NEW ORLEANS—Everything comes in its own time. Damon Lawrence and Marcus Carey, co-founders of Homage Hospitality Group, a new company focused on boutique properties, know this to be true.
The journey began in earnest in 2016. They saw the media reports of gun violence against African-Americans that seemed to plague urban locations and wanted to do something positive. “I thought, ‘If I’m going to do it, there’s no better time.’ I wanted to build a different narrative,” said Lawrence.
Since then, these two dynamic, young men—Lawrence is 31 and Carey is 27—experienced a few years of stops and starts on the way to building their company. There were many fundraising efforts, and even stints moonlighting as Uber and Lyft drivers just to keep their entrepreneurial dreams alive.
Now, their day has come. The duo opened their first property here—The Moor, a Hausotel by Homage. The company defines a “hausotel” as the best of both experiences—a house and a hotel. These properties are designed to be smaller-scale and more intimate.
Located on historic Canal St. among Victorian buildings with traditional New Orleans flair, The Moor stands out with an emphasis on the culture of the North African Moors in its design and architecture. The nearly 100-year-old facade sports Spanish Colonial features, while inside, the four suites have rustic elements of exposed brick and hardwood floors softened with Moroccan-patterned textiles, statement art and found objects. Entering the spaces, guests get a sense of being in a far-flung location with a taste of home in the warm welcome and delivery of service.
Metrovation Principal Mark Seiler is an investor in The Moor. As a real estate developer for more than two decades, the opportunity to work with Lawrence and Carey was appealing because of their “great vision, great passion for hospitality, and the cultural element,” he said.
“I originally talked to them about a property they’re doing in Oakland, CA, because I’m based there. It’s about helping to transform our downtown and make sure we’re not eliminating the culture. I think they have a great opportunity to do this around the country,” said Seiler. “The New Orleans project seemed like a good opportunity for them as it’s proof of concept and they could wrap their arms around it. I appreciate their focus, and I believe they’ve identified an important cultural niche.”
By definition, “homage” means to show reverence. Homage Hospitality strives to do just that by selecting properties that speak to the team in terms of the architecture and history, as well as the varied people and the cultures that make these cities vibrant.
Not all of the properties will have an African-inspired look and feel. For Lawrence and Carey, it’s about embracing the energy of the city, being influenced by its history, and the cultural significance that determines where they’ll set up shop next.
Slated to open in 2019, The Town Hotel aims to salute the blend of rich cultures in Oakland, CA. “I had the privilege to witness the diversity. It’s so different from other cities, from the lower to higher socioeconomic backgrounds as well as racially—Vietnamese, Caucasian, Cambodian and Black—they all live together,” said Lawrence. “It’s an amazing melting pot of cultures and we want to pay homage to that. Our hotels are for anyone and everyone to experience and have a great time.”
Another project in the pipeline is The Freeman Hotel, also based in New Orleans, which will pay homage to the city as the birthplace of jazz and Tremé, the oldest African-American neighborhood in the U.S.—a place where, in the 18th and 19th centuries, freed slaves were able to acquire and own property.
Like many hoteliers, Lawrence grew to love hospitality as he rose through the ranks. He was a front desk agent at the Donovan House Hotel in Washington, DC, then moved into management at companies such as The Ritz-Carlton, InterContinental Hotels Group, and Dusit International. It was while working at the W Washington DC that Lawrence shared his dream of building his own hotel company with his then-supervisor Abdul Hamidullah.
“When you get into the hotel business, you either love it or hate it—and everyone wants to have their own hotel,” said Hamidullah. “With Damon, he took action toward his goal and chose to pursue it 100%, and that makes the difference.”
For his part, co-founder Carey had worked in institutional venture capital and at private equity firms, aiding global teams in the assessment of investment decisions. He received his “training wheels” from stints at CCMP Capital and SVB Capital.
Today, Carey heads up the business strategy and fundraising efforts and Lawrence leads the operations and creative direction for the company.
When curating the design, experiences and service of these properties, Lawrence and Carey recall moments where they’ve experienced the best of hospitality and tap into those feelings of warmth and welcome.
“We typically think of a family reunion, [our alma mater]Howard University’s homecoming celebration and other Black experiences that are incredibly familial, warm and inviting,” said Carey. “We want to put this feeling in a space built for strangers of every creed and background, and show them what Black hospitality looks like.”
Added Lawrence, “We’re going to load up the properties with experimental components to explore this concept. You walk into the hotel and there will be vibrant music to welcome you to the lobby, hallway and then your room. It will be a thoughtful part of the programming. It might be the latest hip hop, R&B or neo-soul artist to release an album, and we’ll have a listening party in the lobby. We’d like to honor that part of the culture.”
At Homage Hospitality Group, creative nomads are welcome. The properties it operates, manages and owns will accommodate all types of travelers including the archetype guest, a professional who is moving around and managing multiple streams of income, the duo explained.
“For example, that customer will be able to host photo shoots in their room; they might be a freelancer, so the room should have a nice backdrop for this purpose,” said Carey.
In addition, they will offer curated in-room amenities such as hair-care and skin-care products that will appeal to all needs. “A huge part of what we’re hearing is that what’s in the bath isn’t made for their hair. We will offer products for all hair types and skin types,” said Carey. “We are building this brand for any traveler.”
Looking back at their journey, both men feel a deep sense of gratitude for the people who have mentored and supported their dreams through the bumps of a business in its infancy. Counted among them is Ashli N. Johnson, chief experience officer of Urbane Hospitality Group, and assistant dean at the Hilton College of Hotel & Restaurant Management at the University of Houston.
“Minority professionals encounter distinct challenges, particularly when seeking to enter the hospitality ownership space,” said Johnson. “I knew that they would face obstacles that textbook knowledge alone wouldn’t prepare them for, but rather only real and relevant industry experience. I am honored to have been a trusted source to offer my expertise, insight and network access to support their success.”
Moving forward, Lawrence and Carey remain on the grind as they continue to build their company. “In the next 18 months, we’ll have a grand opening in Oakland, CA, which will be a huge milestone for us, and we’ll have a confirmed pipeline of large hotel properties in markets we love and care about,” said Carey. “We’re excited to see where it goes.” HB