The Boardroom Is Not Merrill 131

By Emily Gold Boutilier

Photos by Rob Mattson and Joshua Paul

Frits van Paasschen ’83 is CEO and president of one of the largest hotel companies in the world. He oversees 1,150 properties and 171,000 employees in nearly 100 countries. Danielle Amodeo ’13 holds a B.A. in European studies. She was president of a film forum and started her own jewelry line. It’s easy to imagine how van Paasschen could help Amodeo. It’s harder to see how she could help him.

Danielle Amodeo '13
Danielle Amodeo ’13. Photo by Rob Mattson.

Last semester, they helped each other. Van Paasschen commissioned a team of Amherst seniors, including Amodeo, to study marketing and branding trends as they pertain to young adults. The students got to apply their liberal arts education to a real-world problem, while van Paasschen got to hear from the business travelers of tomorrow.

“Part of being an innovative company,” says van Paasschen, of Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, “is encouraging ideas not only from people in the company but also from the outside.” Or, in the words of Joshua Levitt ’13, who recruited, assembled and led the Amherst team: “We weren’t tainted by the professional world. Starwood was able to get a lot of creativity out of us—ideas that people in their late 30s, 40s,  probably aren’t going to think of.”

The “Live Branding Case Study” was the first of its kind at Amherst. It was also a first for Starwood, which often works with hospitality schools but has never, until now, collaborated with a liberal arts college on this type of endeavor. The project asked the Amherst team to analyze and answer a series of questions. Among them: What are your generation’s biggest concerns? How will these concerns influence your purchasing behavior? What three initiatives would you commission if you were Starwood’s CEO? The company asked for data to support each answer.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for students to think, in a very interdisciplinary way, about the challenges that businesses face,” van Paasschen says. “The world of technology is changing so quickly that the perspective of an Amherst student can be fundamentally different from even what mainstream business travelers are telling us today.”

So it came to be that the team of five seniors—Levitt, Amodeo, Jeehae Kim Goddard, Lacie Goldberg and Henry Bao-Viet Nguyen—devoted much of their final semester in college to brainstorming answers, surveying their peers and, ultimately, recommending ideas to Starwood executives.

In between classes, thesis writing and job hunting, the students met regularly, sometimes in the Lord Jeffery Inn, but more often in the two-room double that Goddard and Goldberg shared in Seelye (the former Phi Upsilon house). “Half of us would be on the floor,” Amodeo says, “half of us on college chairs.” There they hashed out marketing and branding plans aimed at fellow “millennials” —people who hardly remember a world without iPhones and social media, who view room service as inconvenient if they have to talk to a real person to place the order.

Long before he was a CEO, van Paasschen arrived at Amherst with plans to be a doctor. He ended up with a double major in biology and economics. “I decided not to apply to medical school,” he told The Amherst Student in 2011, when he spoke to pre-business students on campus, “and as I was getting close to graduation I had to find something to do.” After reading a Harper’s article about consulting, he looked up firms, went on interviews and landed a job.

“I came to the college without any business experience,” he said in a phone interview in June. “I also left the college without any business experience and went into a business job.” He describes the shift into the workforce as “very abrupt”; that’s one impetus behind the Amherst-Starwood case study. “The transition from college life to business work life,” he says, “is in making the move from having interesting ideas and expressing them clearly to finding which ideas actually make practical sense.”

Eventually, van Paasschen became president and CEO of Coors Brewing Co. before joining Starwood in 2007. He came to believe that one way to ease the transition from school to work would be for college students to work on a business problem that wasn’t merely theoretical.

The case study would not replace his firm’s market research and industry expertise, he decided, but would supplement those things. Van Paasschen sees value in getting into the minds of people new to the working world. “In some respects, experience matters far less than it ever did before,” he says. “There’s nobody who has 20 years of social media experience. If you have five years, you have as much as anyone else on the planet.”

From the start, van Paasschen viewed the case study as a way to leverage the interdisciplinary nature of a liberal arts education. “It used to be that your IT department, your marketing department and your operations organizations worked almost separately,” he says. “IT was working on back-office projects. Marketing was doing print ads and events. The operations organization was managing hotels. Today when we think ‘marketing,’ we think mobile apps. Marketing has to be hand and glove with the technology team.” Or, to put it more broadly, interdisciplinary thinking is ever more important in today’s workplace.

Shortly after van Paasschen’s 2011 talk to the pre-business group, one of his employees reached out to Ursula Olender, director of Amherst’s Career Center, with the idea for a case study on marketing to the younger generation. “I thought it was a terrific idea,” says Olender, who, at the time, was new to her job at Amherst. “Students are very comfortable in the classroom. Seeing how theoretical things they’re learning in class can be applied in a workplace allows them to figure out what strengths they have and what they’re good at.”

Olender’s office announced the partnership in January 2013 and put out a call for groups of students to apply. Out of four applications received, Starwood selected Levitt’s team. “Our professional experience runs the gamut, ranging from fashion, to real estate, to finance, to media, to contemporary art,” Levitt wrote in the application. “Additionally, interests in entrepreneurship, luxury branding, and sustainability permeate throughout our endeavors.” The team represents six nationalities. Their majors include economics, Russian and architectural studies, among others. Collectively, they speak eight languages. “We were a nice cross section of millennials,” says Levitt. “I wanted to take all of these people’s interests and act as a guiding force for the project.”

Lacie Goldberg ’13 and Henry Bao-Viet Nguyen ’13 seated on hotel staircase  
Lacie Goldberg ’13 and Henry Bao-Viet Nguyen ’13 at Starwood’s St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan.
Photo by Joshua Paul.

The five students came in as friends but had to learn to work as colleagues. “It wasn’t easy,” Levitt says. “We’re all very strong personalities.” Their main concerns varied, as did their worldviews. And at the time, none had a plan in place for after graduation, which meant that each was interested in parlaying the study into a job offer. “So we all had an agenda, too,” Levitt says.

Goddard and Goldberg’s dorm room became the team’s de facto conference space. “Every other week we’d sit down, sometimes over coffee, sometimes over wine, and dissect the problems and questions,” Amodeo says, “and, in typical Amherst fashion, come up with 30 different responses and go through them all. We made it into a very critical exercise.”

Bao-Viet conceived and designed the online survey, then the team members administered it to their peers. They received 81 responses—a small but fruitful sample. The survey asked, among other things, about the factors that influence purchasing behavior. “Word of mouth” and “online reviews” proved the most common. “It matters less and less what companies say about themselves,” Bao-Viet says. “That was one of the first things we realized.”

The survey revealed that millennials consider themselves independent, ambitious and optimistic, and that they want the businesses they patronize to devote more resources to technology and environmental sustainability.

The data also showed that—no surprise—millennials are attached to their smartphones. As such, the team decided that Starwood should enhance its mobile app so that, with the convenient touch of a button, guests might order room service (even while still on the plane) or network with other travelers. “As you walk into a hotel,” Bao-Viet says, “you’d have the option of turning on your Starwood identity app or Starwood profile”  to connect with a fellow professional for lunch, for example.

As the semester wore on, the team began to see hotels as more than just collections of beds, gyms and restaurants. As one survey response suggested: “They can have actual galleries with thought-provoking exhibitions (not just a series of artworks hung for decorative purposes); they can host concerts (not just some light music for café background music); they can have book clubs and meetings.” Goddard wondered if hotel lobbies might be re-envisioned as salons, with guest lectures. The students fleshed out ideas for making hotels more personal and environmentally conscious, too: Maybe guests could “meet” (through photos, maps and text) the people who farmed the sustainable cotton in their bedsheets.

Some ideas were outlandish. Amodeo, for instance, imagined a fleet of Lamborghinis available for guests to drive. Her teammates brought her down to earth. “That crazy dream scenario,” she says, “made it possible for me to think of the hotel as an interface for other things”—which led, ultimately, to her big idea, which she calls “The Closet.”

The idea behind “The Closet” is personal. As Amodeo explains, she was thinking about what she and her friends always say when they’re traveling: “I don’t have anything to wear.” She then wondered: What if she could rent or borrow an item of clothing—a trench coat when it rains, a warm cardigan when she has a chill? What if a tourist had the option to wear—but not buy and take home—a sari in India or a Burberry coat in London? What if a business traveler could use an extra suit jacket? “I was thinking very specifically about me in five years, about what I’d want,” she says.

Danielle Amodeo '13 reflected in a closet mirror
“I was thinking very specifically about me in five years, about what I’d want,” says Danielle Amodeo ’13.
Photo by Rob Mattson.

She knew she’d use such a resource. But as van Paasschen points out, the move from college to business life brings the lesson that not every good idea makes practical sense. Did this one?

On a Saturday afternoon in early April, the five students came to the Career Center to prepare for a visit from van Paasschen. With help from Olender, they set the mood for an informal conversation, placing chairs in a circle and laying out cheese and bottles of beer (which went mostly ignored). When van Paasschen arrived, the students took turns discussing the survey and their various proposals, not only for “The Closet” and the mobile app but also for a roof garden, bamboo lamp shades and several other ideas related to environmentally sustainable design.

“Part of what I got out of the project,” van Paasschen says, “was a corroboration of dynamics we’re seeing in the marketplace already: a much greater interest in sustainability and global citizenship among companies, an appetite for technology and innovation as a way of making experiences easier and more personalized. And what was especially striking to me was the importance of design, in and of itself, as part of the experience that people are expecting.”

Van Paasschen was gratified to know that millennials are thinking creatively about sustainability: “Social responsibility and global citizenship are fundamental to good business.”

In May, around an enormous table at Starwood headquarters in Stamford, Conn., the team presented its work to a panel of executives. (Van Paasschen was not in the room. Nor was Levitt, who had a family emergency, so Bao-Viet, who was already running parts of the project, stepped in as team leader.) The executives critiqued the students’ performance, saying, for example, that there should be five slides, not 48.

“It was not a typical business pitch,” Amodeo admits. “We went for an academic style, laying out ideas, facts and images like in a classroom lecture. They gave us a reality check, I suppose, and made us realize that the boardroom is not Merrill 131.”

Starwood may now use the case study findings however it wishes. “The Closet was the idea that seemed to resonate most” with the executives, says Olender, who drove the students to Stamford. Indeed, van Paasschen says “The Closet” could be interesting for two Starwood brands, W and Aloft, whose clientele he views as most likely to use such a service. “I thought of it as Zipcar for wardrobes,” he says of the idea.

Whatever comes of the students’ proposals, van Paasschen and Olender hope the Live Branding Case Study will be the first of many similar collaborations, both between Amherst and Starwood and between Amherst and other firms. Levitt hopes so, too: “Every student is going to have to take this liberal arts education and transform it into something they can use professionally. Taking students with varied academic backgrounds and forcing them to collaborate is an excellent exercise to prepare for the working world.” Case studies teach students to channel their creativity and think broadly, he says.

Henry Bao-Viet Nguyen ’13 and Lacie Goldberg ’13 outside St. Regis Hotel.
Photo by Joshua Paul

As Amherst and Starwood consider future partnerships, the students are moving forward, too. Levitt will attend the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he’ll study real estate development, urban planning and sustainability. Goldberg is in the midst of a summer internship in food and beverages at Starwood’s St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan.Bao-Viet is considering various offers, including one with Starwood in New York City.

Amodeo turned down a master’s program and a more permanent job offer in order to intern in sales at Starwood’s W New York–Downtown, where she hopes to see if her “very theoretical framework of an idea” is realistic. “I preferred the uncertainty of this, with the perks of being able to think creatively,” she says. “I’m going to try this out, and if I like it, I’m going to pursue it aggressively.”

Emily Gold Boutilier is the editor of Amherst magazine.

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