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Interview with David Cassell, General Manager of the
 177 room Columbus Marriott in Columbus, Georgia

By Andrea V. Hernandez, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, Ga.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jan. 24, 2008 --David Cassell has come a long way.

As general manager of the Columbus Marriott, Cassell oversees about 170 employees in 12 different departments -- from the food and beverage department to housekeeping. The 48-year-old's experience in the hospitality industry began when he was 23 years old.Armed with a GED and past work experience in a steel mill, furniture factory and other places, the Richmond, Va., native started working an entry-level position in 1983 at the Best Western Marketplace Hotel in Richmond.

There, he took on various tasks including manning the front desk, cleaning rooms and serving in the restaurant. By the time he left, Cassell had worked his way up to an assistant manager's position.

In 1987, he became general manager at the Comfort Inn in Williamsburg, Va. Since then, he has held managerial positions for different hospitality companies, allowing him to travel and train hotel managers in Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas and more. He moved to Columbus -- his wife Donna's hometown -- in 2002 and became general manager of the Econo Lodge at Fort Benning, a hotel under local hotel and food management company Valley Hospitality. Four years and two promotions later, he was promoted to the Columbus Marriott's general manager position in 2006.

Cassell sat down with the Ledger-Enquirer to tell us how he motivates his employees, what he's doing to keep the Marriott competitive and what someone needs to do to score a job like his.

Upon becoming general manager of the Marriott, what were some of the things you did to improve the Marriott?

One of the things was tearing down walls between the departments. They operated, I like to think of, as silos -- in their own area. There wasn't a lot of cooperation between the different departments to achieve the bigger goal. The bigger goal, in my opinion, goes back to the three things (that's required of us) -- financial responsibility to our owners, providing a great guest experience to our guests and providing a great working environment to our staff.

I formed an executive committee of the senior management of the hotel. I tried to communicate a vision that showed the Columbus Marriott is the best hotel in which to work for our employees, as the best place to stay for our guests and the best financial investment for our owners. It was creating that vision and trying to communicate that vision to them and insisting that they work together.

And we do fun things -- team-building exercises, we'll go out to lunch together, we'll take classes together to try and build those relationships.

I have an understanding with the executive committee and that is that we provide unified leadership, that we work together and that we support each other.

How are you able to handle so many departments? Do you have to have knowledge of each department?

You need to have knowledge in each department. But the real key is hiring the right people for the right positions. I have an executive committee, which is the senior management of the hotel. They run the day to day operations in their departments...

I couldn't do this job without that knowledge (of each department.) Because I've actually physically worked in every single department of a hotel, I think that gives me a real advantage and an understanding from the employee's perspective of the difficulties and challenges of their jobs.

You have about 170 employees. How do you motivate them?

I think its a culture that you develop. I refer back to servant leadership, where it's stressed upon managers to provide support and tools to the employees to empower them to do their jobs. I think that most people want to perform well and if we smooth out the bumps and give them the tools and the training to do their jobs, then they'll perform well.

One of the things we did is we went into our employee area, (which was painted a battleship grey). We went in with paint chips and went to the employees during lunch and said, "If we were to paint the walls a color, what color would you like to see?" And they went through and had a lot of fun with the paint chips. We also did some research on what colors promote positive attitudes and team spirit. So with the employees' help, we selected new colors for our employee area. They actually chose blue, green and white. We also put flowers on the tables, and we put a TV up on the wall.

We encourage our managers to have fun employee meetings and to buy lunch for employees during the meeting, or to have snacks. And we do employee appreciation things. We started an employee of the month program. We designated a couple of parking spaces really close to the building with signage that says "Reserved for the Employee of the Month." At our employee meetings, we'll do raffles and drawings and prizes. We constantly try to recognize employees.

Quite a few hotels have been and are being constructed in the Columbus area. What is the Marriott doing to stay competitive? Are there certain hotels that you see as your main competition?

No. I think there has been a lot of new hotels open, but as long as we continue to stay focused on the three things that are very important -- and that is our guests, employees and owners -- if we can stay current with what we're offering, keep our product fresh and continue to offer guest services, (we'll be fine).

It's often said -- and I believe this -- that someone will go try a new hotel but they will come back to my hotel if I consistently provide the accommodations that they need and the services that they need.

If I overbook my hotel and I have to pay to have someone to move somewhere else, there's no place else that I can move them that's the equivalent of what I have here. There's certainly some nice hotels, don't get me wrong... But they're on the north side of town. There's nothing really downtown here that comes close to being what the Marriott can offer.

What is your greatest accomplishment?

I'm the general manager of the Columbus Marriott, the best hotel in Columbus. And that's an accomplishment. But I think of more than just that. My greatest accomplishment is finding happiness and satisfaction in my life in a balanced way. And I mean that to be professionally and spiritually and personally. I'm happy... There's so many people who could be professionally successful and have a personal life that's in the gutter -- or they don't have a balance spiritually. And I have all three. I've truly been blessed.

What do you need to do if you want a job like this?

You can get a degree in hospitality management. If you have a degree in hospitality management and you're a young person with no experience, that will open some doors for you to get an entry-level management job or supervisor's job in a department.

Then there's a second path and that's the path that I took. And I see it over and over again. I know it's possible. It happens here, it happens in other places. If you do a good job, if you come to work with the right attitude and you constantly strive to do more than what's required... that's what gets you recognized by management -- having the potential to grow. The desk clerk who constantly goes above is probably going to be the next person promoted to a supervisor's position.

Even if you come out with a hospitality degree and get a door opened to go in as a supervisor, you're still going to have to perform for the opportunities to present themselves. So it's all about performance.

Do you know someone who should be profiled for "On the Job"? Contact Business Editor Elizabeth Conner by e-mail, econner@ledger-enquirer.com, or by phone, 706-320-4448.

DAVID CASSELL

Age: 48

Title: Columbus Marriot general manager

Company: Valley Hospitality

Education: N/A

Previous experience: Regional director, Valley Hospitality's limited service hotels; general manager, Econo Lodge at Fort Benning; food and beverage director, Columbus Williamsburg Foundation; training manager for Baymont Inns and Suites, Marcus Corporation; general manager, Comfort Inn in Williamsburg, Va.; various positions, Best Western Marketplace Hotel in Richmond, Va.

Family: Wife, Donna, executive director of CONTACT Chattahoochee Valley, Inc., two children, Meredith, 34, and Michael, 32 and three grandchildren, David, 16, Zachary, 14 and Allison, 8

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To see more of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.ledger-enquirer.com.

Copyright (c) 2008, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, Ga.

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