|By Dan O'Brien, The Sun, Lowell,
Mass.McClatchy-Tribune Business News
Feb. 20, 2007 - CHELMSFORD -- Marge O'Connor got into the hospitality business almost by accident.
"I was raising four kids and needed some work on the weekends," she recalled years after landing a job as a banquet waitress.
O'Connor took that experience, along with a high school education and an initial career in banking, to rise among the ranks until becoming a general manager at the Best Western Chelmsford Inn 10 years ago.
Last month, she reached a pinnacle for her profession. The Massachusetts Lodging Association awarded her General Manager of the Year. She beat out some 400 other candidates for the honor.
"I was surprised," she admitted. "We had submitted nominations for the hotel after getting citations from the state Senate and House of Representatives." Those citations were in recognition of the Best Western's quick and thorough efforts in helping families recover from the Lowell floods last May.
"Families were pouring in," said O'Connor, a Billerica native who now lives in Pepperell. "We couldn't give rooms away, but we discounted rates."
O'Connor, 52, has also been a key ally in Greater Lowell Technical High School's hotel and hospitality program. Each year, the school places students in internship-like positions at the Best Western and other area hotels so that they can achieve real-world experience.
In nominating her for the award, Greater Lowell hospitality instructor Dominic Ierardi said one of O'Connor's strongest attributes is "her sense of community."
"She extends herself beyond any person I have worked with in terms of time, ideas, and just being there for you," Ierardi said. "She's an amazing woman."
Donna Hunnewell, founder and director of the WISH Project, a Lowell nonprofit that provides emergency recovery needs to low-income residents, said the Best Western can always be counted on when it comes to helping victims of fire.
"Fire victim support is big, it's complicated and it's the first few days that matter most," she said. "The Best Western does a better job looking out for the kids. They make sure they have coloring books and they make sure families not only get emergency food boxes, but a microwave and small refrigerator as well."
And when it came to responding to the floods last May, O'Connor and the Best Western "beat the national Red Cross by four days" in responding, Hunnewell said.
Nevertheless, O'Connor was competing against hotel managers from high-end Boston hotels such as the Longwood Medical-Best Western, DoubleTree Dowtown and Hyatt Harborside for her award.
"When they were announcing it, they kept saying 'he,' so I figured it couldn't be me," O'Connor said, as the other five finalists were all men. "Then on the last reference they finally said 'she.'"
O'Connor said the best part of running a hotel is meeting and dealing with people; she supervises 30 to 35 employees, depending upon the season. She takes pride in keeping things running smoothly, and the fact that her hotel has for five years running received industry awards for cleanliness.
Last year, O'Connor oversaw a significant renovation at the hotel, as each of its 114 rooms received new furniture. The old furniture wasn't thrown away or sold, but instead donated to the Windsor House in Lawrence. Even in ordinary times, Hunnewell said O'Connor arranges for bedding and towels to be donated regularly -- monthly if not weekly.
"I find that it's the size of the heart, not the size of the company, as far as who will help out," Hunnewell said.
"That was a huge thing she did with the furniture," Ierardi added. "She organized it, got her staff to pack up trucks for needy people. She always has an eye in the fire for somebody else."
In what qualifies as "spare time," O'Connor is vice chairman of the Greater Lowell Convention & Vistors Bureau, chairman of the Greater Lowell Technical School's Hospitality Advisory Committee and chairman of the Middlesex Community College hospitality advisory committee.
"She's never pushed us off for something else," Ierardi said. "Even on the day she won her award she judged a school marketing competition."
O'Connor is now in contention for a national lodging award to be presented in June.
Copyright (c) 2007, The Sun, Lowell, Mass.
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