In 1991, my wife, Rita, and I—young and seemingly on a prayer—founded Stonebridge Companies, an ownership, management and hospitality development firm in Colorado. Deriving as a team of two, I still reflect nostalgically on the amount of time we spent in that early period, late at night, analyzing, contemplating and discussing just exactly what kind of company we truly wished to stand behind.
As the son of two immigrant parents, I grew up with little, and therefore I always held the steadfast belief that Stonebridge would only grow as a company so long as we recruited a team of associates dedicated to being respectful of their workplace—and also committed to giving back to those in their community.
As our company grew, so did our ability to fund and implement programs with schools around the country in order to give back to students who are eager to learn about the hospitality business.
For us, it’s not about simply creating a program, it is about thinking through every aspect of the people and the places that program will affect. It is always critical that we start with long-term, clearly defined objectives in order to create a long-lasting, synergistic relationship with the schools and within our own company.
I’m proud to bear witness to the impact on the scholars and the continuous evolution of our programs over time. We have experienced learning curves—some larger than others—and are learning from both. However, the successes we’ve achieved would not have been possible without the contemplation of the following three questions that must be considered when collaborating with a school and its students.
1. What are the overall benefits of implementing a program for both the company and the students?
If you’re a company like Stonebridge and place an emphasis on giving back to the communities in which you serve, then creating a program with a school seems like one of the first places you would look to make that impact. However, doing so seems to be a road paved with good intention, but there is much to consider for both the student and the company, specifically: What kind of experience do you want to give to your employees, as well as the students?
Without proper input and support of the company team, a program can only make it so far. The objective is to instill enthusiasm in your associates so they feel like they are truly part of a company that is helping others get ahead in their young careers.
One of our successful ventures that began with this objective was in 2016 as a result of our collaboration with Washington State University. At the time, we had just ventured into a modular construction project with a Courtyard by Marriott in Pullman, Wash., located on the Washington State University campus. As an alumnus of WSU, I found this project’s potential to be all the more enticing and hoped it would be appealing to students and Stonebridge associates. As we researched further into the benefits of the practice, we continually asked ourselves how we could best get an objective opinion on the long-term feasibility of this construction method. Once we decided to pursue the modular route, we saw that there was an opportunity to involve hospitality and construction-focused students at WSU, and give them hands-on exposure to a project in the field they had chosen to study.
Recruiting students from WSU’s Construction Management and Hospitality Management Schools, we challenged them to test our hypothesis that modular construction is a viable method for hotel development in the future. We believed that it had merit; however, we wanted to obtain findings from an unbiased viewpoint and to see what these students would come up with in terms of cost/benefit analysis—and whether modular construction is sustainable in the long term.
Aside from their findings, the co-curricular course was deemed “most positive” as reflected in feedback from the students. They loved participating in a real-life, cutting-edge project that could influence hotel construction and operations into the future. Class sessions were taught on the job site by professionals from Stonebridge, Marriott and the general contractor, and included a multiday field trip to the modular fabrication plant in Idaho. Faculty members from WSU’s Hospitality Management and Construction Management Schools jointly facilitated the class, which culminated in the presentation of the students’ findings to the Stonebridge executive team, who benefited from their insight.
2. What type of experience can your company offer that will impact associates as well as give back to students?
Our initial question when establishing an endowment, scholarship or fellowship is always: What are the types of hands-on experiences we can give to students and Stonebridge associates? Is there a way to collaborate so that everyone has the opportunity to walk away feeling the value of working together?
In 2016, we instituted the Stonebridge-Morgantown Marriott at Waterfront Place Hospitality Scholarship with West Virginia University. We own and operate the Marriott adjacent to the campus of the school, and we had always hoped to create a way to bring in the students. When we caught wind of the school’s implementation of a Hospitality and Tourism major back in 2014, we knew immediately we had the opportunity we’d been looking for to create a scholarship. The endowment gave us an opportunity to reward some of the hardworking associates at the university, regardless whether or not they would ever work with Stonebridge.
Working alongside WVU, we established the scholarship with the intention that every student awarded the recognition would obtain the opportunity to work side-by-side with our own Stonebridge associates in order to learn the ropes of what their future career would look like once they had graduated.
Working closely with the university, we were also able to institute many other different learning components for the scholarships, and today, the students’ experiences include classroom instruction taught by some of our own Stonebridge associates as well as on-site instruction at the Marriott. Students also obtain the experience of working part-time at the Marriott, and the end result is a great experience for the scholars, our associates and our hotel guests. Our philosophy is that when you add various kinds of experiential learning and internship opportunities, you gain graduates that can really make a difference in the industry, no matter where they land in the job market.
In return, our corporate associates also enjoy the opportunity to partner in the classroom, practice good corporate citizenship, and share knowledge and advice with our next generation of hoteliers, and are constantly growing and evolving as part of the company. Additionally, we have the chance to learn from the students as well.
This leads to my next consideration:
3. Are you open and willing to listen to feedback from the students in order to evolve with your company?
Sounds like a no-brainer, but more often than not we see or hear about companies that establish programs with good intention – only to drop off once the program is smooth sailing. As the founder of a company, I did not want this to be the case for Stonebridge because I know we can only evolve and flourish with the help of the next generation to guide us. In 2014, we implemented the Rita and Navin Dimond Fellows Program at Metropolitan State University in Denver, Colorado. While our primary goal when establishing the fellowship was to provide the Fellows with the opportunity to have a realistic, hands-on experience of what working in the hotel business is all about, including attending management meetings as well as experiencing front-line operations in every functional area of a hotel. In turn, we’re happy to report that the unintended value is that some future hospitality leaders have joined Stonebridge, which has been a clearly great byproduct to the program.
As the program has evolved, we have been in a constant state of refinement. To accommodate the scholars, we have adjusted scheduling compensation, and content. Even more impressive has been the thoughtful perspective on our guest journey from the next generation of travelers and hotel guests.
What works about this methodology is that we truly are able to develop and maintain a working relationship with the students, and in turn, we are open to their feedback about both the fellowship as well as the hospitality industry as a whole. We understand the value of initiating and responding to the student’s perspective as the industry constantly evolves to meet guests’ needs. Through this mentality, a mutual trust is earned and the students periodically become valuable and loyal associates, knowing they will be listened to when they provide feedback about both the fellowship and the experience of working alongside our company.
As with some of our other programs, our associates partner in the classroom in order to share knowledge and advice with our next generation of hoteliers while also relaying back to us the ideas that the students develop on their own. This keeps Stonebridge in a place where we can continue to grow and further strengthen our mission and goals.
While there are differences in our hospitality programs at each school, it remains important for us to make sure that we, as an organization, constantly review the goals and objectives at regular intervals within each school. Constant communication is necessary to ensure that we understand student needs, course curriculums, and we align our ever-changing needs of business to ensure the partnership will be successful.
It is a growing and evolving process. It takes commitment, dedicated resources, flexibility and constant follow-through. Without the deep commitment from all our company leaders, we would not be as successful as we are today.
Navin Dimond is the founder of Stonebridge Companies, a hospitality ownership, management and development company. He serves as president and CEO, overseeing the company’s development, operations and investment functions.