Wyndham Hotel Group CEO and President Geoff Ballotti began his hospitality career washing dishes in a pancake house, and said the people—not the pancakes—are what inspired his career.
PHOENIX—Like a lot of today’s most successful hotel industry CEOs, Geoff Ballotti, who has been the president and CEO of Wyndham Hotel Group since 2014, started his career washing dishes.
But his first job in hospitality—washing dishes at The Pancake Man restaurant in Hyannis, Massachusetts, in 1976—had its own particular pitfalls.
“All of us who have been hotel general managers debate whether the toughest job in a hotel is stewarding or housekeeping,” Ballotti said. “But I’ll never forget how tough that Pancake Man job was, washing dishes in a pancake house.”
“Just think about the chemical reaction between eggs and maple syrup, when they get cold and hard on a plate, and trying to get that plate clean when the hot water always ran out!” he said with a laugh.
The two things that stuck with Ballotti about that job? The paycheck and, most importantly, the people.
“The minimum wage was $2.65, and I will never forget that first paycheck,” he said. “I worked 60 hours that week and when I got my $135 I thought, ‘wow, I made it big.’”
And even as the low person on the restaurant totem pole, Ballotti remembers the people who stood out and gave him a hand.
“I’ll never forget Danny, who was a busboy who treated me with concern and genuine empathy,” he said. “And I’ll never forget Mary Ellen, who was one of the waitresses, and how she always thanked me when I delivered those spoons that had run out or those (coffee) creamers that had run out. That was a big deal to me, and those two people still stick with me today.”
From pancakes to hotels
Today, Ballotti heads up a company with a 19-brand portfolio of more than 8,000 hotels and 705,000 guestrooms in 79 countries. That Pancake Man job was the stepping stone to his first hotel job, which ultimately allowed him to meet his mentor and set his sights high in the industry.
“Several years (after 1976), I graduated from a pancake house to a hotel, and I was still a dishwasher, but it was at a very prestigious hotel—the Le Méridien in Boston,” he said. “I was a steward, part of the pre-opening team and back once again in the pit, washing dishes.”
Once again, what stood out about this job, his first at a hotel, was his colleagues, he said. Through them, he began to visualize what a career in hotels might look like. “It was there that I aspired to be a busboy, and one day I became one,” he said. “And I hoped to one day become a waiter in that hotel.”
At Le Méridien, Ballotti met his mentor, Bernard Lambert, who was then resident manager of the Boston hotel, and later served as president and CEO of the Le Méridien Hotels and Resorts brand from 1996 to 2001.
Watch a clip of Ballotti talking about how Lambert made a difference to him by modeling an inspiring career:
“I have so many Bernard Lambert stories that I often think back on, as I graduated from dishwasher to busboy, and then finally from busboy to waiter,” he said. “This is a fantastic industry that we’re all really lucky to be part of, and it’s one that none of us could be in were it not for all the servers, the waiters, the room attendants and the dishwashers.”
Ballotti said he speaks to students all the time, and his advice is the same: “Pour your heart into what you’re doing. Enjoy what you’re doing, even if it might not feel that enjoyable, and appreciate the people you work with,” he said.
“The more you experience in different departments, the more you grow,” he said. “People ask me all the time what I think the best job is in this industry, and I tell them that being a general manager is one of the best jobs out there any young person could ever aspire to have.”
The big question
Asked whether he still eats pancakes, Ballotti had a strong reply:
”I hate pancakes,” he said. “I can’t stomach pancakes! I can’t stomach the smell of maple syrup! Boy, an egg and a pancake on the same plate just … give me the heebie jeebies.”