Alisa Williams was working as a greeter in a Sam Seltzer steakhouse when a recruiter pressed a card in her hand and urged her to apply for a job at a Hyatt Regency hotel under construction on Clearwater Beach.
"It was a life-changing event," said the 21-year-old native of Barbados who grew up in Clearwater. She switched majors with hopes of parlaying her newfound Hyatt barista job into a hotel management career she had never considered. "It's the best job I've ever had. They listen to me and let me try new things."
One of 159 people culled from 2,500 applicants to open the four-diamond-rated Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach Resort and Spa, Williams fits the attributes the hotel's hiring managers zero in on like a heat-seeking missile.
You can teach all the job skills, said Brian Kramer, 42, general manager. But you cannot fake attitude or a genuine gift for hospitality. Then Hyatt DNA and Kramer's open management style takes over.
His Hyatt team floods staff with training, incentives, after-hours sports and parties, mentors, endless prize contests, career shadowing, morale boosting signs, extensive charity volunteer work and participatory advisory committees to help them enhance both the business and guest experience.
He's even a launching a 30-hour course in hotel management skills and tools for interested staffers.
The hulking 17-story coral-colored landmark may be the centerpiece of Clearwater's new Beach Walk redevelopment. But with only 250 suites, it's smaller than the average Hyatt's 400 rooms. So the property, which Hyatt manages for a Tampa investment group, adopted the slogan "Little Hotel. Big Heart" as a mantra to consistently score in the brand's top 10 properties in customer service ratings.
And yes, Kramer concedes, there is a "friendly rivalry" after the hotel's older sibling Grand Hyatt in Tampa made the Times Top Workplace list in 2011.
The drumbeat began with preopening training and pep rallies.
"We're all about convincing associates we believe in them, and they are going to help us make a difference," said Kramer, who oversaw his fourth Hyatt opening while working in the ninth property of his 21-year career.
Two months after opening in 2010, the Hyatt's debut was soured by the gulf oil spill disaster. Scheduled conferences canceled and visitors unfamiliar with the geography went elsewhere. But the hotel's inaugural year still beat Hyatt's expectations, and the occupancy rate has improved to the mid 60 percent range.
Hyatt benefits are company standard: health, vision, dental and life insurance; 401k; discounts on Hyatt stock; discounts on personal dry cleaning; 12 free nights vacation in any Hyatt plus discounts for friends and family.
(About 50 of the hotel workers — the security and housekeeping staffs — are employed by a third-party staffing company that handles those functions for many bay area hotels.)
More than half the young Hyatt Regency staff was hired with no previous hotel experience, and yet there has been little turnover. By popular demand Kramer developed a management course for the rank and file to learn the business behind different departments. The young staff was augmented by 20 Hyatt managers plus 36 veterans from other Hyatts around the country.
Joe Blouin, the 55-year-old outdoor outlets manager, came from Hyatt's high end, 88-room Victor Hotel in South Beach.
"Coming from a boutique hotel, I worried I'd be swallowed up in a huge hotel," he said. "But this property really runs like a boutique hotel. It's just a bigger family."
As is the case at some other luxury hotels, employees are empowered to do "whatever it takes" to resolve guest complaints with free meals and nights and to share the outcomes with colleagues. Yet Kramer's workers are just as appreciative of being trusted to help make decisions.
"They really want your opinion and to try new things," said Danika Beard, 34 and a junior sous chef.
When menu choices were reviewed for the free daily meal workers are served in the employee cafeteria, managers wanted suggestions. That added spring mix salads and more fresh fruit to the fare.
"They added seven of the 10 items associates voted for," said Crystal Flanaga, 26, who recently won a third promotion in two years to pool deck supervisor and decided to major in hotel management at St. Petersburg College. "They really work to make us feel we're part of the family. This has become my home away from home."
Staff writer Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.