|By Hugo Martin, Los Angeles
TimesMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Nov. 11, 2010--When Pilar Hamil landed a job as a Disneyland tour guide 17 years ago, her parents and friends assumed it was a temporary gig to be followed by a real career elsewhere.
But Hamil didn't leave Disneyland or the tourism industry. Instead, she worked her way up from a theme park guide to a hotel desk clerk to a supervisor.
"I wanted to work where people are happy," she said from behind her desk where she now manages the 481-room Disney's Paradise Pier Hotel, one of three hotels in the resort.
In Southern California's $54-billion tourism and hospitality industry -- the region's top job creator -- Hamil stands in stark contrast to the typical worker: She is a salaried professional with the prospect of promotions.
Most of Southern California's 861,000 tourism and hospitality jobs are seasonal or entry-level positions, and the work is typically marked by high turnover rates and low hourly wages, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But for those motivated few -- like Hamil -- the hospitality sector has a reputation for promoting from within, taking workers from lowly entry-level jobs to well-paid management posts.
"The hospitality industry has the ultimate career ladder," said Carl Winston, director of the hospitality and tourism management program at San Diego State University. "You can literally start as a maid or a desk clerk and work your way up to a manager. It happens all the time."
Industry leaders have started at the bottom since the late 1800s, when Cesar Ritz, the son of a Swiss farmer, started as a waiter at a French hotel and later became the innovator behind the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain.
Today, the world's largest hotel chain, Best Western, is headed by Chief Executive David Kong, who started as a busboy and dishwasher at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki.
James Abrahamson, president of the InterContinental Hotel Group for the Americas, launched his career as a desk clerk in Minnesota while earning money for college. Eric Danziger, president of the Wyndham Hotel Group, which includes more than 7,100 hotels, started at age 17 as a bellboy at San Francisco's historic Fairmont Hotel.
"If you have a lot of drive for success, you can run a hotel," said Javier Canos, who began as a desk clerk at a San Antonio motel and is now general manager of the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott hotel complex in downtown Los Angeles.
Tourism and hospitality in Southern California took over as the region's top industry after the recession decimated the workforce in top industries like wholesale trade and manufacturing. Now, economists predict, tourism will remain the top job creator in the region.
"For the foreseeable future, tourism will continue to be the leader," said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Southern California Assn. of Governments.
But Kyser and other economists warn that the tourism trade has its downside.
Non-management workers in Southern California's tourism industry -- including waiters, fast-food cooks, dishwashers and amusement park ride operators -- earn a mean hourly wage of $12.75, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even worse, such employees work an average of about 25 hours a week.
The 5% or so who hold management positions in the industry fare much better.
Although Hamil, 41, would not disclose her salary, the mean salary for lodging managers in Southern California is about $31 an hour, or about $65,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The daughter of a Mexican businessman, Hamil began in tourism by giving tours to celebrities and VIP guests at Disneyland while she attended college.
"My parents didn't think it would be a long-term job," Hamil said.
After staying at a hotel in Hawaii during a vacation, she decided to make a career in the hospitality industry. "I thought hotels were so glamorous," she said.
She enrolled in the Collins College of Hospitality Management at Cal Poly Pomona and, as a student, worked as a desk clerk at the Disneyland Hotel. After graduating, Hamil's work ethic and intelligence paid off as she was accepted into a management training program at the same hotel.
From there, her career took off. She was promoted to front desk manager at the Disneyland Hotel and later to front office manager at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa.
"By that time, I was really in love with the hotel industry," she said.
Hamil managed the Disneyland Hotel for several years before she was transferred to the Paradise Pier Hotel in 2007. The 15-story hotel has a nautical, California seaside theme and is a favorite of families with young children. She is also responsible for recreation, safety and dining at all three Disneyland hotels.
Although the rooms at her hotel are pricey -- ranging from about $250 to $350 per night -- the hotel has received good ratings from guests. Expedia users rated the hotel 4.4 out of five stars, and Frommer's Travel Guide gave it two out of three stars.
Hamil works 10- to 11-hour days, attending meetings with staff, keeping track of revenue and expenses, visiting with workers and inspecting rooms. She is married with no children.
She gets the best insights into her hotel, she said, by jumping into the hotel elevators to question guests about their stay.
"If they had a good time, they will tell me," she said. "If there are any problems, we can stop at the front desk and fix the problems."
Moving ahead in the industry takes intelligence and a hospitable nature, said Michael Godfrey, an associate dean at the Collins College of Hospitality Management. He was one of Hamil's professors in the mid-1990s and has watched her work at the Paradise Pier Hotel.
"Some individuals seem to have a more hospitable heart," he said. "They have it in them to entertain and have a warm, caring desire to work with others and make things pleasant.
"She has that hospitality in her."
Last in a series profiling people working in Southern California's No. 1 industry.
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