That's what the managers of the Century Plaza Hotel and Tower, in Los Angeles' fashionable Century City, have asked and answered for themselves this past year. They've made a commitment to helping at-risk students from riot-torn, South Central Los Angeles learn about the travel-and-tourism industry—from staff operations to culinary artistry.
The Century Plaza Hotel's managers teamed up with two local high schools—John C. Fremont High School and Belmont High School—through a comprehensive travel program organized by the Academy of Travel and Tourism (AOTT). Based in New York City, AOTT focuses on bridging the gap between the classroom and the workplace by linking the resources of business, education, government and communities.
According to AOTT, the travel-and- tourism industry is considered the world's largest, with more employees and a greater impact on the economic development of a nation than virtually any other industry. In the United States alone, the travel industry is highly diversified and includes more than a million companies ranging from small businesses to large corporations. In 34 states, the travel industry is among the top three employers in terms of number of employees. And travel-related businesses are the largest employers in 11 states. In fact, by the year 2000, the industry is expected to be the nation's largest employer overall.
As one business in this industry, the Century Plaza Hotel wanted to give 14- to 18-year-old students both small group and one-on-one instruction with the goal of sharing with them information about opportunities in the hotel industry, including educational requirements, career progressions and salary expectations. As a result, they're hoping the kids will decide to stay in school, graduate from college and go on to well-paying careers in the travel-and-tourism industry.
So, in March the hotel hosted 86 kids from Belmont and Fremont high schools for a comprehensive, two-day familiarization program. During their time there the kids not only saw the inner workings of all the hotel operations, but perhaps more importantly, through interacting with the hotel's staff, were able to see themselves reflected in the faces of the employees—not just as workers, but as ordinary people who have made travel-and-tourism their career of choice. It's work that, for many of them, is the realization of a lifelong passion and dream.
"We wanted to give something back to the community, something positive rather than negative, and hopefully do something to offset some of the negative perceptions that exist, particularly about the youth of L.A.," says Jim Petrus, the Century Plaza Hotel's managing director.
But the hotel managers have no delusions that their business will benefit anytime soon from their open-heartedness and selfless sharing of knowledge. "We didn't go into it looking for potential employees," says Petrus, who championed the effort. Indeed, although the hotel did hire one student who graduated from a Los Angeles AOTT program last year, and who now works as a bus attendant in the hotel's Cafe Plaza, the program probably won't have a direct impact on future staffing needs. But that hasn't stopped the hotel. "This was truly something that was meant to be a way for our staff members to share some of their talents with people who aspire to be something greater than perhaps the environment they live in."
Many of the kids are interested in the travel industry as a possible career choice, but most took advantage of the experience as a way to understand more about the working world—a world that many of them knew little about.
AOTT gets the ball rolling in travel education.
The National Academy Foundation (NAF), which also oversees the Academies of Finance and Public Service, launched the Academy of Travel and Tourism in 1986 with the purpose of assisting high school students in the process of finding educational and vocational opportunities in mainstream tourism workplaces—places just like the Century Plaza Hotel. AOTT is funded through the American Express Foundation and other travel organizations. Each of the local school districts, AOTT chapters and advisory boards supports the schools in their area with financial sponsorship, mentoring programs and student scholarships.
The students who participated in this program were enrolled in the two- to four-year AOTT program at Belmont and Freemont High Schools last year. In addition to required high school courses, academy students take specialized courses prepared by NAF in collaboration with leading educators and industry experts. Some examples of the courses they take include: "Introduction to Travel and Tourism," "Destination Geography," "Travel and Tourism Computer Systems Applications" and "Economics for Travel and Tourism."
The first two AOTT programs were opened in 1987 at single sites in New York City and Miami. Today, 64 schools in 40 U.S. cities, from Baltimore, Maryland to Westchester, New York have AOTT programs. More than 2,800 students were enrolled in these programs in the 1994-95 academic year. Of those students, 65% are female and 35% are male. Racially, 39% are black, 30% are Hispanic, 20% are white, 9% are Asian or Pacific Islanders and 2% are from other mixed heritages. All are deemed disadvantaged and are from households with limited resources.
Jeanne Westphal, AOTT's national director, emphasizes the program sets the tone for travel-and-tourism education of the future. "The types of skills students learn are skills they can use anywhere in the world, so they're exportable skills," says Westphal, who travelled from New York City to Los Angeles for the Century Plaza Hotel's two-day event. "What we've seen with the students is it makes them not just better students, but it also makes them better people." She says they achieve a sense of responsibility, feel proud of what they're doing, get a good sense of direction and improve their presentation skills. "It matures them and makes them understand what the real world is all about," says Westphal.
Students enrolled in the AOTT program regularly visit businesses in the travel-and-tourism industry. The Century Plaza Hotel was the first AOTT affiliate ever to host a two-day, overnight event, however.
It was Katie Meyers' idea. Meyers is the public relations director for the Century Plaza Hotel and an advisory board member of AOTT's Los Angeles chapter. "We were really looking for a program that would enable our employees to give something back to the community," says Meyers. "It just became the ideal program because of all the resources we have here." The idea, says Meyers, was to develop more than just a ceremonial field trip to a travel or tourism facility. "We wanted to give these kids the opportunity to actually work next to people, to develop some relationships with our employees and really get a hands-on look at the operations of a major hotel."
She feels a firsthand view of the work world is crucial to student development. "The best thing that happened to me [when I was a student] was the opportunity to have internships," says Meyers. "I just think it's such a valuable supplement to what happens in the classroom. It also goes back to the traditional methods of apprenticeship in Europe for hotels."
Adds Westphal: "It's the first time we've had an advisory board member do this and we're hoping now a number of other members will replicate the idea."
HR gives students an orientation before their hotel visit.
Two weeks before the students came to the hotel on Friday, March 24 and Saturday, March 25, Holly Josephson, the Century Plaza Hotel's human resources manager, and Maggie Gamboa, the employment manager, visited each of the high schools for one-hour orientation sessions. The sessions gave the kids an idea of what their experience would be like and what would be expected of them, and provided a forum for them to express which areas of the hotel they'd like to find out more about during their stay.
The personnel managers showed students the hotel's organizational profile, which charts the 36 departments, and what they're each responsible for. They played a game asking students which department they'd go to for certain problems, and rewarded correct answers with sports bottles. Josephson also showed the students the hotel's five-minute "Make it Happen" video. "That's a video that was made by the employees of our hotel talking about what they do and how they make it happen," says Josephson.
The HR managers also completed an overview of the hotel's expectations for the students when they arrived onsite. This included overviews on standards of conduct, attendance, dress code, diversity, non-harassment policy, disciplinary action, tip solicitation and other confidential information. Finally, a question-and-answer period gave students the chance to find out any further details they were curious about. Students then filled out student-profile forms on which they indicated the departments they were most interested in learning more about. Based on their choices, the students were fitted for department uniforms that were ready when they arrived at the hotel—so they would be able to wear them when shadowing employees.
Although the students would only be visiting the hotel for two days, Josephson says they reviewed the company's employment policies with them. They wanted to give the students a broader, educational experience, so they would learn what it's like to go to work, and what an employer expects of its employees. For most of these kids, not only would this be the first time they had set foot in a luxury hotel, but it also would be their first exposure to a professional work setting of this caliber. Although anxious and nervous, their excitement was infectious, say those in HR who interacted with them from the beginning.
"We weren't prepared for them to be as prepared as they were. We were really impressed with the students," says Josephson. "They were very positive. They had questions about the dress code. They wanted to be appropriate. They wanted to do the right things."
Two weeks before the event, the HR team also conducted a parent-orientation session for parents of the students from both high schools who would be visiting the Century Plaza Hotel. The orientation provided parents with information about Seattle-based Westin Hotels and Resorts in general, and specifically about the Century Plaza Hotel. They saw the "World of Westin" video and heard about the hotel management's reasons for participating in the AOTT's program—which included discussion about why it's important for business to be involved in education, why it's good for students to learn about the hospitality industry and how students could benefit from hotel internships while they're in school.
The parents also heard the same information their children learned about the hotel's expectations of the students while visiting the hotel, such as its standards of conduct and mandatory dress code. They also had the opportunity to ask questions. Gamboa provided answers and Spanish translations about any information that was unclear to Spanish-speaking parents.
"There was some concern that some of these kids hadn't spent time away from home before," says Josephson. "And the parents were concerned about what exactly [their kids] would be doing." The HR representatives reassured the parents they would provide the kids with a professional and secure environment. And for those parents whose children would be staying overnight, they reassured them they would remove the refreshment centers from the rooms so there would be no chance for alcohol consumption, and the kids wouldn't have access to pay cable channels on their rooms' TVs.
They also let the parents know how they could reach their kids during their stay, and told them all meals and housing would be provided at no cost. Young women and men would be housed on separate floors and there would be one chaperone for every four student rooms. Both teachers and parents would act as chaperones for the overnight stay.
Not just a visit, the students gain in-depth work experience.
Both the students and hotel employees describe the morning of March 24 when the students arrived as magical. As the students got off the bus, two long rows of employees stood cheering while the students filed through them into the hotel's banquet room.
"There were students with tears in their eyes," says Josephson. The same thing happened when they left the next day—most of the students were teary eyed. "I heard over and over from these kids, 'This has been the best weekend of my life.' We're talking about kids from inner-city schools, the majority of whom haven't had the opportunity to visit this type of property," she says.
Adds Petrus: "The moment they got off the bus in their best Sunday clothes, we knew they came prepared to be participants in a real business world. The proof of the pudding is that at the end of the 48 hours, we would have been proud to have any of them join our staff."
With its Gothic-style domed ceilings, mahogany-finished millwork and massive crystal chandeliers, the hotel served as a monolithic backdrop to the students' wide-eyed dreams. More than 300 employees served as the teens' guides through the mysterious wonderland of job titles, work duties, equipment, modern technology and operating procedures. It was a land they were anxious to experience. And they soon did.
First, the students attended a brief orientation session led by Petrus. Then, the students were divided into small groups that followed employee group leaders from department to department. "[The kids went] to each area in the hotel and spent 15 minutes in each of the operational departments," says Josephson.
"Every department was asked to come up with their own mini-orientation of the department," explains Petrus. They shared with the students the five most important things they needed to know about that department, such as job requirements, the necessary educational background and logical job progressions.
Then the kids participated in hands-on demonstrations. In the telecommunications department, for example, the teens did video conference calling, which was something a lot of the students had never seen. "There was a lot of interest in that type of career goal," says Josephson.
At midday, the students had lunch in the employee cafeteria, then gathered in a meeting room to participate in a game called the "Hospitality Challenge," which was based on Nickelodeon's "Family Double Dare." It focused on what the kids had learned that day and helped enhance teamwork. The hotel awarded prizes to the winning teams.
The younger students (freshmen and sophomores) left the hotel in the afternoon. The 50 older students (juniors and seniors) reported to housekeeping to receive their uniforms, and then checked into the hotel. "The older students had the opportunity to shadow a Century Plaza Hotel employee," says Josephson. Shadowing meant following the employees from one task to another and in some cases, actually participating in the work. For instance, they could shadow a housekeeper, a front desk employee, a concierge, a door attendant, a bell attendant, a telephone operator, a room-service server or a Cafe Plaza waiter.
"That evening, they were guests of the hotel," says Petrus. Most of the students stayed in the hotel's recently renovated Tower suites. "We put them in the best accommodations, so they had an opportunity to try out room service, laundry, valet service. We wanted them to walk away knowing what level of expectation a guest would have coming into a deluxe hotel," says Petrus. The next morning, some of the students who were interested in becoming servers got up early to help serve the other students their room-service breakfasts.
The younger students arrived again by bus on Saturday morning. "That morning, all the students had the opportunity to participate in an in-depth orientation in different departments, such as sales, marketing, catering, reservations, accounting, purchasing, information systems or human resources," says Josephson. What surprised the kids most was the fact that there are more kinds of jobs within a hotel than the obvious, such as a desk clerk, room attendant and bellperson. They were amazed to see they could also have jobs in sales and marketing, purchasing, accounting or human resources. It was an eye-opening experience for them to learn about the back-of-the-house jobs, in addition to the more visible front-of-the-house positions.
For four hours that morning, HR hosted nine students who had indicated an interest in HR as a possible career or were just curious about it. "I didn't even know what human resources meant or what it was about," says Carolina Camaal, an 18-year-old student from Fremont High. After getting a general overview of the department, the kids helped with some employee communications tasks. For example, the students constructed a bulletin board on which they wrote messages to employees about AOTT students and what they had done while they were there. They also wrote an article for the employee newsletter.
Nathan Alo, director of housekeeping, says he gave the kids interested in housekeeping a view of his department—a department they thought they already knew a lot about—that surprised them. "When the students came in, I said, 'I'm going to change your mind about what housekeeping is,'" says Alo. And he did. Many of the students thought it just meant making beds and vacuuming rugs. They learned it also includes such tasks as deciding which kind of soap to buy, based on whether guests would prefer household name brands or luxury brands. "A lot of the kids wanted to find out about housekeeping because that's where they felt most comfortable," says Alo. He says it's the type of job people in lower economic levels often gravitate to. "I told them they must always challenge themselves to explore new things and to always do better," he says.
The students' day finished off with a banquet luncheon in one of the hotel's fancy meeting rooms. Afterward, the upperclassmen repeated the "Family Double Dare" game while the lowerclassmen watched and cheered. Finally, in a wrap-up, Petrus reviewed the two days' events and invited the kids to apply for summer internships.
Petrus remembers the comment of one insightful student during the closing session: "Because some of us are Hispanic, people assume we're going to drop out of school and be non-performers in the real world of business. What this has shown me is that I have opportunities just like everyone else. As long as I apply myself, I'm going to prove that perhaps the perception that prevails isn't necessarily true."
Three students actually did apply for internships, and although the hotel had initially only set aside two spots, they opened it up to three to accommodate the demand.
How managers prepared for the students' visit.
As soon as the decision was made to do the program, Meyers put together a steering committee of individuals from various departments to oversee the project. "Human resources took a very active role in preparing for the students to come and also in the internship process, says Josephson.
Middle managers prepared their staffs to come up with the mini-orientation programs and to show students how their departments operated. Care was also taken in selecting only high-performance employees to be shadowed. This turned out to be a good strategy because the students really bonded with their group leaders and the people whom they job-shadowed. "There were a lot of positive experiences, both for the group leaders and for the students," says Josephson. "They became close to the kids."
This was evident when many of the employees came back to participate in an ice cream social on Friday evening, even though they weren't required to stay past their shifts. Many of the group leaders also ate meals with the kids in the employee cafeteria so they could spend even more time with the teens. It was a time to be informal mentors. It was a time to listen to the kids' hopes and fears about the future. "The exciting thing about the whole program is that employees really got behind it," says Josephson.
A lot of planning was done in selecting which areas the students would visit. Josephson took the information the students provided in their profiles and made assignments so they could see the departments that fascinated them the most, while also trying to limit the number of students in each group. She wanted small groups so they could have more individual attention from the group leaders.
Petrus estimates it took a few hundred hours to plan the event. It was a big investment of time the first year. But now that the template has been formed, the hotel will repeat the program again next year with only minor tweaking.
The Century Plaza Hotel's management hopes that by sponsoring this annual, two-day familiarization event, and providing summer internships and job-mentoring programs, it will encourage hundreds of inner-city students to pursue higher learning and vocational training opportunities to prepare them for secure careers in the travel industry.
The managers learned a lot about their community through the kids, and they plan ongoing future support.
"Looking at all the concerns we have for staffing as we move into the year 2000, it's a good opportunity for us to introduce students [to the hospitality industry] at that level," says Josephson.
Currently, she says the hotel doesn't have any staffing shortages or a lack of minority applicants. "It's really much more future-oriented. It wasn't necessarily the idea that here's a crop of seniors who are graduating, let's grab them," says Josephson. It was more to open the kids' eyes to possibilities in the hospitality industry, and to their own abilities.
Says Petrus: "What impressed us the most was that given the right parameters and conditions, although these students may be from areas of the city where they're surrounded by troubled environments, these are kids who want to aspire to greater things. They want to be all the same things that you and I want to be, and I think sometimes that's overlooked."
For example, Camaal plans to use her experience in the AOTT program, and as one of the hotel's summer interns, to get a part-time travel or tourism job while she goes to college next year. She plans to become a gynecologist.
In the meantime, the hotel will continue to offer support to AOTT students by sending managers and directors to be guest speakers. The HR department also is sending resumes of people in various jobs at the hotel to AOTT teachers so students can see examples of good resumes. "So we're able to share some things they might not have had direct experience with that can really help them in their classroom content," says Josephson, who herself was once a high school speech-and-debate teacher.
"Why should we do this? I think it's an investment in our future. It's also a big investment in students who need positive role models," says Josephson. "It's good for them to experience an environment in which they can be greeted warmly, treated professionally and interacted with on an adult level. There are a lot of students out there who need that kind of role model."
Adds Petrus: "I think all of us had someone or some organization at some point in our careers give us an opportunity. Along the way, I think you have to allow yourself the opportunity to do that in return for somebody."
Somehow, by chance, some of these kids may go on to jobs in tourism. They may even wind up as management candidates at this particular hotel. But that isn't why the Century Plaza Hotel managers did it. They know they probably won't see most of these kids again (as employees). And they aren't apologizing for that. Sometimes you have to do things from the heart—just because it's the right thing to do. But it's not about charity work. It's simply about connecting with other human beings who need a chance to learn what you know, and who need to see a world that's a little bigger than their own 'hood. Guns, crime and violence are not unknown to these kids. Fortunately, now, neither are career knowledge, caring and hope.
Personnel Journal, November 1995, Vol. 74, No. 11, pp. 50-61.