Young professionals roundtable: Education, experience benefit hospitality

Pictured from left to right, back row: Kathryn Parker, director of revenue at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport; Ryan LeVeque, senior revenue manager at the Marriott Marquis Chicago; Hayley Delaney, student at DePaul University; Rehan Zaid, principal of acquisition/development and asset management at Prominence Hospitality Group; Alyssa Poniatowski, marketing manager for First Hospitality Group; Juan Mendez, instructor for the School of Hospitality Leadership at DePaul University; and Allyson Cataldo, marketing manager at Hostmark Hospitality Group. Front row: Tam Osilaja, student at DePaul University; Candace Gerard, assistant director of front-office operations at the Hilton Chicago; Nicholas Thomas, interim associate director of the School of Hospitality Leadership, assistant professor & director of the J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation Center for Student Development and Engagement at DePaul University; David Eisen, editor-in-chief of HOTEL MANAGEMENT magazine; and Sarah Bond, director of human resources for the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago.

The continued success of the hotel industry hinges on the next generation of hoteliers. To operators, this isn’t anything new, but the acquisition and cultivation of new talent is one of the greatest concerns facing the hospitality industry today. This is why HOTEL MANAGEMENT met with 10 young professionals—some students, some already active in the industry—to discuss acquiring experience, the impact of technology and adapting to the changing needs of the next generation of guests.

It’s difficult to put a price on the value of a good education, though there is a reason “book smarts” and “street smarts” aren’t valued equally in all circles. Many successful individuals in the hospitality industry never specifically went to school to learn the business, but a case can certainly be made for earning a degree in hospitality today.

 

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Hayley Delaney, student at DePaul University, said her school taps into the hands-on aspect of hospitality by requiring students to take part in two internships on their path to earning a degree. This, in addition to a speaker series and a variety of career fairs and networking events, is how academic institutions are helping to lead young minds to the front desk and beyond.

“I think a hospitality education today allows you to have a feeling of, ‘This is the situation that I know I will see myself in,’ and then be able to use that example in the future,” said Juan Mendez, instructor for the School of Hospitality Leadership at DePaul University. “The skills a hospitality degree provides you with are analytical thinking skills, critical thinking skills and being able to analyze information and come up with a product and a solution to situations [developing] around you.”

However, Ryan LeVeque, senior revenue manager at the Marriott Marquis Chicago, said many graduates expect to step into a management role right out of college when that simply isn’t the way the business works.

“After getting some front-office experience… for me it was the best way to go get that foundational experience and really understand the ins and outs of the industry,” LeVeque said. “The biggest opportunity is continuing your own self development.”

Education isn’t enough to succeed in hospitality, no matter how good the education might be. Sarah Bond, director of human resources at the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago, said hospitality requires a passion for people, a “fire in the belly” to help them carry on through long days and sometimes frustrating situations.

Tam Osilaja, a student at DePaul University, said he was previously motivated to succeed in hospitality out of a search for a reliable source of income. However, as he became more focused on his pursuit to succeed in the industry, he gained insight into what motivates himself and his peers, and how they interact when it comes to improving the guest experience.

“There are always going to be people who have people skills, but aren’t necessarily motivated by their career or the work they have to do,” Osilaja said. “When it comes to motivating young people in the industry, you can assess that ‘fire in the belly’ distinction. Whether it might be a financial incentive or otherwise, it’s much easier to manage them when you’re able to recognize [what drives them.]”

Alyssa Poniatowski [left], marketing manager for First Hospitality Group; and Hayley Delaney, student at DePaul University, discuss the importance and utility of an education in the hospitality industry.

Changing Minds

Who better understands the “millennial mindset” than millennials? When the discussion turned to communal spaces, such as open lobbies designed around promoting interaction, Candace Gerard, assistant director of front-office operations at the Hilton Chicago, said the trend is no longer solely the domain of the millennial.

“It’s primarily millennials you’ll find, but it’s more of the [corporate] travelers who use these spaces a lot more now as opposed to maybe a year ago,” Gerard said.

In her opinion, travelers in their 40s and 50s still prefer to check in with someone at a front desk rather than using a mobile app to bypass the process. To Gerard, this sort of interaction remains the lifeblood of the industry, and she expressed concern that automated systems and mobile workarounds could eventually chip away at the human element hotels thrive on.

“This is a face-to-face industry, and we are in the business of serving people,” Gerard said. “Take it a step further to revenue management. How can I separate my product or justify charging a much higher rate than the person next door based on the experience provided by a machine? Then it just comes down to the room, but at the end of the day the guest is just looking to put their head in a bed.”

Millennials are also more open to sharing their data than other generations of travelers, and Rehan Zaid, principal of acquisition/development and asset management at Prominence Hospitality Group, said the industry is moving toward tapping into more in-depth traveler data to upsell on services. It’s something the industry is touching upon today by offering deals based on when a guest checks in. By using location-tracking technology to stay abreast of where guests are going, however, the opportunities are endless.

“Sure, there’s a privacy concern there,” Zaid said. “The industry is moving toward a situation where, if you’re in your room at 6 p.m., you might get a notification saying, ‘Hey, we have a great deal for you for $10. Go down to the bar.’”

Kathryn Parker [left], director of revenue at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport; and Allyson Cataldo, marketing manager at Hostmark Hospitality Group, discussed industry disruptors, such as hostels and home sharing.

Sharing and Returning

As the discussion turned to Airbnb, Kathryn Parker, director of revenue at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport, said the hospitality industry needs to do a better job of selling the benefits behind a hotel stay rather than railing against regulations, taxes and inequalities when compared to the home-sharing business model.

“If you’re saying that a hotel is better, then [we] as an industry have to provide more consistency,” Parker said. “When you have so many brands and everyone thinks so differently, it’s hard for the customer to differentiate and tell the difference between a hotel and an Airbnb because a hotel could mean so many different things.”

Allyson Cataldo, marketing manager at Hostmark Hospitality Group, said she isn’t enthusiastic about home sharing the same way she is about hostels, which is another segment growing in favor with millennials. Cataldo said she doesn’t think there is enough hostel supply in the U.S. to affect hotel occupancy or rates in the same way home sharing has, but the modus operandi of a hostel aligns almost perfectly with what research shows millennials are looking for when they travel.

“It’s great because you’re never there,” Cataldo said. “You’re exploring a city. You’re doing things out and about. You don’t want a huge room with a desk and tons of amenities and all this stuff. You’re not using them.”

Some studies have shown that Airbnb is not necessarily in direct competition with hotels in every case because many of Airbnb’s guests would not have traveled had Airbnb rooms not been available for them to rent. When it comes to guests who have been won over by Airbnb, Alyssa Poniatowski, marketing manager for First Hospitality Group, said some percentage of guests will eventually return to hotels, while the rest will opt for home sharing.

“We have a hotel in Louisville, Ky., and three years ago they sold out $1,000 a night for [the Kentucky Derby],” Poniatowski said. “Two years ago, they didn’t sell out and [earned only] $700 a night, but then this past Derby they were back up to $900 a night and they sold out again. People are starting to say, ‘OK, we’ve done it once, let’s go back to a hotel now the next year.’”

Juan Mendez, instructor for the School of Hospitality Leadership at DePaul University, said hospitality degrees are useful for providing familiarity and inspiring confidence in the next generation of hotel workers.

Stay Responsible

Toward the end of the discussion, the concept of social responsibility came up. Delaney said the industry’s largest companies could be doing more for local communities, pointing to things like recycling practices.

“Hotels throw away so much food… all those shampoos and conditioners,” she said. “We should be moving toward being more socially responsible and using less waste. This is the world where we live, and we want to make it last as long as possible.”

Cataldo said her biggest concern in the near future is automation. She said it is something many operators view as a challenge for many years down the road, but in reality it is going to be an issue sooner rather than later.

“We have to think about it not only from a guest service perspective, but also from a HR perspective and an employer perspective; how that will look when we suddenly eliminate a lot of these positions,” Cataldo said. 

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