘you don’t care. Your management is racist and you don’t pay your staff and you don’t care about us.’
DL: Exactly. The interesting thing about that too is that I never felt the need to ever come out and make a statement. It never felt necessary. Ever. Because everything I do embodies that. Why would I feel the need to make a statement? It’s just interesting, to say the least, the way things have transpired over the last few weeks.
TS: There has been such a generational and societal shift happening in terms of prioritizing environmental activism, social justice, addressing racial inequalities over the past five years. COVID has definitely accelerated that with downtime to reflect and begin to act. While there are wonderful pioneers in the industry who have changed the game for the better, it’s time for them to not try and fix things right now. It’s time for a new generation of leaders to kind of take charge. You’re pretty young for the industry. And you’re Black. You don’t see that a lot. But your mission and your ethos has always been very clear.
I’m going to be completely real here. Since the devastating murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and countless other Black Americans who’s murders were not caught on video, the need for Homage and A New Kind of Hospitality is really being brought to the forefront. As the founder and as a Black American, I can only imagine how industry media are jumping at you right now. It’s a complex thing, right? Like, ‘Oh, NOW y’all wanna talk?’
DL: It has been a really hard thing to reconcile. They make this joke about being invited to the cookout, right? And it’s like, yeah we’ve been here the whole time. Thank you for finally being here but why did it take that action? Not all of the rest of them before but that action specifically to cause all of this? As if we hadn’t seen this play out before.
I think there are a lot things with this one specifically that make it different. Obviously, we are living in a pandemic, we didn’t have a distraction, it dominated the news cycle that typically these types of things don’t, especially not for an extended amount of time. But it was hard.
Especially for the first couple of weeks.
I think now we’re going on week four since the George Floyd murder. But Arbery, Brianna Taylor, there’s more names that happened way before this that never really got that type of attention. At first it was just very frustrating to now finally be heard but also understand why that’s happening. It’s tough.
TS: In that blog article you wrote, you said right away ‘I started Homage Hospitality because I was frustrated.’ You specifically mentioned Trayvon Martin and..
DL: Mike Brown and Walter Scott.
TS: Yes, you specifically noted Walter Scott. Going back to what’s happening right now, how much has the last 3 weeks played into you saying like “I’m getting this done and I’m getting this done right?”
DL: It’s played into it a lot. Once COVID hit, I felt really defeated and couldn’t see where things were going to go at that point. That was an interesting place to be. I was finally starting to reconcile like: ‘oh, this is going to be a two-year thing. We’re just going to have to sit and wait.’ I didn’t know what was next for Homage or myself.
Then, when all this happened and the calls started pouring in and people wanted to do interviews, it was an interesting time to see Homage now “make sense”. What may have seemed radical before seems necessary now.
That was interesting to see people’s thoughts change around a lot of things. Even look at Kaepernick different, right? Like, that wasn’t even that bad [with] what he was doing and y’all trying to vilify this dude! Now you get it and now you understand. You were trying to turn this man into Malcom X and he started out as Martin Luther King.
It’s interesting to see people’s ideas around race change. And, because of that, I feel freedom. It’s a very freeing feeling to just be able to be yourself and say 'to hell with it.' And also to be able to live with the consequences with that, right? If Homage doesn’t go the way that I want it to, at least I know that I was authentically myself and I didn’t sacrifice that in the process. It’s not on me anymore, it’s on investors. It’s up to you to get it. I don’t need to explain it to you. You need to do the research, understand my brand and hopefully it’ll resonate.
TS: That must feel amazing. And let’s face it, not only Hospitality but the commercial real estate industry at large is super white, super homogeneous, very much stuck in its ways. I’ll say, here in Philly it’s a lot of old white money in commercial real estate. But I also realized it’s not just city specific. And I’m excited to see that you launched the new website, blog and initiative of A New Kind of Hospitality. Do you want to talk a bit about that and how it aligns with Homage?
DL: That phrase “A New Kind of Hospitality” is something that Chimene Jackson, on the Homage team who leads our innovation and brand strategy, she started using that hashtag on our Instagram posts two years ago. She was like 'yeah, that’s really what we’re building. Something we’ve never seen before: a new kind of hospitality where everyone is going to feel included and feel like they’re part of the process.' That stuck out to me and she finally convinced me to get the domain and I’ve held on to it for the last couple of years. Finally, in the midst of all this, it just felt like the right time to roll out something new and fresh.
I knew I wanted a brand refresh and create something that resonated but I didn’t want to go away from Homage. I love what we pay homage to and how impactful that phrase is. I did also wanted people to understand that what we’re doing has never been done. This is something very new. If we go on a journey, we go on a journey together. No one knows what it’s going to look like on the other side but that’s the exciting thing about it.
I had the most fun I’ve ever had in creating a website. I was able to be honest. That blog post was my honest truth. I get how it felt during the #MeToo Movement. Like deep level, I get it because you’re able to just release. You’re able to tell all. Especially something that you’ve been holding in. That feeling is like no other. It’s just different because I wasn’t violated in any way, not directly. But, for me, there were little micro-aggressions you deal with. There were little things that over time accumulate to become a bigger issue over time. So, I’m now like ‘forget it, I’m going to be myself. The imagery is going to be as black as I am and I’m not going to look back.’ It’s dope.
TS: I really do believe that whether its Hospitality or B2B or B2C, the only brands that will come out of the current recession and overall economic climate stronger are those that are real, true, know their ‘why’, they’re mission-driven. People can see right through the BS and people are not going to lie to themselves anymore. So I can see that with A New Kind of Hospitality because that’s exactly what it is.
What other markets are you looking at? Please say Philadelphia.
DL: Yeah, on the website it has a list of the markets we’re looking at. Definitely Philadelphia. I love Philadelphia. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to Everett Abitbol.
TS: Shout out to The Deacon!
DL: Yeah. So I’m excited about opportunities in Philly, Baltimore, D.C.. There’s some really, really good stuff that we can do on the East Coast. Memphis is on that list. I’m from Southern California so L.A., Inglewood, Oakland.
Just great Black American cities that have tons of art, design, and musical history to really pay homage to. And you know this, right? Living in Philly, going to school where you went, living in Norther Virginia. Every place has its own culture that’s drastically different: the food, the sayings, the slang, the technology. Everything’s different. You’ve got Mambo Sauce.
TS: NOLA Bounce!
DL: Exactly, you’ve got Bounce music. What’s the one in Baltimore kind of like Bounce?
TS: Oh, Club?
DL: Yeah, Baltimore Club. Each city has its own language that it speaks. I get excited about the different stories you can tell and what you can pay homage to in each city.
TS: Well, I’ll be here waiting in Philly. It’s always a pleasure talking with you. If I can ever help in any way I’m here. I look forward to seeing what you do next.
DL: Likewise, Tatiana. I’m really proud of you and I’m excited to see what you’ve got cooking up. Even just this platform and you reaching out to me shows you’re on the right track and you’re going to do some amazing things. And my honest hope is that you and me get to work on something together.
TS: Oh, we will. I hope that, too. Only work with people you like now. That’s what being free is all about: being yourself and working with people that you like. Again, I really do appreciate you.