'Tomorrow is too late': plea for more hotel rooms to aid Ukrainian refugees

Emergency accommodation platform Hospitality Helps asks hoteliers across the world to help shelter more families fleeing the war

HospitalityHelps.org is calling for hoteliers around the world to list available hotel rooms on the platform to provide emergency short-term accommodation for people fleeing the war.  EPA / Marco de Swart
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“It’s unthinkable,” says Sofia Widmann, shaking her head in disbelief. “This is Ukraine we’re talking about, it’s Kyiv.”

For the last week, she hasn’t slept much.

Born and brought up in the Ukrainian capital, Widmann has been living 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 university.

A Ukrainian woman takes refuge in a shelter in Kyiv with her baby son. Photo: PKF Hospitality Group

Like so many other Ukrainians, Katya had fled the country, driving with her two children over the border in a bid to reach Austria. Her husband had been forced to stay behind after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy passed an order that military-aged men were no longer allowed to leave Ukraine, just as the family approached the border.

Texting Widmann, Katya wrote: "Misha could not could not leave, there’s just three of us now."

“She called me when she had been driving for 72 hours. She was tired and I told her I'm not sure that you will be able to make it to Austria, but she said no, I have to, I have to,” says Widmman.

'Her parents were in a cellar, and she suddenly had a hotel room'

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

At a certain point, Katya realised that it would be safer if she could stop and rest in Budapest, about 250 kilometres 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 reached out to a friend of our family, Norbert Lessing at Hilton in Austria, and he contacted a colleague in Budapest, and suddenly Katya had a hotel to stay in overnight,” says Widmann.

“She was so shocked. Knowing that her own parents were staying in a cellar under a house in Kyiv, and she had a nice hotel room.”

As the day unfolded, Widmann received more and more reports of people fleeing Ukraine — family, friends, neighbours. Some headed for Poland, others for Romania and others still for Slovakia, but almost all of them left in a hurry, often in nothing but their pyjamas.

“Michael had the idea of bringing together hotel groups from around the world and creating a platform that could automatically bring together those people in need and any available hotel rooms, with no intermediary in between,” says Widmann.

The launch of Hospitality Helps

PKF hospitality group, with the support of Jonathan Worsley, has launched www.hospitality-helps.org to connect hotels and people fleeing the war. Photo: PKF Hospitality Group

And so, Hospitality-Helps.org was born.

Connecting individual hotels with people fleeing the war, it operates in three languages (English, Ukrainian, Russian) and links to a booking platform created by the people at HotelSwaps.

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

It's not a long-term solution, but is designed to give people a chance to stop, get their bearings and begin to comprehend where they are and what has happened.

“When they see this, that this is actually happening, they're grateful and they're crying,” says Widmman, whose initiative has now successfully housed more than 180 people, six cats and seven dogs in emergency accommodation.

Hotels on-board and a major breakthrough

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

Since it launched, the response to the platform has been positive.

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

“Marriott, with the largest inventory of hotel rooms in the world, has just committed to the platform,” Widmann's husband Michael, managing director at PKF hospitality, says.

“We were afraid, and thought we would not be able to house all of the people on the run tonight, but this 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

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

Which is why Hospitality Helps is now calling for more hotels around the world to join the initiative.

“This is a crisis transcending borders, and our response should be as well. As this humanitarian crisis grows, we have to address this at an international level,” says Widmman.

And people with no hotel rooms to offer can still pledge their help. The Hospitality Helps website lists several credible initiatives supporting refugees, including Airbnb, which recently pledged to house 100,000 Ukrainians and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

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

“I think adrenalin is helping me keep going despite having not really slept,” says Widmann.

“I know that my 82-year old grandma is in the city centre of Kyiv, and the house can be bombed at any moment. I know that a lot of my friends are leaving the country and I'm not sure if they will be able to get to safety, and I don’t know if one of my best friend’s husband will survive. But for now, I know that I can help by providing accommodation and this is kind of the mission for me now, I need to get this done.”

Updated: March 04, 2022, 2:47 PM