Colorado is fighting harder than ever for convention business — and we are winning. The Denver Business Journal reported last week that the Denver metro area massively increased its convention space and appeal, qualifying us for major events similar to the Democratic National Convention, professional sporting events, and other major attractions. This boom in convention traffic has more than doubled the industry’s economic footprint between 2004 and 2012. This is great news for Colorado economy, job creation and the hospitality industry as a whole.
Unfortunately, just as our industry is on the verge of a boom, Colorado’s businesses face a major deficit in talent. The hospitality industry cannot thrive in a vacuum.
From our headquarters in Denver, Sage Hospitality operates 65 hotels and 10 restaurants nationally, including the new Union Station project as well as Second Home Kitchen and Bar in Cherry Creek. As we grow, we have a constant need for more employees who can communicate with guests and quickly solve problems. But our public schools aren’t producing the kind of nimble, innovative thinkers we need to fill these jobs and keep the hospitality and tourism industry in Colorado booming. The state’s graduation rate is alarmingly stagnant, hovering at 75% over the last five years, and those who do graduate are not ready for college or career.
Sage — like other businesses — is only as strong as our employees. They can mean the difference between an extraordinary visit to Denver, one that raises Colorado’s profile, and a disgruntled visitor who likely will never come back and may discourage others from visiting as well. From Desk Clerk to Assistant Front Office Manager, to General Manager, these positions require soft skills such as a wonderful attitude, courteous attention, hospitable demeanor, and a commitment to hard work. But we also need critical thinking, problem solving, and experience collaborating with colleagues. Mastering the customer experience is essential for keeping our business in the black, and any employee who wants to advance must master these higher-level, 21st century skills.
Prospective staff members should be learning these basic skills in high school. We need graduates to come to our doors, resume in hand, able to show that they are highly qualified and resilient enough to continuously improve. Too often, right now, applicants lack the skills and the focus for our open positions.
Fortunately, there’s good news.
Colorado’s public schools are adopting higher expectations for students, including Math and English language skills as part of the Common Core. These are the skills that our future employees need to know and be able to use to both keep Colorado at the top of the convention and tourism industry and to ensure personal career growth and success. The new standards raise expectations for students at each grade level. More emphasis will be placed on critical thinking and how to apply knowledge instead of just memorizing facts. Adapting to these new standards won’t be easy – but it will teach our future employees that critical, intangible skill of resilience and continuous improvement that our businesses so desperately need from our workforce.
Sage Hospitality isn’t alone in this thinking. Other states and industries know these higher standards are the path to economic success. The National Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable support this, as well as individual companies such as Intel Corp., Cisco Systems, and ExxonMobil.
We believe strongly that, without these important improvements to the public education system, Sage Hospitality and others in Colorado run a grave risk of faltering. Unfortunately, the public schools’ higher expectations are being met with political opposition from those who don’t understand how important this is for all children and for our economy. We encourage all businesses to rally parents, students, and other community members in the name of high standards, to make sure that all our children are ready to contribute to the growing Colorado economy.
Walter Isenberg and Zack Neumeyer are cofounders of Sage Hospitality. Isenberg also serves on the boards of Visit Denver and Colorado Concern. Neumeyer also serves on the board of Colorado Succeeds and Teach for America Colorado. This article originally appeared in the Denver Business Journal.