Hospitality program opens new avenues for returning war veterans

Ambassadors of the Heroes in Hospitality program at the Park Central Hotel: Erika Vigo, Bryan Connelly and Marie Conserve-Lauren
Ambassadors of the Heroes in Hospitality program at the Park Central Hotel: Erika Vigo, Bryan Connelly and Marie Conserve-Laurent.

Ambassadors of the Heroes in Hospitality program at the Park Central Hotel: Erika Vigo, Bryan Connelly and Marie Conserve-Laurent.

New York – A new hospitality program is looking to give opportunity to returning war veterans. According to Melinda Bush, president and CEO of Hospitality Resources Worldwide, the Heroes in Hospitality program seeks to embrace returning war veterans by offering them a fast track to hotel employment.

The program is the brainchild of Bush, who also serves as its founder and chairman. While in a meeting with the Robin Hood Foundation, a New York-based poverty-fighting organization, Bush learned of its interest in finding jobs and training for returning veterans through the city’s Small Business Services Workforce1 Career Centers. Throughout 2013 and 2014, more than 13,000 veterans returned to New York City, and Bush saw an opportunity to find jobs for them.

As of October 2014, the U.S. unemployment rate was at 5.8 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the lowest figure the country has seen since the housing crash in 2008. One of the most effective ways to improve unemployment numbers is to lend a hand to those who are most susceptible to unemployment over time; one source of which includes the large number of veterans returning home from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Heroes in Hospitality was able to convince first New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, then Mayor Bill de Blasio, that the program presented a benefit to the city and could bring a boost to its tourism agenda. Heroes eventually began recruiting veterans through the offices of Jacqueline Mallon, the deputy commissioner, workforce development for SBS, and the Workforce1 Center focused on veterans.

“What we soon learned was that too often our returning veterans were pigeonholed in interviewing for a specific job listing, such as shipping clerk or delivery driver or construction manager, when, in fact, our industry offers a whole array of training opportunities, from housekeeping, security and food and beverage, to front-desk training and back-of-the-house operations management,” Bush said.

Heroes enlisted the support of two partners in order to establish the program: real estate investment trust FelCor Lodging Trust and hotel management firm Highgate Hotels.

Heroes in Hospitality created an advisory board to help guide the creation of the program. Included on the board were Tom Corcoran, chairman of FelCor Lodging and outgoing chairman of the American Hotel Lodging Association; Joe McInerney, the former CEO of the AHLA; and John Russell, a former West Point graduate, CEO of Campus Brands and a former AHLA chairman. The board was joined by a series of personnel with a focus on New York City, including Troy Pentecost, EVP of FelCor Lodging Trust’s New York City hotel initiative; and Geri Williams-Fitts, SVP, human resources of Highgate Hotels.

“We were delighted to have the opportunity, and we knew that our Highgate partners, with their vast number of hotels and rooms in New York, could make it happen,” said Rick Smith, president and CEO of FelCor Lodging Trust.


According to Williams-Fitts, the crux of the initiative was treating veterans not as applicants for a specific job, but as “ambassadors” for the hotels through a program designed to welcome them to every phase of the business. What emerged was an eight-week, on-the-job training program that allows veterans to sample all aspects of hotel operations.

The Park Central Hotel was one of the first properties to demo the Heroes in Hospitality program.

The Park Central Hotel was one of the first properties to demo the Heroes in Hospitality program.

This program began in Highgate’s Park Central Hotel, with the first phase taking place October to December 2013, followed by another phase from May to July 2014. The third phase is currently underway at the new Knickerbocker hotel in Times Square.

“This is about giving back to the guests and the communities we serve,” said Jeff David, managing director of The Knickerbocker.

A calendar was set up for the veterans, including coaching sessions with managers to measure their progress and return feedback to the program. At the end of the process, the ambassadors could apply for jobs in the areas they were most interested in.

“I would never have had this opportunity of going to different departments and hotels, meeting great new people and learning new things if it wasn’t for Workforce1 and Highgate Hotels joining together and giving the opportunity to veterans and creating the Heroes in Hospitality program,” said veteran Erika Vigo, now manager in housekeeping at the Park Central Hotel.

“The Heroes in Hospitality program reflects the long history of respect and appreciation that Highgate Hotels has for all Armed Services Heroes,” said Mahmood Khimji, chairman and principal of Highgate Hotels.

The next logical step for the program is to expand it nationwide through hotel groups, Workforce1 Centers and community colleges, with the program already gaining momentum in New Jersey, California, Texas and Arizona.

“What has been created is a turnkey program, developed by hoteliers for hoteliers, that can be adapted to any hotel situation in New York, as well as nationwide,” Bush said. “It is the type of goodwill platform that is a win-win for all involved. It benefits our industry, our returning veterans and our national agenda to welcome our returning veterans home.”