Hospitality students get first-hand experience
Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the March issue of GCU Magazine. To view the digital version of the magazine, click here.
Story by Laurie Merrill
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau
It’s 5 p.m. Thursday, and David Sobek, the director of Sales & Marketing at Westin Phoenix Downtown, is starting the fun part of his day.
He has arrived at Grand Canyon University to teach his Marketing for Hotels class for juniors and seniors pursuing a Hospitality Management degree.
Sobek starts every session with what he has dubbed the “klatch,” the time he shares a real-life project he worked on that day and connects it with the current topic they are studying.
One recent Thursday, he presented a marketing campaign for the hotel chain that capitalizes on spring training.
“Batter up!” it begins, emphasizing “stay and play” packages and the proximity to spring training games in Phoenix and the East Valley.
Sobek is not in academia, and his best subject matter doesn’t come from textbooks. But he brings invaluable information to students who aspire to work, like he does, in the burgeoning hospitality field.
“I love it!” said senior Sarah Mondragon, a Hospitality Management major. “My professor (Sobek) comes to work and brings us real-life experiences fromThe faculty and professors really make this program great.”
“He gives us his own hotel experience,” said sophomore Amandine Ravetta. “We get to see how our learning applies to real life.”
Enthusiasm like this is helping fuel the growth and popularity of GCU’s Hospitality Management degree, now in its second year.
It’s also a degree that prepares students to help fill the tremendous demand for jobs in the Arizona tourism industry, the state’s second largest, according to the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association.
The Colangelo College of Business program teaches students core business principles while offering applicable work experience at properties owned and run by the University, including the newly constructed Grand Canyon University Hotel, Canyon 49 Grill, GCU Golf Course and Lope House Restaurant.
“We have professionals who are in the industry, we offer a business-based approach to learning a career field, and the learning lab is all the GCU properties,’’ said Dr. Randy Gibb, the CCOB dean.
Gibb credits much of the program’s success to a significant hire: Brett Cortright, hotel and restaurant general manager, who represents the pinnacle of the industry with years of experience at the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company under his belt.
“He comes from the highest standard of hospitality,” Gibb said. “He brings so much positive energy.”
When Gibb joined GCU in 2014, the University recently had purchased the 155-room Quality Inn and Suites at the corner of Interstate 17 and Camelback Road with the goal of converting it into the centerpiece of the hospitality degree.
“It was, at best, a fixer-upper,” Gibb recalled.
Gibb hired Cortright, who had opened three properties in 18 months. Today, the gleaming GCU Hotel boasts a resort-style pool, newly renovated rooms, and the sharp-looking Canyon 49 Grill and lobby.
It is the preferred venue of visiting sports teams, out-of-area families and travelers attending major events, such as the National Christian College Forensics Invitational on March 17-19.
At the same time, it is an incubator for hospitality students such as Mondragon, who works 20 hours a week as a hotel administrator, and freshman Gabrielle Bayless, a hotel events and catering assistant. A requirement of the 120-credit degree is 600 hours of industry experience.
“I like working with people and interacting with people,” Bayless said. “Hotels are a happy place. They give people a feeling of being somewhere special.”
Mondragon transferred to GCU from Arizona Western College in Yuma, Ariz., joined the program and interviewed with Cortright.
“He had me spend time in every single department,” Mondragon said. “I did housekeeping, I did laundry. I did time in every area so that I could do my job better.”
She now manages hotel social media accounts and chats with prospective students.
“It is so exciting,” Mondragon said. “I am sharing an open office space with full-time employees.”
She also participates in the program’s new partnership with the Milwaukee Brewers for spring training at Maryvale Baseball Park. Hospitality students will work at concession stands, and the Canyon 49 Grill will sell its own brand of food at home games, Cortright said.
Mondragon said she enjoys giving the “wow” experience. Recently, after a guest confided that it was her son’s birthday, Mondragon asked the pastry chef to make a special cake, designed a birthday card, wrapped up GCU playing cards and a candle, and left them in the room as a surprise.
“It was going the extra step to make someone smile,” she said.
“We are in the memory-making business,” Cortright said.
The hotel is also an example of how GCU is helping revitalize the area by hiring residents from the neighborhood, who receive health and educational benefits in addition to a salary.
“One of the neatest parts is some of the first hires at the hotel were through Love International church,” Gibb said, speaking of a nearby ministry.
In the marketing class, Sobek also presents Bible verses and leads discussion about them. On one recent day it was from Proverbs 12:11: “He who tills his land will have plenty of bread, but he who pursues worthless things lacks sense.”
Mondragon’s hand shot up. “It means if you work hard, you will reap the benefits,” she said.
But it helps to have the klatch.
Contact Laurie Merrill at (602) 639-6511 or firstname.lastname@example.org.