Israel’s hotels choose solidarity over profit as they house refugees


Experienced hotelier David Tucker drives as usual early every morning from his home in Rishon Lezion to Jerusalem. His 620 room hotel complex is fully booked with 1,600 long-stay guests on a full board basis. Tucker is the general manager of Ramada by Wyndham Jerusalem Hotels and he is neither happy nor content.

On the contrary, he is experiencing the most heartbreaking period of his 45 years in hospitality. The guests are families that have been evacuated from Sderot, Ofakim, and kibbutz communities near the Gaza Strip, after the unspeakably Hamas vicious attacks on their homes. Most of them arrived without luggage, clothes, or medications. His hotel experience and Cornell University degree are less relevant to his current guests than his earlier qualifications as a certified social worker.

“I start my daily tour in the packed breakfast dining hall to make sure the buffet is well equipped and generous,” he says. “During the tour, a lady in tears shows me an image of the ruins of what used to be her home. She mumbles that there is no place for her to return. I need to give her the feeling that she can stay with us and that there is nothing to worry about. My guests do not understand that I am only a hotel general manager. They expect me to provide solutions beyond my capabilities. My team and I are constantly using all our resources to connect the guests with the relevant people that represent the authorities, medical institutions, and children’s education that can best assist,” he says.

At the very same time, a short hour drive southeast, on the shores of the Dead Sea, Ruhama Azulay-Rozenberg cancels her daily morning operation meeting to connect with community leaders. They discuss which business conference halls and meeting rooms are to be allocated to hotel-guest children for gatherings with kindergarten tutors and teachers, as it is school time.

How hotel owners are helping house evacuees from Israel’s South

Azulay-Rozenberg is the general manager of the 280-room overbooked Leonardo Plaza Hotel with 600 guests arriving from Sderot and Kissufim.

RAMADA BY Wyndham Jerusalem hotel general manager David Tucker. (credit: ILAN BRENNER)

The moment the meeting is over she is in a hurry to organize a small conference room for a family to sit shiva, (in mourning) as a close relative was murdered by Hamas terrorists.

“Our biggest challenge is to provide adequate service with a significant staff shortage. As Leonardo is part of the Fattal chain we are fortunate to transfer staff from our other hotels,” she says.

“The people we host are totally different from typical guests. They insist on cleaning their rooms themselves. They do not have demands and requests. They are hardly seen by the pool. Guests constantly gather in the lobby to share sad and horrific stories. Far from the normal hospitality atmosphere,” she says.

Within proximity, the Ein Gedi Kibbutz Hotel is crowded with guests from the Be’eri and Holit communities.

“Civilians arrived here without luggage and basic personal equipment such as medicines, hearing aids, and even dentures,” says Maya Dvir, chairwoman of the kibbutz.

“Almost 400 people, the same number as kibbutz members, are hosted in the hotel and even in members’ houses. There is an enormous shortage of employees, but all of the kibbutz members are committed to supplying everything needed, from goods to endless time with self devotion and a sense of responsibility. The financial side is irrelevant,” she says.

HOTELS ALL over Israel started to host evacuees from Gaza border settlements on the same day that the atrocities commenced. Special reduced rates were offered and quickly organized groups of civilians started to arrive, sponsored by municipalities, associations and private donors. An agreement between the Finance Ministry and the Israel Hotel Association was signed only 10 days after the Hamas terror attack. The ministry agreed to pay a symbolic reduced rate which leaves some hotels, if they are fortunate, with a break-even financial performance. When they will receive payment is an open question.

Whether the hotels will need refurbishment after the war when guests leave is not even being discussed. Hotels are now asked to provide accommodations on a full-board basis, including a lavish kosher dinner and drinks and a vegan menu, and to consider food sensitivities and a variety of allergies. A weekly change of sheets is guaranteed, along with fresh towels every three days and daily garbage removal from the rooms.

Almost all the hotels in Israel have said amen to these conditions.

Hospitality institutions are private entities and businesses, but showing solidarity in Israel in difficult times is probably a unique model of generosity on our globe.

“This is true Zionism. We say yes, make things happen, and at the later stage ask questions,” says Itamar Elitzur, head of Eilat Hotel Association. This Red Sea resort city with 50,000 residents hosts approximately 60,000 people who have fled to Israel’s southernmost city.

“Past experience of clashes with Hamas assisted us to get organized quickly. At first, Israelis came independently and within a short time arrivals were more organized and the hotels are fully booked by now. Regardless of the significantly short-staffed situation for such an occupancy we are coping,” he says.

In Jerusalem, general manager Tucker continues to juggle during his daily routine. He finishes a motivational meeting with the frightened housekeeping staff from the Philippines. He is using all his resources to calm them down, to make sure that they feel safe, and are able to carry on with their daily assignments. At Ben-Gurion airport, a rescue flight from the Philippines is available for them to leave. Without these foreign workers, the maintenance of the rooms at the overbooked hotels will collapse. He succeeds in reassuring them.

As soon as the meeting finishes, he is in a hurry to the underground parking lot. In order to overcome the tremendous pressure for laundry service, new washing machines and dryers are brought to the garage to enable the guests to handle their laundry by themselves.

Tucker is also the voluntary chairman of Jerusalem’s hotel association.

“I am particularly proud of the solidarity between the city’s hotel managers,” he says.

“Sixty of us are members of a WhatsApp group and we constantly exchange requests and share needs. New guests are being sent to hotels that can offer better room arrangements, or if a hotel needs equipment, even a baby crib, others will assist. We do not compete for business. We help each other in this difficult time,” he explains.

Nowadays, Israel’s hotels, hostels, and guest houses are fully booked with civilians both from the Gaza border area settlements and also from the North, close to Lebanon.

“Are they enjoying their time in the hotels?” I ask Eilat’s Itamar Elitzur.

“These are the only hotel guests I know who arrive – and the moment they check-in all they wish for is to be able to leave and return home,” he says.

The writer is the Travel Flash Tips publisher.

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