By Danielle Hyams
Monique Greenwood, former editor-in-chief of Essence magazine, traded in her pen 28 years ago for a whisk, and along with her husband launched a bed-and-breakfast in the heart of the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Nearly three decades later, the two are at the helm of several successful properties under the name Akwaaba, which means welcome in Twi, a language spoken in Ghana. The Escape Home’s Danielle Hyams spoke with Greenwood about her success, diversity (or lack thereof) in the hospitality world, Airbnb and surviving during Covid-19. The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.
EH: Tell us about the transition from journalism to hospitality.
Greenwood: I studied and prepared for a career as a magazine editor and was able to achieve my life’s dream in terms of career by becoming editor-in-chief of Essence magazine. Around that time I began to stay in bed-and- breakfasts and really enjoyed the experience, and the more I stayed in them, the more I realized it tied into my personal passions of decorating and entertaining and creating special experiences for people to remember for a lifetime.
I always believed that real estate was the best financial investment you could make. We opened our first bed & breakfast in Brooklyn in 1995. It was in a dilapidated mansion two blocks from our home and our thought was, with only four guest rooms we should definitely be successful, because back then there were no major hotel chains in Brooklyn.
EH: Did you find that many of your skills transferred from one profession to the next?
Greenwood: I think being able to intuitively read people has been helpful in both careers, being a good listener has been helpful in both careers and being intuitive about one’s needs before they may even know what they are themselves has certainly been helpful. And then I think an attention to detail is critical as a journalist and certainly as an innkeeper.
EH: You’ve since expanded Akwaaba beyond New York — how did you choose the locations?
Greenwood: I really had this vision of having a home that I love in a city that I love for each season of the year, and the B & Bs were a way to do that. We started in Brooklyn, and as I expanded I thought that Brooklyn would be great for the fall. Then we went to Cape May, New Jersey, to be at the beach in the summer, and then Washington, D.C., which is my hometown, for the spring and the cherry blossoms and then we went to New Orleans for the winter because it’s still warm there when it’s cold everywhere else. (Greenwood and her husband have since sold the New Orleans and D.C. locations and launched B & Bs in Philadelphia and the Poconos.)
EH: Bed-Stuy — and Brooklyn as a whole — has changed a lot over the past two-plus decades. How does a business grow and change with the community it’s located in?
Greenwood: A lot of people credit us or blame us, depending on who you ask, for the change that has happened in Bedford-Stuyvesant. When we opened here 27 years ago, when a guest came and pulled up in their yellow taxi from the airport, I can remember times the cab would slow down and then I would see it speed off and that was because the cab driver was telling the guest, ‘why are you staying here, this isn’t’ a safe place.’
To our surprise when we first opened we had a lot of people from down the street, around the corner, through the tunnel over the bridge who wanted to get away without having to go away, so we think we kind of pioneered the concept of staycations. And then as the neighborhood continued to shift and it wasn’t just a place people wanted to visit, it was a place people wanted to live, a lot of creatives, Midwesterners, yuppies, millennials, whatever you want to call them, started to come into our neighborhood. So we became the place of choice for parents with young adult children who are now living in the neighborhood.
EH: Let’s talk diversity in the hospitality sector, where ownership has been predominantly white. Are things changing?
Greenwood: I still think it’s not super diverse when you look at the low number of black-owned hotels or bed & breakfasts in the industry, the numbers are still dire. There is a high entry price to get into this part of the business because you’ve got to have the real estate. And we are still dealing with inequities when it comes to getting financing. What we do see as part of a new consciousness around Black lives mattering is that the Black consumer is much more intentional about how they spend their money, so when we ask folks how they heard about us, the vast majority of people of color say ‘we wanted to support a Black-owned business.’ We’re grateful and appreciative of that consciousness. And of course we also have those who are not of color but are allies and are also being intentional about how they spend their money.
I’m very active in the bed-and-breakfast space and I’m constantly talking about how you create a space that is welcoming to all people. And sometimes it’s as simple as, let’s take a look at the reading materials you have. Could you get a couple books by Lorraine Hansberry or Toni Morrison? Can we look at some of the visuals on your wall, can we have a reflection of the way the world really looks? Can we diversify even the food offering at breakfast so that folks feel they are in a good place?
Greenwood: Because a large number of people had never stayed in a B & B in the first place, for Airbnb to kind of coop the name but give a different type of lodging experience creates confusion for the consumer. There is no second B in Airbnb — no one is making you breakfast and nobody is giving you the service that quite frankly, we have used as a distinction for our industry. So that has been challenging, to help people understand the difference between the two types of experiences and why perhaps the bed-and-breakfast might be more expensive than the Airbnb stay.
EH: How have you managed during Covid-19?
Greenwood: It’s been a roller coaster. When we were finally able to reopen it was a slow return to New York and D.C and Philadelphia because these were cities with high incidents of the infection. So we had lots of interest and lots of bookings at our Poconos location in the mountains but very few in the cities. In 2021, we actually had our best year ever at our Poconos location. Now we are getting cancellations by the minute because of Omicron, so we are just trying to brace ourselves and figure out what is next.
EH: Is there anything you would like guests to know or be more aware of?
Greenwood: We don’t make a big deal about gratuity, but it’s nice when the guests do leave a tip for the staff because they are in the service industry and when you think about it, they have served you breakfast, they have made your bed, they have done those things. So I don’t think as many people would go to a restaurant and sit and dine without leaving a tip. I think it’s important that same consideration be given to the staff at a bed & breakfast. I think some people just don’t know.