Not in her wildest dreams did Barbara Gross ever envision herself working in the hotel industry. But thanks to good fortune, Gross has spent the last 13 years as the general manager of Garden Court Hotel in Palo Alto, Calif. The luxury boutique property is especially popular among business travelers destined for Silicon Valley, Mountain View, Menlo Park, Stanford University, and the Bay Area Peninsula.
Gross has a background in education, and started out as an elementary school teacher in Michigan for two years while her husband was attending graduate school. The couple then moved back to New York, where Gross taught in upper Manhattan for two more years. When her husband’s job brought the couple to Palo Alto, she instructed in private schools for a brief period.
Gross then took a hiatus from the working world to raise a family, and didn’t return until her youngest of three children began kindergarten. “The idea of going into a classroom after being home with children for so many years was not an option,” she says, laughing.
In the late 1980s, Gross switched gears and entered the banking industry as a teller. Within three years, she became a bank manager. “Being manger of anything has a lot of similarities to running a home,” she says. “All of those skills and organizing and repeating messages a lot were part of it.”
After nearly 15 years in banking, Gross desired a change. The industry had shifted after a series of mergers, and many of her clients had suffered. Having already established herself in the Palo Alto business community, Gross had plenty of connections. In 1999, the previous manager of the Garden Court Hotel was retiring, and she suggested that Gross speak with the owners. Gross literally walked across the street—from the bank to the 62-room independent hotel—and landed the GM position. “They appreciated my network, my management experience, and my understanding of the hotel within the market, and decided they could teach me the rest of the business,” she says.
Gross admits that she didn’t know much about the hotel industry, and without any professional training it was a big piece to bite off. Fortunately, the hotel already had a core group of experienced employees, many whom still work there today. “It’s because of their experience, insight, and abilities that we can make the building run really well and efficiently, and we really understand the culture,” Gross says.
Garden Court Hotel opened in 1986 and operated under local ownership until 2006, when Spanish owners took over. “It wasn’t so much an ownership change as a management change at the time…that was the biggest hurdle for us because I hadn’t changed, my team hadn’t changed, the building hadn’t changed,” Gross recalls. “Suddenly, this 20-year-plus business became an overnight startup. It was extremely challenging to live through that. And we did.”
The Garden Court Hotel is known for its philanthropic efforts. It acts as a support system, making donations and hosting events for nonprofit organizations, schools, the city, and other associations in the area. Under Gross’ leadership, the Garden Court Hotel won a Tall Tree Award for Outstanding Business from the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, which honors community service and civic contribution. In 2005, Gross received the Chamber’s Athena award, which is given to individuals for professional excellence, valuable service to their community, and assisting women in their attainment of professional excellence and leadership.
Initially, when Gross accepted the job, she thought, “How hard could it be? There are only 62 rooms, there’s a lot of help.” She quickly realized running a hotel was a lot different than she imagined, and that guests’ needs, expectations, and attitudes are constantly evolving. Now, more than ever, Gross is more than prepared to change along with them.
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