|By Darrell R. Santschi, The
Press-Enterprise, Riverside, Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 12, 2007 - With five ex-military drill instructors bellowing in their ears, the 46 raw recruits stood at rigid attention in a Big Bear Lake parking lot, practicing close-order drill and answering to the numbers engraved on dog tags hanging around their necks.
"Sir, yes sir," they shouted as the DIs scurried up and down their ranks, finding fault with nearly everything they tried. The close-order drill was followed by push-ups, a two-mile run, more drill and the distribution of their food for the next 24 hours: one freeze-dried meal ready to eat, or MRE, as the troops call it.
Then they gathered in a circle to listen to a lecture on hotel accounting, followed by more drill and more push-ups.
Such is life at a 10-day boot camp for prospective resort hotel employees under way at The BLOCK, a 52-room hotel in the San Bernardino Mountains that caters to snowboarders.
"We really want to know who is committed to the lifestyle of running this hotel," says Liko Smith.
He is the 36-year-old former Army infantryman who founded The BLOCK, which operates the Big Bear Lake hotel and a 50-room companion resort in Lake Tahoe.
"I learned a lot of valuable lessons in the military," Smith says, "like working long hours, never taking a day off, never taking lunch breaks, never being lazy."
His boot camp teaches leadership, he said, and encourages people to take responsibility for their colleagues' work.
Those are traits he hoped to instill in 47 recruits culled from 150 applicants who answered Internet and magazine advertisements. He promises at least 16 jobs to candidates who complete the rigorous boot camp, which combines everything from front desk check-in and hotel marketing to military squad tactics and live fire of .45-caliber and 9 mm pistols.
The candidates will learn to plan special events, including a graduation party for those who survive the training. But only after completing "the gantlet," a 20-mile march carrying a 50-pound pack that begins with a 2 a.m. wake-up call.
Following along to capture every agonizing moment are cameramen filming a reality show for cable television, scheduled to air in January on Comcast and its satellite affiliates.
Smith said his Big Bear Lake hotel normally employs 12 office workers and four housekeeping employees, but he purposely left eight positions vacant to fill from his boot camp. Another eight will work at the Lake Tahoe hotel.
Those who complete the course on Friday will be eligible for those jobs or, if more than 16 finish, will go on a waiting list for future jobs.
The BLOCK Vice President Kevin Kearns said by phone that the company plans to open 10 resort hotels over the next two years. Smith said he will be training the recruits in how to set up snowboard terrain parks that will serve some of them.
Training has three phases, Smith said, with the first three days devoted primarily to the military-style boot camp.
"We want to make sure we weed out people who are just here for the (TV) show," he said. "It's 16-hour days, very little sleep, very little food, very little rest and they're going to be run hard. We'll find out who really wants to be here."
One candidate dropped out after the orientation lecture, said Matt Sigloch, a 55-year-old retired Marine Corps master sergeant-turned-movie stuntman whose company, Gunmetal, supplied the drill instructors.
"We just basically told them what we expect from them and what we're going to do for the next 10 days," Sigloch said. "By the time we were done, he dropped out."
Ten minutes into the morning drill, 19-year-old Stephanie Achord -- one of 15 female recruits -- quit. She had a brief conversation with Sigloch and bolted for her room to pack
She didn't come to land a job, she said. She had a one-word reason: "boys."
"I asked if we could wear makeup," she said. "They said no makeup for eight days. So I said, 'See ya.'"
By mid-day, five recruits had left camp. By the sixth day, well into phase two, 16 had departed.
"The second phase is learning resort operations," Smith said. "We're going to teach them marketing at Snow Valley (near Running Springs) and resort operations at Bear Mountain," a Big Bear Lake resort.
"The third phase is when we start doing a lot of the fun stuff," he said. "That is the last three days."
Fun stuff includes the shooting and the 20-mile march, as well as snowboarding.
The jobs they are shooting for include $8-an-hour desk clerks, but Smith emphasized the big prize: hotel general manager.
"It's a huge responsibility, but we give you a lot," he said. "You make $50,000 a year. You get an apartment and you get a car. You have a company cell phone and there are health benefits, too. And you get to snowboard. You're encouraged to snowboard. On Monday and Tuesday, when it's slow at the hotel, go ride all day."
Lee Roy, 28, of Chino Hills, has his eye on that job.
"I plan to win the general manager position," he said. "I'll give it my all, do my best. I've been waiting for an opportunity like this all my life."
So has Allison Kelley, 23, of San Diego. She said she would take anything they offer.
"Snowboarding is my passion," she said as she sifted through her beef ravioli MRE, saving the pineapple dessert for later. "I want to build my career in snowboarding and this is an opportunity to do that."
Joshua Machado, 20, of Downey, known to fellow recruits as No. 39, said he'll take any job that pays more than the $8.88 an hour he has been earning as a ski tech at a Sports Chalet in Long Beach.
"The boot camp part of it is going to give me some character," he said. "I'll learn what the company is about and if I finish, as I intend to, I plan to stay in the area."
Grant Kim, 24, of Riverside, came for the snowboarding, but took to the military training.
"That's what I needed," he said. "At this time in my life I'm not really doing anything."
He wants a high-paying job. If his fellow recruits "can beat me out," he said, "they deserve it."
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Copyright (c) 2007, The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, Calif.
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