How Two Black Hoteliers Plan To Honor Their Heritage From City To City
With the first seed planted in New Orleans, boutique biz Homage Hotels is officially open for (black) business.
There’s more to the root of a successful business than the quantitative details. Obviously, a non-negotiable strength is possessing organization skills. Equally as integral is being able to hone in on a specific and dedicated client base. But when you take away all the logistical trimmings, at the core of an entrepreneurial undertaking — especially one like Homage Hospitality — is faith. Marcus Carey, 27, and Damon Lawrence, 30, the two hoteliers at the helm of the nascent boutique hotel business, can remember the day they took a risk and bet on themselves with the security of nothing and no one but each other and God.
While waiting for the capital to purchase their first sought out property, an 85-plus-room building in Oakland now called The Town (a nickname for the California city), the Howard University alumni spent down hours driving for Uber and Lyft around the Bay Area, their home base. But a week after receiving verbal confirmation that they’d been approved for the contract for the building—mind you, no money had transferred yet—something moved the two of them to rid themselves of their safety nets and go all in. “Damon called me, or I called him a week later. He said, ‘I’m on my way to Concord to turn in this car,’ ” Marcus, who has a venture capital investing background, recalls. To say he was a little skeptical is an understatement. “ ‘Bro, what do you mean? I know we look like we lit, but ain’t no money hit the account yet.’ He was like, ‘Bro, I just believe.’ ”
The Homage co-founders are reflecting on the moment from the inside of The Moor in Mid City, New Orleans, one of two bed and breakfasts they purchased after securing The Town. (The second NOLA spot is in Tremé.) These accommodations, and eventually many more across the U.S., aim to provide vacationers with homelike stays while also honoring black culture at each establishment.
Upon entering The Moor’s cream and coffee-themed upstairs bedroom, one of five rentable rooms in the house, a massive Giovanna Aryafara photograph of a little brown boy holding a baby goat commands immediate attention. The bed beside it is topped with fluffy textured pillows and surrounded by wooden furniture that not-so-subtly hints at the room’s geographical inspiration. Carved and painted figurines of giraffes, elephants and human descendants of the African continent are peppered around the room. (Every piece of decor in each and every property is the curatorial work of both Lawrence and his mother, Karen Lawrence.)
The whimsical shower room—there is no barrier between the shower and drain, sink and toilet (but it works, trust me)—boasts vanity lighting and elegant black scalloped tiling on the ground, while potted foliage adds color to the mini-apartment in at least six places. There’s even a cozy sitting room that joins the personal kitchen and the bedroom, where an abundance of light tumbles in. Although visitors are likely coming with the intent of exploring the city, designated lazy days are completely justifiable.
Up until a few weeks before The Moor’s grand opening on July 1, Lawrence and Carey were still toiling away, putting the finishing touches on the house. Judging by the finished product—much of the handiwork was done themselves—Homage Hospitality, launched in 2016, is a labor of love, and one that they’re happy to take on. The Homage team and their developing clientele are more than happy to invest in the strength of their diasporic roots. “We have to make a statement,” Lawrence says. “Who we’re about, what we’re about, who we’re for, who we’re going to stand with.”
RUN GRL, a running collective led by six black women, became The Moor’s (and thus Homage’s) first ever guests during Essence Festival weekend (July 3). Since then, they’ve hosted 50 guests at The Moor to date, and have roughly 200 bookings confirmed through year-end. 2018 may have served as the business’ grand opening of sorts, but here, Lawrence and Carey make it clear that Homage Hotels’ doors are opened for us, by us, and for the long haul.
“I don’t want to package up the culture and sell it to white people or exclusively [us],” Carey says, clarifying that their hotels and “Hausotels” welcome all. (If all goes well, Harlem, Brooklyn, Inglewood, Chicago, Detroit, and Atlanta will all have Homage facilities.) “I want to package it and sell it to anybody that wants to be a part of it, but I especially want people of color to walk in the spaces and be inspired.”
VIBE: What would you say are the steps to starting a boutique hotel business? How did you go about finding a nice location to start?
Damon Lawrence: When you look at this property, it’s a smaller property. This is our baby step. If we were a tech company, start off small, putting it out to market, proving our theory that black culture has a space in hospitality, and we scrapped this together. [Through] family and our other property [in Oakland], we raised the capital to purchase that one. Between the two properties in New Orleans, that’s how we’re getting it done. Our gamble was that we’re going to crush it, do the numbers that we expect to do and go on to a larger profit. And the beautiful situation we have, ourselves, is that we already have that larger property. There are some delays but they’re actually serendipitous because it works in our favor and allowed us to get this rolling, focus our time on New Orleans and then take it back to Oakland.
What even made you think of New Orleans as a locale? What made you pick the places you picked?
DL: Oakland was the first city that I really wanted to do something in. That’s where our markets are. I got my hospitality chops in [Washington] D.C. and L.A., and I didn’t feel like either one of those markets were… you had to be well established in either one of those markets. Both of them [Oakland and New Orleans] had a significant hotel need, and the culture of Oakland is conducive to African Americans, so it felt like a good fit. The community embraced it in ways that I don’t think any other city, especially initially, was going to be able to embrace it. Especially someone coming from the outside looking in. Sometimes that’s tough. ‘You ain’t from there, so what are you doing?’ But I didn’t get that. When Marcus came on board and we started chasing down serious properties, we were a little bit over our heads—at least we thought we were. We were looking at 300-room buildings, 80-room buildings, and we were like, how are we going to get it done?
Right. You cannot just start on a dream. You got to have something there.
DL: It’s consistence in persistence. When we started, we were driving for Uber and Lyft. Hustling.
MC: I had left my job. It just wasn’t a really good fit for me. Maybe a week later, I ran into [Damon] at a day party and that was when he had gotten a little bit of local press and Oakland had started recognizing his face. I said, ‘Man, I read the article, and it looks like you went to Howard. I went to Howard, too. What’s up?’ We agreed to get coffee a week later just to talk about the idea and we vibed. We talked about every hotel in D.C. that was dope, every hotel in New York that was dope. We both knew them like the back of our hand and why we thought they were dope. A week or two weeks after that he said, ‘I need help on the business and finance stuff, I’m trying to build a team out. Can you help me out?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I just left a job so yeah let’s do it.’ And it may have been a couple of months into the process of us working together, me thinking it was a side process. I got one foot with him, one foot with people talking about jobs. Savings are getting a little light. I’ve got to pay the bills, what can I do? He’s like, ‘I’ve been driving Lyft. You can rent a car and drive for Uber.’ So I started driving, and that gave us both runway. You can imagine the kind of pressure thrown at a couple of dudes that have to make ends meet but really have an idea that they want to get out in the world. But the idea they want to get out in the world is a capital-intensive idea. Something like Uber and Lyft was essentially helpful for us. When we weren’t driving, we were pitching rich people. We were going to whoever we had in our network or whoever we could get an intro to…
DL: Or whoever we were driving.
MC: We were pitching and pitching and pitching, and then we were lucky enough to have people that supported us and raise money from them and turn those cars in, get these properties, get the Oakland property, pay ourselves. At this point, we’re a year into that, almost a year since we turned those cars in, June of last year. We both turned them in the same day. That’s another story. We had just got the contract for the Oakland property.
DL: I know what story he’s about to tell. Let me tell one right before that. We’re about to go start driving because the city [San Francisco] is where it’s lit. So we’re both about to head on the bridge and we see each other about to head to the city at the exact same time. He calls me, like ‘Yo, pull over.’
MC: This is probably a Tuesday, 11 a.m. PT. We’re about to be driving for the rest of the day. We probably spoke the day before, but we didn’t speak that morning.
DL: He’s like, pull over. I’m like okay, I’ll pull over. Just get out the car real quick. Literally in the middle of the street, cars passing. We’re on the side of the road and he’s like give me your hands, we’re about to pray. Literally had a five-minute prayer, just getting it all out there. This was…
MC: …Before we got the contract, before we bought that building, a couple of days. We knew it was in flux, and we didn’t know where it was going to go. From his shoes, it was pull over, and let’s pray. From my shoes it was, pull over let’s catch up real quick about anything we need to do, and as we started catching up on the side of the road, something was prodding me to pray. Something was pushing me. I know it’s kind of weird Marcus, but grab his hands and pray. And this guy is faithful, he’s a devout Jehovah’s Witness, so I knew I’m lucky to have a business partner where that’s not a crazy thing. We just prayed for understanding, strength, for things to work out. It worked out two days later. And when it worked out, it was like a verbal agreement with the other party. No money got transferred yet. And then, I kid you not, Damon called me, or I called him a week later. It was 4 p.m. He said, ‘I’m on my way to Concord to turn in this car.’ ‘Bro, what do you mean?’ We were driving rentals for Lyft and Uber. I said, ‘why are you turning in the car? I know we look like we lit, but ain’t no money hit the account yet.’ He was like, ‘Bro, I just believe.’ He’s like, ‘Didn’t we just pray? You got faith. I just believe.’ I remember I was sweating and scratching. Tripping! In the Bay Area, you can make $1,200-1,400 bucks a week, gross. Net, maybe a $1,000 a week. It was rent money. So he did that, and I just felt it was no way I could let my guy do that and I not do that, so I hung up with him, called my mom. I said ‘mom, I’m going to turn the car in.’ She said, ‘you sure?’ She didn’t know what was going on. But that’s it. I pulled up to that Enterprise car lot banging some music, just feeling free. Lord, I was so free. And I was scared.
DL: I was scared, too. It all ended up working out.
MC: God will take care of you if you believe. He will.
“We have to make a statement—who we’re about, what we’re about, who we’re for, who we’re going to stand with.” —Damon Lawrence
DL: Over time, we’ve learned to just let things happen the way they are going to happen. Just let it play out, not to stress over why it happened. Even for the Oakland project, everything was about Oakland. When I started, it was really just about doing a project in Oakland, calling it The Town, paying respect, paying homage to Oakland. Our office and hotel are there, but we haven’t started renovations and it’s delayed. There’s no way that we would be able to get all of that stuff done. We wouldn’t have the manpower, we wouldn’t have the time. So the way I started looking at it was, we’re a blessing. We get approved on a smaller property and totally engross ourselves and then put our arms around and then once we prove this out, I’m almost positive that situation is going to be right.
So you talked a little bit about bandwidth. Who else is it besides the two of you?
MC: The most important person besides the two of us on this journey, and frankly more important than me, is [Damon’s mother] Karen Lawrence. When I think about Karen’s impact, we talk about design, finance, we can talk about a lot. But for me, it really goes back to her taking a bet on herself ultimately leading to Damon wanting to take a bet on himself.
That’s amazing. So on a technical level, what do each of you do? You’re both co-founders but what do you do individually, if there is any distinction?
DL: It’s merged a lot. At first, it was like you’re going to handle the front, and then I’m going to do all the creative stuff. Then the more we hang out, the more that we get to know each other—because we didn’t know each other prior to here—but I realize just how creative he is. I think that now he kind of respects my business acumen. What I appreciate the most about Marcus is that he has a go-getter mentality. He’s just aggressive like a pit bull. He’s going to go get it. If he was a basketball player, he’d be like Chris Paul, scrappy, figure out a way, he’s going to take you home if he needs to. I appreciate that because sometimes, being in my mind all the time, I can be somewhat laissez-faire, but he lifts me up a lot. So to answer your question, it started out really him on more of the business and finance, and me more creative operations and thinking about what we’re doing as a brand, but now we’re close in numbers.
MC: We wear a ton of hats at the same time. We think a ton about what it would look like as we scale the business. We’ll figure it out along the way, but right now we’ve got so many balls in the air right now, we don’t have the luxury to be thinking who’s gonna do what.
DL: I think we do a good job of knowing each other’s strengths.
If you don’t know who our hotel is inspired by then you’ll never know. This is for the originators who don’t get their credit. The geniuses who don’t have degrees. The ones who get negatively stereotyped and then plagiarized. Stigmatized and then codified. Made fun of for resourcefulness that the man patents and makes billions off of. This is for the builders of cities and worlds. The creators of Jazz and Hip Hop. The scientists with bedrooms for a lab. The creators of technology. The writers of books. The farmers of indigo where it never was supposed to grow. Those who treated English a as base language for new dialects. The ones whose lyrics changed how generations moved and dressed. Those whose social inventiveness created trusted dynamics of hospitality. We are paying homage to those whose existence reminds us that there is more. Free men hospitable to their greatness in an inhospitable world. Paying homage, always. #stayhomage #theresroomforyou #spaceistheplace #afrofuturismashospitality #hospitality
MC: If anybody out there is doing something or trying to figure it out and they don’t want to go at it alone, and they want to go at it with somebody, just try to think about… You can think about skill sets, that’s cool, but also try to think about energy. If I’m hopped up and worried, I go to him, he’s the most calm. There are times where he’ll be hopped up and worried and angry, and then I’ll kind of bring him down and calm him down. So people should be thinking about energy and spirit when they think about being in a partnership with somebody. Far for two years, we found that constantly. It starts to feel like we’re blood brothers or something. It’s weird.
DL: It’s a true relationship. It’s like any other relationship with your significant other, you want someone who’s going to balance you out, going to calm you down, and talk you off the ledge and vice versa. That’s what I am to him and I’m thankful to have this brother as my co-founder.
What are the differences between your locations as they grow and expand? Do you want to keep a similar design scheme?
DL: They’re probably going to feel very different, every single one. It really depends on location. Our property in Tremé is probably going to pay homage to a totally different thing. For us, this property being called The Moor and having more of an African feel to it, it was really because this is going to be the first one to open. So we have to make a statement—who we’re about, what we’re about, who we’re for, who we’re going to stand with. After that, looking at each location and seeing how can we speak to the culture of this. Every city has its own culture. There are subcultures in every city, too. Oakland is a very unique place. Brooklyn, D.C.—they all have these certain things that are unique to them. If you didn’t live in D.C., you probably don’t know what Mambo sauce is. How do we tap into that and really pay homage to that? Just looking at each individual property and location and paying homage to the black history that’s there.
Tell me about the research process, then. Do you personally do the research, or do you have people from the area consult with you?
DL: It’s our own research. Our first round, we actually did in Brooklyn. We had some really good people, I think we did about seven, eight interviews. We talked to an architect, DJs, Joshua Kissi from Street Etiquette, a barber. So just thinking about how they identify with spaces. They’re different. A DJ has to be aware of so many different things. Who’s dancing? What music is really catching their attention? That gave us a better understanding of music in the room. How does that music travel or is it just stationary? Or do you have a setup where you listen to it where you are? And then a barber, making you feel comfortable, sitting down, easing your worries, so you can do what you have to do. You got to be calm, you can’t even be moving. and how do you get that person to that calm space so you’re able to do your work? So figuring out all of those things, it is very insightful. We’re working on all the research ourselves and it keeps us in tune to it because we’re doing the design ourselves as well.
You talked a little bit about The Moor and how it pays homage to this location. What about the one in Tremé?
DL: Tremé has a rich history. It’s known as the first African American neighborhood in the U.S., so when slaves were freed, it was the first area that they were able to buy property. It’s important from a legacy perspective for us to own a piece of property in that neighborhood, to be honest. And then through that, it’s the birthplace of jazz, so there’s going to be a lot of jazz influence from an aesthetics standpoint.
If you had an ideal timeline, and everything were to work out in the best way, where do you see your business in two years, five years and 10 years?
MC: We see a path to, five or six years from today, having 50 properties open around the country. There are some challenges there, and hopefully, we can get our hands around solving. But if we can have a formulaic approach to building out this business and what it means to pull out the threads to culture and put it inside a property in a formulaic kind of way, then yeah we can get our hands on 30 properties that look like this and another 10 properties that look like Oakland. And we’re working on a social club hotel concept in Detroit and another 10 that look like that for creatives and people of color to just gather. So yeah, we really see a path to be in all the markets we care about: Harlem, Brooklyn, Inglewood, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta. We see a path to spending time in all those places. I certainly see a route to—and I can’t wait—Johannesburg, and Lagos, and Tokyo and… come on. I totally see a route to that stuff. I totally see a route to other cultures wanting to pay homage to those spaces. And whether our business can be helpful to the Hispanic culture, wanting to do that, the Asian culture, wanting to do that, we’ll see.
MC: Howard wants to do something with a really important property across the street from… Where is that across the street from? Is that the bookstore? The tailgate parking lot. They want to do something with that big property, and the board agreed that they should do a hotel, and they got a lot of people trying to talk to them about stuff. Howard should make sure we get it. Ain’t that right Damon?
DL: Yeah, put that in there.
Book your stay at The Moor and future Homage properties here.