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A Funny Thing Happened On My Way To The Hotel Business

 
By: Neil Salerno – January 2010

In the past few years, I've  written articles focused on the hotel business with the aim towards, hopefully, giving-back to an industry which I truly love and one which had provided me with a good income and a lifetime of memories. Looking back at a hotel career of more forty years, there were many learning moments, a few sad times, and many funny ones. 

As my first article of 2010, I felt that it might be an entertaining break to share a couple of my own early learning moments. Thank goodness, I can look back and honestly say that, if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn't change a thing.

My hotel career started in 1966 when I saw a tiny classified ad, which read "Learn the hotel business, enroll in the American Hotel School".  At the time, I was learning how to sell life insurance, so, not surprisingly, the hotel business appeared pretty attractive to me; almost anything else would.

When I called the school, we made a deal that they would put me in their new manager trainee program, while I was taking the hotel school course. This would be a good deal; I would have a job, while I went to school. Of Course, I was a little stressed to find that their closest hotel was more than an hour and a half from where I lived; three hours of travel every day would be a real challenge.

My First Glorious Day

I showed up for my first day of work, young, eager, and looking pretty dapper in my new three-piece suit. I would be the hotel's first "Manager Trainee". I was anxious to see what my new office would be like. After getting some welcome words from the general manager, he led me through the lobby, past the front desk, through the restaurant, and directly into the kitchen. Frankly, I had never been in a restaurant kitchen, especially one which served banquets for 800 people. But, why was I being led into the kitchen?

We walked to the back of the huge kitchen, where we approached a rather large gentleman in a perfectly starched white uniform and a tall white hat. The manager turned to me and said "This is chef, that's his first name and his last name, you will always call him chef". Wow, I had never seen such respect; I would soon learn that it was well deserved. 

As the manager disappeared, the chef took me into a room with chicken-wire walls, went to a shelf, grabbed a set of kitchen whites, and said, "Here, put these on, these ought to fit you". I stood frozen then turned to him to say "Wait a minute, I guess you don't know who I am; I'm the new manager-trainee". He then said "I know who you are…put on the whites." 

I swallowed my pride, put on the starched whites, and was led to a rather skinny older man, whose white uniform was dirty and worn, and ironically, he also had a pint of cheap wine in his back pocket. The chef then told me to do whatever the pot-washer told me to do, as he went back to baking more bacon than I have ever seen in my life. Congratulations Neil, your first hotel boss was the pot-washer and your new office was a kitchen. 

When I got home that night, sometime after 9:30 pm, the first of many 12 hour days, I was totally exhausted; I never saw so many pots and dishes.  I really didn't want to go back the next day, but I did. 

Yes, I went back; over and over again, seven days a week for two solid weeks before I got my first day off. I later got a day off every other week for two years. In the ensuing twenty-four months, I would end-up doing just about every job a hotel operation had to offer; the kitchen, banquet and dining room service to the front office, reservations, and housekeeping. 

A New Adventure Was At Hand

Late in my second year, I settled  into the job of food and beverage manager. The company, American Motor Inns, had 17 hotels and had hired its first Corporate Sales Director. His name was Howard Feiertag. On Howard's first visit to our hotel, the general manager urged me to have dinner with him so I could pump him for information. Who was this mysterious new corporate guy and what was hotel sales all about?

During dinner, I found Howard likeable and extremely knowledgeable; I was impressed. At one point, he asked me if I had ever thought about going into sales. I did not, but I quickly asked      "Would I have to work on Saturdays and Sundays, like I'm doing now?" He said "No, sometimes just a half day on Saturday". That sold me!…My sales career had begun. My generous salary of $100 per week would, of course, stay the same, but now, I would be the hotel's first sales manager.

A Learning Experience

My first learning experience; I had to make a minimum of 15 cold outside sales calls every day and have at least three lunch or dinner appointments every week. Howard definitely believed in making new contacts and selling. "Neil, you need to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince", he would say.

I was able to land the Connecticut Chapter of the American Bar Association, and contracted them  for their annual convention and monthly luncheon meetings. Wow, 350 people for lunch every month, but their budget was limited. Even in those days, $4.25 per person plus tax and gratuity  didn't go very far. That budget limited their monthly luncheon choices, mostly, to various forms of chicken. 

After a particularly intense lesson from Howard Feiertag about up-selling menus, I decided to try my hand with the Bar Association. I successfully sold them on the virtues of Boneless Breast of Capon versus their usual Boneless Breast of Chicken. Capon wasn't on the menu, so I charged 50 cents more; it seemed logical to me that the capon would be much better. 

The day of their luncheon, chef had informed me that capon and chicken were the same product and it would be the exact same lunch as the ABA had the previous month; that's when  I began to sweat. On the day of the banquet, my problem became even more complicated; Howard Feiertag, now my boss, arrived at the hotel. As he usually insisted, we went to the ballroom to watch the luncheon service. 

As we peeked into the ballroom, the leader of the group immediately waved at me and motioned that he wanted to talk with me and started to come down from the head table. As he approached us, I was ready to resign my job in embarrassment. I figured that this would be the end of my new hotel career, surely the ABA would realize nothing had changed, except for the price.

When he reached where we were standing, he immediately grabbed my hand to shake it as he said "Thank you, Neil, you were right, the capon was much better than the chicken!" I was suddenly a hero. Trust me when I say that the lesson I learned was to never ever do that again. Honesty is much easier; I had learned honor the hard way.

Through the years, I would learn many lessons; American Motor Inns would grow from seventeen to fifty-nine hotels and resorts in just a few short years. Explosive growth which would be difficult to do today. Fortunately, I was able to grow with it.

When I left American Motor Inns eleven years later, I was vice president in charge of sales & marketing for all 59 hotels; all thanks to a small classified ad and the many great mentors and peers who guided me. I went on from there to bigger challenges in marketing and operations and, thankfully, with some of the finest hotel companies in the industry, but I will always be grateful for the foundation I got at American Motor Inns.

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Contact: 

Neil Salerno, CHME, CHA
Hotel Marketing Coach™
Email: NeilS@hotelmarketingcoach.com
Website: www.hotelmarketingcoach.com
 

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Also See: Hotel Hospitality Inspirations Learned From My Mentor: Howard Feiertag / Doug Kennedy / December 2009
Coaching and Mentoring, Sometimes A New Paradigm Can Go A Long Way / Neil L. Salerno / June 2003
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