Advocate for more hotel rooms to help Ukrainian refugees

“It’s unthinkable,” said Sofia Widmann, shaking her head in disbelief. “This is Ukraine we are talking about, this is kyiv.”

For a week, she hasn’t slept much.

Born and raised in the Ukrainian capital, Widmann has lived in Austria for eight years with her husband Michael and their young daughter. Last week, as Russian troops attacked her homeland, she received a message from a close friend, Katya, whom she has known since college.

Like so many other Ukrainians, Katya had fled the country, driving with her two children across the border in an attempt to reach Austria. Her husband had been forced to stay behind after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy ordered that men of military age should no longer be allowed to leave Ukraine, just as the family approached the border.

Texting Widmann, Katya wrote, “Misha couldn’t couldn’t leave, we’re down to three now.”

“She called me when she had been driving for 72 hours. She was tired and I told her I’m not sure you can go to Austria, but she said no, I have to, I have to,” Widmman says.

“Her parents were in a cellar, and she suddenly got a hotel room”

A Ukrainian family fleeing the war arrives at the Hotel Quentin Prague.  Photo: PKF Hotel Group

At some point, Katya realized that it would be safer to stop and rest in Budapest, about 250 kilometers closer to Ukraine than Vienna. But with no friends or family in Hungary, and having fled with next to nothing, she had no place to stay.

“My husband contacted a friend of our family, Norbert Lessing from Hilton in Austria, and he contacted a colleague in Budapest, and suddenly Katya had a hotel to spend the night,” says Widmann.

“She was so shocked. Knowing that her own parents lived in a cellar under a house in kyiv, and that she had a nice hotel room.

As the day progressed, Widmann received more and more reports of people fleeing Ukraine – family, friends, neighbors. Some headed for Poland, others for Romania and still others for Slovakia, but almost all left in a hurry, often in pajamas.

“Michael came up with the idea of ​​bringing together hotel groups from all over the world and creating a platform that could automatically bring together people in need and all available hotel rooms, without any middleman,” says Widmann.

The launch of Hospitality Helps

The PKF Hospitality Group, with support from Jonathan Worsley, launched to connect hotels and people fleeing war.  Photo: PKF Hotel Group

And so, was born.

Connecting individual hotels to people fleeing war, it works in three languages ​​(English, Ukrainian, Russian) and is linked to a booking platform created by the folks at HotelSwaps.

Refugees can use it to find safe, free accommodation for a period of five nights, providing those who have just arrived in a foreign country, many of whom are women and children traveling alone, an easy-to-use resource in their own language to help them find temporary accommodation.

It’s not a long-term solution, but it’s designed to give people a chance to stop, get their bearings, and begin to understand where they are and what happened.

“When they see this, that this is actually happening, they are grateful and they cry,” says Widmman, whose initiative has now managed to house more than 180 people, six cats and seven dogs in emergency accommodation.

Hotels on board and a major step forward

Hilton in Budapest was the first to provide a room for a woman fleeing war in Ukraine.  Reuters

Since its launch, the response to the platform has been positive.

“Many hotels were already trying to launch their own individual initiatives anyway, but then realized the need for a centralized platform like this,” says Widmann.

“Marriott, with the largest inventory of hotel rooms in the world, has just committed to the platform,” said Widmann’s husband, Michael, chief executive of PKF Hospitality.

“We were scared and thought we couldn’t house all the people on the run tonight, but that changes things,” he says.

More help needed as people continue to flee Ukraine

Children fleeing the war wait for a bus to take them to Poland.  AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu

Latest figures from the UN Refugee Agency indicate that more than one million Ukrainians have fled the country as a result of Russian aggression.

That’s why Hospitality Helps is now calling on more hotels around the world to join the initiative.

“This is a crisis that transcends borders, and so should our response. As this humanitarian crisis escalates, we must address it internationally,” says Widmman.

And people who don’t have a hotel room to offer can always pledge their help. The Hospitality Helps website lists several credible refugee support initiatives, including Airbnb, which recently pledged to house 100,000 Ukrainians, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Damaged residential buildings in the city of Irpin, Kyiv province.  Epa / Roman Pilipey

“I think the adrenaline keeps me going even though I haven’t really slept,” says Widmann.

“I know that my 82-year-old grandmother is in downtown Kyiv and the house can be bombed at any time. I know a lot of my friends are leaving the country and I don’t know if they’ll be able to get to safety, and I don’t know if the husband of one of my best friends will survive. But for now, I know I can help by providing accommodation and that’s kind of my mission now, I have to do it.

Updated: March 04, 2022, 2:47 p.m.

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