I manage 2 hotels in a college town. Here’s how we pivoted. – Business Insider

  • Linda Westgate manages the Cambria Hotel College Park and The Hotel at The University of Maryland.
  • She says her job has shifted dramatically, from the guests they serve to how they greet them.
  • This is what her job is like now, as told to freelancer Jamie Killin.

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This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Linda Westgate, a general manager of two hotels in College Park, Maryland, about her job. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I started my career as a front-desk clerk and worked in a variety of roles before becoming a general manager. 

I joined Southern Management Companies in 2018 and have been the general manager of the Cambria Hotel College Park in Maryland since August 2020, in addition to managing The Hotel at the University of Maryland.

I was a political-science major on a path to becoming an attorney when I took my first job in hospitality, and what began as a temporary role turned into a career in an industry I fell in love with. Hospitality proved to be full of new challenges every day and provided me with opportunities to work with different people, learn from guests, and travel and see different places. I’ve had the privilege of working in eight major markets across the United States including New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, and Tampa.

There’s really no such thing as a ‘typical’ day for a hotel general manager, but whatever was considered normal has certainly changed

the exterior of a hotel in Maryland

The Cambria Hotel College Park.
Courtesy of Linda Westgate

Management by walking around is in the DNA of hospitality professionals, so walking around the property and talking with guests and team members usually shapes my day. 

Additionally, there are administrative needs, community engagement — I’m the chairman of the board of directors for Experience Prince George’s, a destination marketing organization for the area, and on the executive committee of the Maryland Hotel and Lodging Association — and general management of the business including sales, finance, and operations that fill the rest of the day. 

Throughout much of the pandemic, morning huddles with my team gave way to virtual Zoom check-ins or physically distanced conversations in relatively quiet lobbies with little guest interaction.

Our core group jumped in to support housekeeping’s needs by working to get laundry done or assisting on the floors when we started to experience a return of leisure travelers. Seeing our group look beyond their typical job description and focus on how to be there for one another and our guests made me prouder than ever to be in this industry and with this team.

The biggest change was the almost full elimination of individual business travel during the week — a staple for our hotel 

Replacement by leisure travelers and vacationers at the end of spring and into summer definitely helped in creating more business, but the market also became more competitive than ever.

Last year from April until June, we had no transient individual guests. We were able to mitigate some of this loss of revenue by servicing groups like the Maryland National Guard that were responding to the pandemic on the front lines.

Because of this, we were sold out last year. However, we’ve continued to see improved occupancy for leisure travelers and extended-stay guests this year due to the return to school and increase in corporate travel. As such, we’re experiencing an approximately 50% increase in individual travel year over year right now.

As guests return, we’ve embraced the return to in-person daily stand-up meetings to prepare for the day ahead. 

Conversations with guests are critical in understanding why people are traveling, receiving feedback, and adding a personal touch to their visit

When school came back in session last year, I recall speaking with several parents who were so excited to have their kids going back to school or starting college. They’re thrilled to be able to be traveling with their kids as they embark on such an exciting time in their lives and they’re happy that their children get the chance to have a real college experience. 

Hoteliers are accustomed to warm, personable greetings, handshakes, and smiles. We recognize the necessity of wearing face coverings and remaining physically distanced, so we’ve had to pivot and focus on conveying warmth, hospitality, and understanding in new ways. 

Whether it was using body language or over-communicating with written notes in their rooms, which we rarely did before, we had to demonstrate our empathy and understanding during such a challenging time. Now it’s a matter of blending the return to those warm greetings with a greater sensitivity for our guests.

Last year, we also provided long-term accommodations for a number of students as an alternative to campus housing

As the region began to reopen and the University of Maryland transitioned to a nontraditional school year, many students turned to alternative housing. The signing of a lease or long-term commitment to a dorm presented a financial challenge to families as well, so we were able to provide a clean, safe, and flexible solution. 

We opened to these students and provided them discounted housing — a decrease from our usual daily rates that are typically around $110 at Cambria Hotel College Park or $150 at The Hotel. The students really felt like they could depend on us, and so did their parents. We even had parents calling and contacting us to check in on their kids from time to time.