Richard Castle III, MBA ’13, on how a hotel room can be a sanctuary in a crisis.
The company I co-founded, Cloudbeds, is a technology platform to start, run and grow your lodging business. Early on in the pandemic, we were all just trying to figure out what to do. How could things be normal for us? The hotels we worked with barely had any guests. Our employees and team members were dealing with being stuck at home. It was a very strange time when everything we do every day just disappeared. Our purpose pretty much vanished. Then I had the idea for #HospitalityHelps, and it gave us an entirely new purpose altogether.
My wife and I were on the couch watching the news; they were highlighting things that different cities and counties were doing to get ahead of COVID-19. I think it was King County, in Washington, they created a field hospital on a soccer field. It seemed so crazy for this to be happening. Then I thought, our typical business is hospitality management technology, why not use our infrastructure and industry connections to connect hotel beds and rooms with people who are really needing them right now, like healthcare agencies, government organizations and impacted individuals?
First thing we did was set up a 501c3 non-profit entity to get it outside of the Cloudbeds brand so that we could bring on competitors and partners to this grow initiative. We’ve gotten a lot of partners, which is amazing, because people came out from everywhere to try and help. Even Cloudbeds’ competitors came out and said they wanted to be part of it.
When we first set it up, we thought it would be mostly government and healthcare agencies that we would be working with. A number came in early on from New York state, Connecticut, etc, but it ended up being that individuals needed more help: groups of nurses, doctors, and other healthcare workers were coming to us, trying to find places to stay near their work so they could keep their family safe. They would call properties and no one would answer; they didn’t know who was open or who would accept anybody. One group of nurses told us that we were the first ones to actually connect them with a property. At that point in the hospitality industry, nobody really knew what to do or what was going on. So we stepped with what we knew best: connecting people with beds to people who needed beds.
It ended up growing well beyond our customer base at Cloudbeds—within a few days, more than 1.2 million beds had been pledged on the Hospitality Helps website. People beyond our customer base really wanted to be part of this. It was satisfying too, because our team members behind the scenes got to work directly with people who needed information or needed hotels. They would connect those two groups by email or phone—someone could come to us and say, “We need a place to stay in a certain area,” and we could look through our database and see what we had. We would send them the information and try to facilitate the connection.
Long-term, we’re thinking about how much would this grow outside of COVID-19, in terms of all kinds of emergency lodging in the future. From what we gather, there’s no existing, global emergency lodging infrastructure. Normally in the United States, if there’s a disaster like a hurricane, for example, FEMA will step in and try to orchestrate lodging and hotels. It’s not easy for them to do that, necessarily. But perhaps we could use what we do at Cloudbeds to make this easier. And if you look at Thailand or Brazil, for example, there’s even less infrastructure to provide emergency lodging. If we could provide some sort of platform to make easier access for emergency lodging, it might not just assist the U.S., but all over the world. Our primary focus is COVID-19, but there have been some interesting ideas that have come from this.
But as for now, in terms of immediate needs, we’re looking for people to help as volunteer customer service agents to connect people with hotels. ZenDesk came forward and donated us some accounts for customer support. Amazon Web Services (AWS) donated $25,000 over the next two years to help with this, and Amazon has connected us with their healthcare group, too. It’s really heartening, and individuals are welcome to be a part, too.
We’d love also to hear from people who want to be involved with this long-term. People who want to volunteer their time and expertise to think about the product and technology we might need to grow. Anyone who has a non-profit, or has set one up globally and made a difference in that way, it would be amazing to have their help as an advisor. I’ve never set anything up like this before—I’d love to have someone help us navigate the non-profit space. I mean, if this goes beyond COVID-19, it probably needs funding to continue.
When we launched it, we didn’t know what it was going to become. It’s nice to see a lot of other companies coming forward, to see so many people coming together in general. It feels good. We hope that other industries continue to come forward and try to help out, and we hope that #HospitalityHelps can be a part of helping us all get back to normal, and even make things better for the future.
Richard Castle III, MBA ’13, is the co-founder and president of Cloudbeds, is the fo-founder and COO of Cloudbeds. Together with co-founder Adam Harris, Richard has led Cloudbeds from a small start-up to a company that powers over 20,000 properties in 150 countries worldwide.