In her own student days, Victoria Wicks, general manager of the Union Club Hotel at Purdue University, Autograph Collection, in West Lafayette, Indiana, had her sights set on traveling the world as a diplomat, but wound up in a different world altogether: the world of hospitality. Inspired by an “engaged manager” who took the time to read her resume and others who recognized her potential and supported her career, she is now herself an engaged manager at this recently renovated property, where a partnership between Purdue’s newly named White Lodging – J.W. Marriott School of Hospitality and Tourism Management (HTM) and the Union Club Hotel enables her and her colleagues to nurture the careers of HTM students who now comprise a full 75 percent of the hotel’s staff.
In February 2020, Wicks was installed in her current position at the Union Club Hotel, which was transitioning to become an innovative “immersive lab,” where HTM students could receive real-world experience as part of Purdue’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management’s curriculum. “I had just set foot on the Purdue campus to attend a hospitality fair to recruit students for our program and our August hotel opening.” When the hotel shut down due to the pandemic on March 17, she says, she was grateful for that initial opportunity to meet so many people.
Wicks recalls that period between the March shutdown and the August opening as “an experience none of us will ever forget.” During that time, the management team pulled together to achieve the monumental task of opening this very different type of hotel with a fraction of the usual staff. “While we would normally have 50 people to help with the move into an 82-room hotel, 20 of us did it all,” she recalls. “Where we would have had a task force to help train and develop new hires, we managers were doing much of it ourselves.”
Describing the objective and “nuts and bolts” of the program that began in January 2021, Wicks says, “Every HTM student must take HTM 181, which is the introduction to hotel management in which they rotate between four areas.” The first two—housekeeping and front desk—are required; the other two they can choose based on their own interests. They include: culinary, banquets, event management, sales, engineering, and accounting.
To be sure students see life as it actually is and “get their hands dirty,” the curriculum planners try to schedule their shifts when it’s most hectic, such as on a Friday night of a football weekend, when the front desk is “crazy busy,” Wicks says. On housekeeping shifts, they rotate through laundry operations and public areas as well as guestrooms. Electives such as culinary and banquet are literally hands-on. “We teach them how to safely use a knife, maybe do some measuring and cooking.” The students Wicks herself shepherds around can see up close “a day in the life of a general manager.”
Wicks says the managers hired for the leadership team are committed to the development of these students. “Every one of us came here because we embraced the idea that we would be working with the students and guiding and developing them as they launched their careers in hospitality. Because the Union Club Hotel is part of the Autograph Collection, they gain experience in all Marriott systems, which is an enormous advantage if they choose to eventually work for Marriott.”
Wicks says this program goes far beyond a typical internship or work study completed to fulfill a school requirement. “Our goal is to have them truly learn the front of house, the back of house, and all the disciplines within a hotel. The number-one lesson they learn is how to walk a mile in their future associates’ shoes.” In addition, mentorship opportunities provide a key resource for students beyond their advisors and professors. “I tell the candidates I’m interviewing, ‘You will have an entire leadership team here at your disposal to help.’”
The Union Club Hotel also hosts the LAUNCH Hospitality Immersion Program, a planned multi-year talent development program directed by the hotel’s manager White Lodging. Through LAUNCH, a select number of high-performing students are accepted for paid, hands-on experience at the hotel and internship and job opportunities at White Lodging.
Being an engaged leader such as Wicks describes can seem like a tall order for busy hotel managers, but it is exactly what this particular team signed up for, she explains. “While sometimes it may seem like it takes more time and more effort to develop these future leaders, the payoff for both yourself and your operation is greater than you could possibly imagine. Our legacy is truly working with these students and watching them blossom and grow into their careers.”