When students in West Virginia University’s Hospitality and Tourism Management program landed internships and employment at a local Morgantown hotel that was ramping up to become a Marriott, they knew it would be a great deal of work. They knew it would be a great deal of commitment. And they knew it would require them to focus entirely on the Marriott brand that had become an international standard.
What they didn’t know is how much it would benefit them as they work toward entering the industry where they plan to make their marks, an industry that sees $2.7 billion in direct spending by resident and international travelers in this country every day, according to the U.S. Travel Association. As students at the WVU College of Business and Economics, they can take advantage of the business school’s relationships ranging from the world-renowned Greenbrier to Hilton, from Disney to Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, and from Snowshoe Mountain Resort to IHG — as well as a number of other resorts, hotels, outdoor recreational companies and restaurants.
As luck would have it, the Waterfront Place Hotel right in the students’ back yard in Morgantown was undergoing a two year-long process to become a Marriott hotel, the Morgantown Marriott at Waterfront Place. The property, owned by Stonebridge Companies, had served as a “learning lab” since the inception of the WVU program in the fall of 2014 in response to the hospitality and tourism industry’s prominent place in West Virginia’s economy. In the latter part of 2016, students were propelled into an international brand and, perhaps, the opportunity of a lifetime.
“We work with several international brands, and there is no question Marriott is one of the most recognized brands in the world,” said Frank DeMarco, teaching associate professor in the Hospitality and Tourism Management program. “Marriott International has more than 6,000 properties and is a $17 billion company. We knew this represented a great opportunity for students.”
Nobody knows that more than 21-year-old B&E student Matthew Smith, a senior from Damascus, Maryland, and a Stonebridge scholarship recipient. Smith has excelled so quickly at the property that, as an intern and employee, he was promoted to front desk supervisor this past summer.
“I am responsible for ensuring that our guests enjoy their stay in Morgantown while holding up the Marriott standards. Throughout April of this year, our team spent about 40 hours per week working directly with Marriott trainers that helped us through the opening process,” Smith said. “These days consisted of classroom-style lectures followed by role play examples that allowed us to directly apply what we learned.”
And Smith is a classic example of someone who has benefitted from the program’s experiential learning. He has participated in a market research study team and has analyzed reports that tell him how a hotel is performing in a specific market. He looks at data that include occupancy, average daily rates and revenues.
Recent graduate Brianna Austin, who grew up in the shadow of The Greenbrier, is currently working at Stonebridge’s corporate offices in Englewood, Colorado, in the real estate and property development sector. A double-major undergraduate in hospitality and tourism management and accounting and an August MBA graduate, she has made the most of her time in transition to the Marriott and in working for the ownership group.
“I started out at the Waterfront Place Hotel in September 2015 as a sales and marketing intern, then moved to a rooms division intern the following January of 2016. The new internship allowed me to start out in housekeeping, then to valet, and finally to the front desk,” the 23-year-old Austin said. “This gave me a better sense of how each department works together and communicates with one another. After that I started working at the front desk part time, then eventually full time. I also made it a point to work in the restaurant as well as in the banquets department whenever they needed extra help.”
Chris Manley, Stonebridge’s chief operating officer, is a firm believer that the hotel is an instrumental classroom, and its transition into Marriott is an invaluable learning opportunity. “The future of the hospitality industry resides in the students within our education institutions,” said Manley, who serves on B&E’s Hospitality and Tourism Management Advisory Council. “Our investment in the Morgantown community provides a great vehicle for a mutually beneficial partnership with WVU. As hospitality professionals progress through their careers, they rarely have an opportunity to participate in the transformation of one community institution into a new and improved product. The experience has been very uplifting, and the scholars’ influence and excitement in the process has been noticeable,” he said.
For students, Marriott has been a family-led brand for nearly 90 years that has properties in 122 countries and territories. That, Manley said, opens up a world of opportunity for them.
“While the fundamentals of operating a boutique and brand hotel are similar, there is a reason that Marriott has grown to be the largest hospitality company in the world,” he said. “They have the systems, processes and resources available to maximize the guest experience and deliver the ‘Distinguished Hospitality’ for which Stonebridge is known. A scholar graduating with the additional hands-on experience of a Marriott project can add insight and value to any future hotel immediately, whether it be in Morgantown or Manhattan.”
WVU business school student Amanda Baer, 20, of Charles Town, West Virginia, has taken the approach of getting a food and beverage job at the hotel to help prepare her for what is ahead. A double-major in hospitality and tourism management and marketing, she hopes to secure an internship for the upcoming spring semester.
“Working at the hotel during the transition was very rewarding,” said Baer. “I learned how to work through the big changes. I got to meet many new people who told me about their experience working for Marriott and how they got to where they are today. It was a very influential experience.”
Morgantown Marriott General Manager Neil Buffington said the hospitality transition experience sticks with a person, and that he is living proof of that. “Anytime someone in the industry or a student studying the industry gets a chance to transition a property from an independent to a brand, they should cherish the experience. If these students stay in hospitality, it won’t be the last time they renovate and transition a hotel or restaurant. Having this experience will help with the next transition where they will be better prepared and can share their knowledge with those with less experience. The Morgantown Marriott project was my second hotel renovation and it went much smoother with the experience I gained on the first.”
Experience is key, plain and simple. DeMarco said students in the program are required to complete two internships, so that they will be competitive in the industry after graduation and be able to compete for a leadership role. Each internship is comprised of 150 hours of on-site work.
“The internship experience enables students to apply the principles they learn in the classroom in a business environment,” he said. “To be a successful leader in the industry, you need to put into practice what you’re learning.”
And these future business leaders believe the experience with an international brand has served them the world on a silver platter.
“Marriott International is a brand that has endless opportunities,” Smith said. “With hotels across the world, there is no limit to the number of jobs that are available. For a motivated student and associate like myself, Marriott has everything that I could ever want. The company’s training and voyager programs offer great opportunities for recent college graduates within the hospitality industry.”
Austin said, “I plan to continue learning as much as possible to figure out what my strengths are in the hospitality industry. The position that I am currently in allows me to learn about the other side of hotels and gives me an appreciation for the work I do every day. I have found that I really enjoy the operations aspect of hotels and hope to one day manage a property that provides a high level of service.”
“I have learned so much about the hotel industry and use a lot of my knowledge from class to help me excel at work as well. What I learn in class closely correlates to what I do at work, and absolutely puts me a step ahead of everyone else,” said Baer.
Buffington said that WVU’s program is rich with outstanding students, and that their experiences at the Marriott are helping to launch their careers. “There are some incredible students graduating from the program,” he said. “Many students stay on at the hotel after their internships, and relationships grow. And many will have opportunities to start their careers after graduation at Morgantown Marriott or another Stonebridge property.”
In the end, DeMarco said, it’s all about the educational experiences students now have and what that means for life after college. “At WVU’s business school, we are encouraging students to study abroad to experience different cultures. Our association with Marriott gives our students an additional dimension of opportunities for international travel, and to interact with international guests and learn about their cultures,” he said. “This hotel becoming a Marriott also allows our students to access the Marriott Global Source resource, which has by far the best training and development resources in the industry.”
Buffington said, “These students are getting experience and training the Marriott way, a way that has developed since the first Marriott hotel opened in 1957. They also get to put Marriott on their resume, which gives them a huge advantage over college graduates who may have gone to schools without the relationships WVU has.”
CONTACT: Patrick Gregg; WVU College of Business and
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