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by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | June 16, 2011

Starwood employees race solar-powered toy carsHotels offering community-volunteering options for groups is not a new concept. In fact, Ritz-Carlton led the way back in 2002, when it introduced its Community Footprints program. Seven years later, the hotel company expanded the program to include “VolunTeaming,” which offered great team-building choices for groups, whether spending a day working on a Habitat for Humanity project or building bikes for a local children's charity. What is interesting today, however, is the rate and depth at which these program have been expanding.

Just this week, White Plains, N.Y.-based Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide launched a series of philanthropic specialty events for groups to get involved in their meeting destination. To begin its new venture, Starwood had 70 employees from the chain's headquarters take to the streets of New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, where they built and raced solar-powered cars made from recycled materials, in an event that benefited the Children's Aid Society–East Harlem Boys & Girls Club. After making it to the finish line, the cars were then donated to the club, along with 50 additional car-making kits. Partnering with Starwood for the event were The Coca-Cola Co. and Impact4Good. Other socially conscious team-building activities in Starwood’s program include painting murals in urban-blight areas and building bookshelves and stocking them with books for a local charity, as part of the hotel chain's Literacy Builders outreach effort.

A few days before Starwood’s initiative was announced, Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels Corp. introduced Hyatt Thrive, a global volunteer effort that challenges its 450 hotels and 85,000 employees to get responsibly involved in their communities. And to put some muscle behind the chain’s commitment, some 375 Hyatt associates at three Chicago hotels (the Park Hyatt Chicago, Hyatt Regency Chicago and Hyatt Regency McCormick Place) were set to team up on June 17 to beautify a local public school through landscaping and painting.

Earlier this spring, Toronto-based Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts celebrated the brand's 50th anniversary with the launch of its Living Values program, which encourages employees and guests to give back in a host of ways, from working at local soup kitchens to tracking endangered sea turtles. In addition, the luxury hotel company pledged to plant 10 million trees worldwide. For its part, the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara  (Calif.) not only planted a new Meyer lemon tree and a Haas avocado tree in its chef's garden, the hotel rolled out several new give-back opportunities for groups. For example, guests can lend a hand at the Unity Shoppe, which distributes groceries and clothing to the needy, or spend time picking and packing oranges, avocados and other seasonal fruit on local farms for the Santa Barbara County food bank's Backyard Bounty program.

For planners wondering what program might best fit their group's destination, Brigatta Witt, vice president, corporate responsibility, for Hyatt Hotels & Resorts, suggests taking a cue from the hotel's staff. "No one better understands a community's most pressing issues and how to address them than those who live and work there every day," says Witt.