Student turns hotel internship into people project

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

Bekah Ritterling is passionate about people. She loves to interact with them and, especially, to serve them. It’s a trait that will serve her well in the hospitality industry.

In fact, it already has.

Bekah Ritterling (left) impressed Executive Housekeeper Mandy Addison and her other co-workers with her work at a Drury Inn in Kansas City, Missouri, but two customers were so blown away they emailed the company to express their gratitude.

Through a new partnership, Ritterling was one of five Grand Canyon University students who interned this summer with Drury Hotels, rated Highest in Guest Satisfaction among Upper Midscale Hotel Chains for 16 years in a row by J.D. Power.

It is a match made in hospitality heaven because of the kind of service the family-owned company aims to provide and the kind of students the Colangelo College of Business (CCOB) aims to produce. 

Students like Ritterling, who worked at the Drury Inn near the Kansas City, Missouri, airport. One day when she was working the front desk, she checked in a couple and then, as part of her regular duties, continued to make them feel at home whenever she saw them on the property.

The result was this email from the delighted guest:

“What an excellent representative of both your school and the Drury Inn organization. We were so impressed with not only her personality but also her professional demeanor. I am in the business of corporate aviation, and customer service is everything. If these are the kind of students your school is graduating, their futures are very bright. Very well done!” 

Ritterling’s recollection:

“I remember them so clearly. I would just go up to them, as I would with a lot of other guests, and see how their day was going and get to know a little bit more about them. They went into more conversations about their career. I remember feeling so encouraged by them. They were awesome.”

Dr. Jennifer Elfenbein

It perfectly frames why Ritterling, scheduled to follow in her two brothers’ footsteps from their home in Pueblo, Colorado, and graduate from GCU in December 2022, switched to a hospitality management major after thinking during high school that she would go into marketing. It’s all about the people.

“I think it’s awesome that God created us all so uniquely and differently,” she said. “I’ve grown to love helping create memorable and enjoyable, positive experiences for people. That’s kind of what I wake up thinking. Before going in to work, I’d be like, ‘God, use me in whatever way you see fit. How can I create an enjoyable experience that people are going to remember 10 years from now?’

“When they look back, I want them to say, ‘I want to stay at the Drury Hotels because they made me feel special and they made me feel loved there even though they saw plenty of guests on a daily basis.’”

But to earn the Drury opportunity, Ritterling first had to get to know Dr. Jennifer Elfenbein, CCOB’s Chair for Hospitality Management. After just one class with Elfenbein as her instructor, Ritterling was all in on Drury.

“She taught us so much more, not only about the operations, but about the heart of hospitality, which really got me passionate about going to work with Drury,” Ritterling said.

The friendship between CCOB Dean Dr. Randy Gibb and Drury executive Kevin Whitfield led to the partnership.

So she went to Elfenbein’s office during her freshman year to talk about her goals. Elfenbein’s response: “Knowing you, knowing your skill set and knowing how much you are relationally focused, Drury Hotels would be the best fit for you.”

And Elfenbein wasn’t surprised when Ritterling received such a stunningly positive review from a guest.

“She is so genuine. She’s just so happy. That is her,” Elfenbein said. “She doesn’t put on an act. Sometimes we have to put on a face when we’re in hospitality, especially when we get challenging customers and guests. But she is absolutely positive all the time.”

The Drury partnership grew out of the relationship between Dr. Randy Gibb, the CCOB dean, and Kevin Whitfield, President at Drury Southwest, when they were neighbors in San Antonio, Texas. They still communicate regularly, usually in text messages sharing their passion for sports – for Whitfield, that means San Antonio Spurs basketball.

“Randy and I go back a long way,” Whitfield said. “If he gets behind something, he’s all in. Partnering with GCU has been a natural transition for us. We’re excited about it, and we think it will lead to very good things in the future.”

Said Gibb, “The partnership with Drury is the perfect example of who we are and the type of companies we collaborate with for our students. Jennifer’s mentoring and teaching is truly a Lopes First approach – helping our students find success. And Kevin is the ideal servant leader that our 'ColangeLopes' are blessed to be learning from via their hotel culture and hospitality. Love this … excited to do more and expand this GCU-Drury partnership!”

Elfenbein’s feelings about the partnership are just as strong.

“I really like the company,” she said. “It is a family-owned business, which is so rare. I talk to my students about how many different brands there are out there. You may be working for a hotel with a management company, an ownership company, a franchise company – it’s just very convoluted, where this is vertically integrated.”

Another reason why it works: Drury is a lot like GCU.

Olivia Harris saw her classroom work come to life while working for Drury.

“Much like GCU is innovative as far as their education resources and offerings and how they approach education, we are highly innovative in our approach to hospitality,” Whitfield said. “We’re probably one of the most atypical hospitality companies that you’ll run into. Being a family-owned company, our roots started out in construction and gravitated into hospitality. But we’ve maintained feet in both pools all these years.

“We build our own properties. We design them. We have our own construction teams. We even manufacture the cased goods that go in the rooms. We’ve developed over the years a world-class hospitality group, and they do a fantastic job of working with our customers and taking care of them.”

Like Ritterling, the other GCU students treasured their time with Drury this summer.

Olivia Harris, who worked at the Drury property in Chandler, saw her studies in the hospitality program come to life.

“It definitely was a big help in learning the different revenue aspects of a hotel,” she said. “When my GM would explain different things to me, I had a good idea what she was talking about because of the classes I had taken.

“It also helped with doing different group projects and working with a team. It helped me prepare for different jobs that I’ve had and just being flexible. Jennifer showed me a lot about how to deal with different situations.”

Amara Trudzinski was able to do her internship 15 minutes from her home in Arnold, Missouri.

Amara Trudzinski also was able to apply what she learned in class when the general manager and assistant general manager would take her on property walks and show her revenue reports at the Drury Inn in Fenton, Missouri, not far from her home in another St. Louis suburb, Arnold.

But even more eye-opening was the overall feel of the company.

“Everyone told me, ‘It’s a family-owned company, it’s close-knit and you feel like part of a family,’” she said. “Now that I’m working there, it’s like, ‘Wow, I understand what everyone meant because I think that’s very true – everyone I’ve worked with has been so kind. You can tell that they really care about the customer experience.”

Ritterling will be busy on campus this fall as Assistant Director of the Commuter Events team and Vice President of the Hospitality Club.

But she’ll be just as busy off campus – she was offered a position at the Drury Inn in Happy Valley. That means more opportunities to talk with guests and make them feel welcome.

“My number one goal in life is to, first and foremost, serve the Lord and, number two, serve the people around me,” she said. “I think hospitality is the perfect mix to be able to do that as a career.”

The passion goes both ways. It makes people passionate in their praise – and passionate about coming back, too.    

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].


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