Robert Rawlins started out on the bottom rung as a guest service agent when he joined the New York City-based Library Hotel Collection (LHC) team in 2006. Since then, he has risen steadily through the ranks while working at three of the boutique collection’s four luxury hotels in Manhattan. He began at LHC’s Hotel Giraffe in Midtown and was promoted to head concierge that same year. Rawlins then moved to the Hotel Elysée by Central Park, first as a sales coordinator and then a sales manager, before landing his current post in 2011 as the director of sales and marketing at LHC’s flagship Library Hotel.
In the hotel industry, it’s not unheard of for entry-level employees to progress from concierge to CEO. This is the rare business that doesn’t put up a lot of barriers between frontline staff and management. It’s an approach that allows hotel management to harness the energy and fresh ideas of up-and-comers while also rewarding their passion with training and access to operational experts. By taking advantage of continuing education opportunities, from mentorships to training programs, employees are fast-tracking their careers. In the process they’re bringing their advanced skills and training back to the hotel to create an even better experience for guests.
Ongoing instruction paid off in Rawlins’ case, since he was able to take advantage of the LHC’s in-house education program to give him a leg up the corporate ladder. The company strives to promote from within and often uses its education program to groom internal prospects. Currently, all of the company’s general managers and reservations managers—as well as three sales directors—started in entry-level jobs at hotels in the collection and leveraged the program to work their way up. Emphasizing employee retention, the LHC focuses on daily training, as opposed to structured and formal courses. As a result, it promotes a culture in which employees stay loyal to the organization, and continue to learn and grow in their careers.
Rawlins says he’s grateful to work for a progressive company that’s open to ideas from all staff members. “The company’s inclusive culture ensures that all employees have opportunities for advancement,” Rawlins says. “It is a collaborative effort. Junior and senior staffers are involved in day-to-day conversations and meetings with the GMs about on-site service and operations issues.” According to Adele Gutman, vice president of sales, marketing, and revenue at Library Hotel Collection, it’s critical to put new and old employees in the same room. “Not only does this expose less-experienced staff members to the decision making process, but it also helps us achieve better outcomes,” Gutman says. “The senior staff members contribute from their experience while the junior-level employees add a fresh perspective. Together, it is an effective tool for continuous improvement.”
Like many forward-thinking hotel companies, LHC is prioritizing education by taking on a number of varied—and equally progressive—forms to impart knowledge to its employees. “In the hotel industry there are many hands touching the guest experience,” Gutman says. “You simply can’t control everything from the executive office, but what you can do is create a culture of staff members who take pride in their abilities to care for our guests and maximize the success of our business.” Learning has become a major industry focus, ultimately resulting in enhanced businesses and inspired employee development. Whether you invest in mentorships, internships, or home-growing internal teams, these programs generate a huge payoff when it comes to human capital.
A Full-Time Job
Born in Colombia, South America, Luisa Mendoza-Chavez moved to the United States with her parents in 1989 in pursuit of the American dream. In her junior year of high school, Mendoza-Chavez joined the National Academy Foundation (NAF), which partners with high schools across the United States and prepares students for college and post-university careers. She landed an internship at the Greater Fort Lauderdale and Broward County Convention Center in Florida and never looked back.
“Taking that internship was the one decision that had the biggest impact on my career and personal life,” Mendoza-Chavez says. “It opened my eyes to this industry and directed me toward a career that I loved and really wanted to be involved in. I had the opportunity to apply what I had learned by experiencing the marketplace and putting my knowledge into action.”
Although Mendoza-Chavez’s internship only lasted one year, she kept in touch with the team and her mentor, the GM of the convention center, while earning a bachelor’s degree in travel and tourism management at Florida International University and working at other hotels, including Hyatt, Marriott, and Crowne Plaza. Maintaining these connections paid off—from 2002 to 2006 she also took on special projects and events at the convention center and then was hired as the full-time sales manager in October 2006. Not surprisingly, Mendoza-Chavez is passionate about mentorships, and believes in giving back. In 2008, she launched a new mentoring program at her alma mater that has grown to 100-plus students today.
Mendoza-Chavez moved to New York City in 2011 when she got a job with Marriott. In 2012, she became corporate sales manager at Furnished Quarters, an extended-stay corporate housing entity in Manhattan. She directly credits the NAF’s Academy of Hospitality and Tourism for her successful career path.
The Academy of Hospitality and Tourism creates work-based learning experiences for 9,000 students at hotels. The academy taps into a pool of experts from more than 2,500 companies to volunteer in classrooms, act as mentors, engage students in paid internships, and serve on NAF advisory boards. The academy also works with a number of major hotel companies on local levels, including Hilton, Loews, and Marriott. Those companies encourage their employees to volunteer as classroom speakers, offer job shadowing, and join local advisory boards.
Colleen Devery, NAF’s assistant vice president of strategic initiatives, says Marriott is one of the most successful models. “The company asks their GMs to determine the best way to be involved in the local schools—and it’s not limited to hospitality,” she says. “For example, Marriott works with IT and finance interns in its business offices. They consider this a leadership and development opportunity for their staff to be involved as mentors. It re-energizes people and gets them excited about why they chose a career in hospitality.”
“We are working with some of the most challenging urban school districts around the country and we structure the curriculum so that it is based on what’s going on in the industry right now,” says Dana Pungello, NAF’s communications manager. She notes that the hospitality and tourism courses are focused on marketing and customer service—skills that can be easily transferred to other industries. Yet, according to Devery, “The students in these encouraging environments tend to stay with the hotels and advance. The Loews hotel in Miami has many alumni still working there today who started as interns.”
Because the hospitality industry is so vast, students can pursue a wide range of career options across many types of businesses. “The beauty of the hotel industry is that there are so many opportunities in so many different areas,” Mendoza-Chavez says. “Joining the academy is what gave me the footprint, the tools, and the resources to really excel in my career.”
You’ve Got Talent
When Daniel Eagen joined Denihan Hospitality Group as a human resources coordinator three years ago, he was accepted into the company’s Talent Development Academy (TDA). Less than 10 years old, the intensive training program helps employees shape their career paths within the organization.
Eagen was fortunate to have Denihan co-CEO Patrick Denihan as his mentor. “It’s not often that you have the chance to work closely with a top-level company leader who is willing to offer assistance and guidance,” Eagen says. Exposure to senior leadership is a big part of the process, as those professionals can help enhance management and leadership skills, as well as identify core strengths in the mentees. In addition to increasing the level of professional visibility, the mentorship program addresses issues associated with balancing work, life, and personal ambition in a constantly changing environment.
During Eagen’s yearlong training, which included bimonthly classroom hours, he learned firsthand how the business is run on the property level. That’s because he was promoted to manager of recruitment in New York City after one and a half years with the company and had the opportunity to help open the James hotel in SoHo, and the National, a Chef Geoffrey Zakarian restaurant located in the Benjamin hotel in Midtown East in 2011. Only nine months later, he moved into his current role as director of human resources for the Surrey and the Affinia Gardens, two Denihan properties based in New York City’s Upper East Side.
“The TDA has given me a global understanding of hospitality operations,” Eagen says. “I gained knowledge that I wouldn’t have normally possessed, exposure to people I wouldn’t have had any interaction with, and a chance to lend my voice to the innovation driving Denihan.”
TDA is led by graduates, coaches, and mentors who are committed to fostering growth within the company. Last year, only 12 full-time employees were accepted out of 46 applicants. As of 2013, a total of 50 employees have graduated from the TDA.
“The most amazing part of a mentorship program like this is the ability for the students to have their voices heard,” Eagen says, “and to know that if management liked their ideas, they would be given their own budget and be able to take ownership of that particular project, unroll the program, and truly make it part of the company’s culture.”
The Library Hotel Collection’s Gutman seconds that idea. “If we do not include the junior staffers in the conversation, we are not allowing them to gain the expertise they need to grow.” She says involving future leaders and rising stars in the inner workings of a hotel allows them to learn how to use company values to guide their decision making.
By making a strategic investment in employee education and development, hotels can strengthen their future growth as much as they would by investing in building and infrastructure improvements. “We are preparing the next generation of workers who are going to change the world and give back to their community,” says the National Academy Foundation’s Devery. “It’s a transformative experience for everyone involved.”