By Carly DeFilippo

Over the course of more than 35 years in the hospitality industry, there’s little that ICE Dean of Hospitality Management Tom Voss hasn’t seen. His career spans the heights of both hotel operations and food and beverage management, serving as general manager of no less than three different luxury properties and numerous hotel restaurants.

Tom Voss Hotel Expert Hospitality Management

Growing up in Tehran, Iran, Tom’s first interaction with the hotel industry came through an ad in the paper. Despite not knowing what the term “bus boy” meant, 20-year-old Tom landed a position at the stunning mountainside Tehran Hilton. There, his work ethic quickly caught the eye of the head of the hotel’s accounting department. The rest, as they say, is history.

One year later, Tom immigrated to the United States to study computer science and management at the University of Central Oklahoma. To pay for his education, Tom worked as a server at the local Hilton hotel, and it quickly became clear that he was far more interested in hotels than his educational path. However, like many students with prior education or work experience, Tom’s education turned out to be an asset in his career: “Knowing how to operate back-end databases and general principles of management—both of which I teach in the hospitality program at ICE—gave me a significant advantage over my peers in the field.”

After a few years working in management at both Oklahoma hotels and hotel restaurants, Tom relocated to Dallas, where he once again had the chance to work for the Hilton hotel group. “Over the course of my career, I worked for Hilton a total of six times. It’s a very interconnected industry, so you’ll find that the relationships you build at one property often help you find new positions as your career progresses.”

Dallas Hilton on Mockingbird Hotel

Dallas Hilton on Mockingbird. Photo Credit: Hilton

While in Texas, one of the highlights of Tom’s experience was overseeing operations at the Dallas Hilton Inn on Mockingbird’s supper club—the Dallas equivalent of New York City’s Rainbow Room. “It was the best location, the best menu and the best band in town,” says Tom. “That experience introduced me to high net worth clients who later asked me to consult on the openings of their hotel restaurants.”

Eventually, Tom became hungry for an experience at the epicenter of the luxury hotel industry: New York City. But transitioning to a more competitive market proved an eye-opening experience. “Moving to New York, I realized that my management experience in Texas wouldn’t be seen as equivalent—I had to take a step back and work my way back up the ladder to top-level hotels. That’s why it’s so great that ICE students start their careers in the New York City market.”

In New York, Tom ultimately found a role as the food and beverage director at the Vista Hilton International, a grand property that connected the two World Trade Centers. During that time, the Hilton group oversaw all restaurants within the World Trade complex, meaning that Tom reported to the director of some of the world’s most luxurious dining rooms—including the famed Windows on the World.

OPERA technology hotels hospitality

Over the next few years, Tom began to reconsider his future in the industry: “I realized that I had already reached the pinnacle of my career path—three times over—as a general manager. I was ready to do something different.” Ready to share his knowledge, Tom took on a variety of hospitality and tourism teaching positions, eventually becoming the chair of the Travel & Tourism department at the Katharine Gibbs School. Over the next fifteen years, Tom reimagined the school’s curriculum, focusing on hotel and restaurant management. So when ICE was looking for a qualified expert to develop our hospitality management curriculum in 2008, it was no surprise that Tom got the call.

In less than 10 years, the ICE Hospitality Management program has seen incredible success under Tom’s guidance, including several alumni who are now general managers of hotels. “We’ve placed people at the likes of the New York Palace and the Waldorf Astoria straight out of school,” says Tom. “Our students find success because they have been trained not only on the core principles of hotel management, but also in such key technologies as the OPERA software.”

Tom’s passion for hospitality hasn’t faded with time. He notes, “Hotels are a multifaceted business. They cater to a population that spans many cultures and languages, whereas restaurants more often deal with the native public of a city. What’s more, from conferences and galas to trendy lobbies overflowing with laptop-wielding freelancers, hotels have become so much more than a place to sleep. There has never been a more interesting time to be in this industry.”

Click here to learn how you can launch your hospitality career at ICE.


By Stephen Zagor—Dean, School of Business & Management Studies

I write about this almost unwillingly; I’m scratching just thinking about these minuscule monsters. What am I talking about? Bed bugs! Three years ago my son and I brought home these tiny, unwanted terrorists from one of several hotels we stayed in during a five-day college visit road trip. Before we knew what had happened, they advanced in a multi-frontal attack, occupying two bedrooms and plotting to overtake as much territory as possible. To win this war, we had to enlist a coalition of ghostly fighters in grey hazmat suits, the latest chemical warfare and a trusty, bug-sniffing beagle named Roscoe. Eventually we won the battle, but it was a grueling two-week experience that we have never forgotten.

As many New Yorkers already know, bed bugs are everywhere—subway cars, offices, department stores, movie theatres, everywhere. But of all the places they hide, hotels—with their never-ending flow of new overnight guests—are one of the most likely places for the little creatures to hop a ride to your home on your clothes or bags.

Credit: Jason Kuffer

Credit: Jason Kuffer

Yet, as a hospitality professional, my initial disgust quickly turned to curiosity—and the data I found was shocking. According to the Bed Bug Registry, not only is New York City the bed bug capital of America, but the list of affected hotels encompasses everything from Economy Inns to $700+ per night luxury suites. Not only are these little critters a customer service issue, but they are also a public relations nightmare for any hotel unlucky enough to be under attack.

So what’s a hotel to do? It’s basically impossible to prevent bed bugs from entering, given that travelers are an easy transport mode for the creatures. That leaves proactive initiatives as the best course of action, specifically in two areas: Inspect to Protect and Damage Control.

Since complete prevention is impossible, the next best thing is to minimize the potential problems with early detection, otherwise known as Inspect to Protect. Many hotels have “Bed Bug Action Plans” that combine monthly pest control inspections by an outside exterminator with an ongoing training of all employees—not just housekeeping staff—on how to spot signs of an infestation. In one case, a hotel was cited as offering monetary rewards to any employee who spots signs of bugs. (That said, employees could also be the source of the problem. Regular inspection of staff locker rooms, break areas and hallways should be part of any hotel’s action plan.)

Credit: Andrew Rennie

Credit: Andrew Rennie

If you do spot an infestation, the next step is Damage Control: a response plan for those times when a guest spots the infestation first. This may include moving the guest to another room, refunding the room charge, and a scripted apology (both verbally and in writing to the affected guest). Tantamount to these customer service efforts, the room should be inspected immediately and taken out of service until the problem is under control. Moreover, the complaint should be recorded and documented.

Whenever bed bugs are spotted, the pest management company should be called immediately. Bed boards, mattresses, box springs and furniture must be either properly treated or correctly disposed of. The rooms that adjoin the affected room on both sides, as well as above and below the room, should also be inspected. In 48 to 72 hours, the room should then be re-inspected. If all is clear, the room can promptly be returned to service. But in 14 days time, and then again in 28 days time, the room should be re-treated to proactively eliminate any lingering bugs that might have hatched since the first visit.

Credit: Johnny Vulkan

Credit: Johnny Vulkan

If a guest writes about the hotel bed bug incident on a social media profile, a review site such as TripAdvisor or elsewhere, the hotel management or public relations team should respond as quickly as possible, in an effort to minimize the concern. Communicating the proactive measures taken by the hotel is an excellent way to mitigate any issues that may arise. Be advised, these sorts of online comments may be difficult to detect before growing out of control. That is why the use of a real-time net browsing system to spot comments about your business is a highly effective way to maximize damage control.

There is no easy solution to the bed bug problem. As a guest, I have no interest in potentially inviting these critters back into my home, but as professional, I know that these infestations are an ongoing problem regardless of the cleanliness or prestige of a given hotel. Luckily, for both hotel management and their customers, enacting proactive, vigilant screening and response processes can help minimize experiences like mine in the future.

For more articles on new and trends in the hospitality industry, click here.

By Stephen Zagor, Dean—School of Management and Business Studies

Have you ever stayed in a hotel where the service didn’t meet your expectations? What did you do? If you’re like many guests today, you probably pulled out your smart phone and immediately turned to Twitter, Facebook, Yelp or TripAdvisor to voice your complaints. For those of us who work in the hospitality industry, this is a marked change in guest relations. The tried-and-true standard of client services—when a client picks up the phone or even visits the front desk to seek resolution—is vanishing even faster than 24-hour hotel room service.

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It’s no surprise that the instant gratification of online interactions have replaced the art of conversation and eye contact. But when in-person help is required, one has to wonder about the benefit of public complaints. Is it a helpful warning to future guests—the equivalent of flashing headlights to warn your fellow drivers of a hidden speed trap? Or is this just an exercise in heavy venting, a public flogging of the unfortunate hotel that provided less-than-perfect service?

A few months ago, I stayed in a luxury hotel in a major city. After I settled into the room, I sat on the edge of the bed—only to discover that the mattress and box springs had a pronounced tilt to one side. It was as though Godzilla had just slept there. I didn’t consider sending a note to Yelp or posting a comment on Twitter—to me, that approach as ineffective as dropping leaflets out of a plane. I actually picked up the phone, called the desk and in a matter of minutes was once again settling into a new room—bed fully intact.

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No matter your personal views on the topic, responding to publicly posted complaints is becoming an essential part of customer service.

My method of getting resolution may be on the decline. But what is interesting about this new phenomenon of digital complaints is that many hotels now understand and expect it. In fact, web patrols for customer comments have become an essential part of hotel brand management. Many have social media monitoring systems that forward guest remarks to hotel staff in real time. There are numerous software packages that constantly scan the web for complaints (and compliments) about hotel management, in an effort to help staff resolve issues quickly—maybe even fast enough for you to delete or recant that scathing twitter review.

If you think this system is only for hotels it’s not. Many airlines, food businesses and other savvy travel-related brands also employ these tactics—often to great success. But responding to every errant tweet can also lead to previously unforeseen conflicts in customer service. In a recent news story, a family was temporarily booted from a flight after the father tweeted about a run-in with a rude airline employee during boarding.

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At the end of the day, a complaint is a complaint no matter where it comes from, and it’s  good business to handle it timely and properly. Company reputations can be made or lost by how well problems are handled. Prevention is paramount, but successful resolution can be even more essential in establishing a dedicated customer base—especially when each complaint is public information. The smartest brands will see this broadcasted criticism as a great opportunity; what starts off as an issue can become a public relations win for all to see.

Next time I check into a hotel and have a problem during my stay, beware my twitter followers. I may just air my issue for all the whole world to enjoy…if only to see what happens.

 

By Tom Kombiz-Voss

 

This month, the Wall Street Journal reported that a new IRS rule is causing restaurants and bars—including those in hotels—to rethink the common practice of adding automatic gratuities to parties of more than six customers.  “Starting in January 2014, the IRS will begin classifying those automatic gratuities as service charges, which it treats as regular wages, subject to payroll tax withholding—instead of tips, which restaurants currently leave up to the employees to report as income.”

Waiters engage in a friendly race in Luxembourg. Photo Credit: Gwenaël Piaser

Waiters engage in a friendly race in Luxembourg. Photo Credit: Gwenaël Piaser

As a Hospitality Instructor, students regularly ask me about tipping (and specifically, what is appropriate). From there our discussions always become more interesting, as we discuss who tips and who doesn’t, often related to a customer’s country of origin. I’ve repeatedly heard from employees and students in the industry that Europeans do not tip, and some years ago, in Dallas, certain of my employees refused to serve South American and especially Brazilian customers because they seriously believed that they would not tip.

 

These sound like unproductive stereotypes and biases, and indeed they were; my job as a manager was to persuade employees that this mindset would lead to poor service, and thus guarantee a poor tip. We could not discriminate against millions of customers, regardless of any truth attached to these assumptions. For in truth—no matter their country of origin—tourists on a tight budget behave very similarly.

Tips are essential to many service professionals' salaries.

Tips are essential to many service professionals’ salaries. Photo Credit: Elvert Barnes

Having said that, my observations through traveling and working internationally have proven tipping to be more ingrained in American culture, for several reasons. First off, we are a country of charities and generosities; not only is philanthropic giving embedded in our society, but it is sanctioned by governments through tax breaks. Furthermore, during high school and college, many Americans—including myself—pay off their college expenses by working in service jobs, where the primary earnings come in the form of tips.

 

Despite the stereotype that Europeans don’t tip, the word originated in an English tavern. A bartender in the UK noticed some of his patrons were too thirsty to wait patiently, and noisily called attention to themselves in order to get their next drink faster. His simple solution was to label a small tin cup at the end of the bar counter with the phrase “to insure prompt service.” Thus, the word TIPS was coined.

The tip jar is a British invention.

The tip jar is a British invention. Photo Credit: Pip Lagenta

Here, we see a return to the root definition of “tip”: prompt service. In turn, I sometimes wonder why it should be expected to provide a tip to servers who have not provided timely, courteous service. However, even when service causes reason for complaint, most Americans—myself included—would not leave a restaurant without leaving the minimum 15%.

 

In turn, the IRS rule adds yet another twist to our complicated culture of tipping. Until now, automatic gratuity may have reduced servers’ motivation to provide exceptional service, but soon it will also lack the tax-free benefits of a traditional tip. Those who choose to eliminate the large party service charge will expose servers to the risk of a minimized tip, but a tax on automatic gratuity offers reason enough to reconsider this widely accepted practice.

 

By Tom Kombiz-Voss, Dean of the School of Hospitality Management

 

Hilton Hotels certainly ruffled a few feathers this month, when it was announced that their largest New York City property would discontinue room service to all 2,000 of its rooms.

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/uggboy

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/uggboy

It was in 1969 that the Westin chain implemented the 24-hour room service, establishing a unique service in hotels that, throughout the years, has had many ups and downs. Today, in the interest of cutting costs to make a profit, hotel and resorts have struggled to make financial sense of this now expected luxury.

 

In the 1980s, luxury hotels decided to rebrand room service, calling it “in-room dining”—how becoming! This elaborate form of fine dining certainly raised the bar. Traditionally, elegant meals were delivered about two hours after ordering—often prepared by the hotel’s own gourmet restaurant.  A well-dressed server would knock on your door and the show began: a nice white tablecloth cart was rolled in, the wine bottle would be corked, and even tableside cooking was performed! From there, the server would leave, returning a short while later to serve dessert, pour more wine, and clean. It’s hard to find honeymooners or other vacationing couples who would not like to experience this romantic, private service scenario!

 

Some time later—similar to the industry’s “bed wars” of 2006—hotels launched a “room service war,” switching up standards by offering delivery-style pizza with uniformed servers, health conscious meals or celebrity chef-inspired menus. These new amenities were often featured in elevator advertisements and guest service directory flyers.

Tom Voss on a field trip to the Ritz Carlton with ICE Hospitality Management students.

Tom Voss on a field trip to the Ritz Carlton with ICE Hospitality Management students.

Today, some hotels are seeing room service less as a symbol of decadence, and more of a heavy burden on their budget. To justify expenses, hotels have tried to cut down on labor costs, increase delivery time, use simplified menus or—following trends in airline food service—switch to disposable silverware. Some properties have even assigned their restaurant manager to babysit their room service department. Yet, despite these shifts in quality, in-room dining and its less elegant offshoots remain a desirable amenity for many guests.

 

For travelers, there aren’t many benefits to discontinuing room service, aside from eliminating dirty dishes and trays of leftover food in the hallways of hotels.  (Keeping those trays off the hallways has been a challenge for hotel staff.) Yet it would seem that the easy accessibility of grab- and- go is too easy of a solution.  Guests have always had the option of purchasing carryout food from a hotel’s in-house restaurant.

 

Guests do not plan when they are going to be hungry, nor do they plan on returning to their rooms to eat at a scheduled mealtime. They want to order food and beverages at the time that is convenient for them. We always compare a good hotel to our homes, and in our homes, the kitchen is always open.

At some point, hotels must decide if they want to budget for staff who, too often, are sitting around and waiting for orders.  Cutting costs may or may not be worth upsetting guests, as those who prefer room service may opt to stay elsewhere.

 

If hotels decide to eliminate this expected luxury, travelers will certainly miss their club sandwiches and breakfast in bed. According to a Crain’s online poll, people were asked if they would stay in a top hotel if it didn’t offer room service. Forty-two percent said “Yes. No one depends on room service anymore. That’s not why I go to luxury hotels,” while 58 percent said “No. Room service is essential. That’s what the luxury hotel experience is about.” There is more to be said about room service, but one thing is certain, not all hoteliers will ever agree that this service can be eliminated without the risk of losing valuable guests.