Welcome to Memphis distributes grants to help hospitality workers struggling through the pandemic

Last March, nonprofit Welcome to Memphis was poised for another successful year of training and inspiring the city’s hospitality workforce to serve hotel guests, restaurant patrons and music-goers visiting the city. Memphis’ tourism numbers were booming — in 2019, more than 12 million people came to Memphis. Then COVID-19 hit and everything changed.


“Welcome to Memphis is responsible for supporting our hospitality workforce so when the pandemic hit we quickly pivoted to serve them in any way we could,” said Executive Director of Welcome to Memphis Mary Schmitz. “Since March we have basically been distributing COVID relief funds to hourly workers and furloughed employees who have been severely and disproportionately affected by the pandemic economy. Many are in survival mode and running up debt. We will continue in our supporting role and return to our training role as things improve."


As a subsidiary of Memphis Tourism, Welcome to Memphis distributed grants from various funders, including the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis and federal CARES Act funds through the City of Memphis, to Memphis' hospitality workforce in the form of $300 grants. Welcome to Memphis and the Community Foundation are continuing to partner in 2021 and continue to seek private donations for hospitality employees to distribute $500 grants to those in need. About 2,000 people were assisted in 2020, Schmitz said, and the nonprofit revised guidelines so people who received a $300 grant could be eligible for a $500 grant this year. Nearly 600 grants are being distributed now, bringing the total to 3,268 grants.


The grants have helped workers like Blue Monkey server David Boone.


"My check actually came at the perfect time,” Boone said. “With hours already cut back at work and being closed for a week, due to a foot of snow, I was hurting. You can only hit CoinStar up so many times."


Welcome to Memphis Board Chair Deni Reilly, who also owns and operates Majestic Grill with her husband Patrick, says the industry takes care of its own.


“Memphis takes care of Memphis. When the tourism industry was decimated we knew we had to step up for the folks who sell and love our city on a daily basis,” said Deni Reilly.

Going Above and Beyond

When a front-line employee goes above and beyond there is now a way for them to be honored. Welcome to Memphis, through its customer service training, has incentivized being the best ambassador for visitors around the world through their annual Pick Awards.


One of those winners was Zaneta Houston. Her main gig is working the front desk at the Holiday Inn Express in the Medical District in downtown Memphis, where she helped a couple — during pre-pandemic times — deal with their stolen vehicle.


According to Houston, the couple were furious and said they would never visit Memphis again. Houston, who took the Welcome to Memphis training, invited the couple to meet her at her other job — Cordelia’s Market in Harbor Town — where she would buy them lunch and tell them the real and authentic history of Memphis. The couple left with a positive impression and are already planning another trip when the pandemic is over.


“These are the people who make or break the Memphis guest experience and because of these hardworking professionals, Memphis is a place where visitors feel welcomed and learn more than they expected, all while having good time,” said Schmitz.


As for what's next, Welcome to Memphis will go virtual with a newly restructured app featuring recommendations and an awards and incentive program.


Those who qualify can apply for a grant here. And the community can support these hospitality workers by donating here.

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Read more articles by Jeff Hulett.

Originally from Chicago, Jeff moved to Memphis in 1990 not really knowing much about the south. In fact, the first week he lived here he was suspended from school for not saying, "yes ma'am" and "no ma'am." Jeff has since developed a passion for Memphis and especially Memphis music. A member of several bands including Snowglobe and Me & Leah, Jeff works as a communications consultant with many non-profits including Playback Memphis, Church Health, Room in the Inn-Memphis and BLDG Memphis. Jeff lives in the Vollintine Evergreen neighborhood with his wife and two daughters.