Geoff Ballotti, president/CEO, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, readily admits that his first job in the hospitality industry was washing dishes at age 15 at a Pancake Man restaurant on Rte. 132 in Hyannis, MA.
“There is no worse of a commercial kitchen for washing dishes than a pancake house because of the chemical reaction of what happens to maple syrup and egg yolk when the water isn’t hot enough,” he said. “The only way those plates are getting clean is plate by plate by plate.”
It was that experience that made Ballotti feel he was qualified to apply for a dishwashing job as a teen at the Le Méridien in Boston in the late 1970s that would begin his career in hotels. “I had hoped that I would be promoted that summer to a busboy—that was my aspiration,” he said. “Think about it: You are back there, and the busboys are coming in with their buckets of dishes. It is a much elevated, more aspirational position setting those dishes down for the dishwasher.”
While at Le Méridien, he met Bernard Lambert, the general manager of the hotel (who would go on to be president/CEO of the entire brand and a mentor to Ballotti). “I just thought, ‘If I could ever be anyone in the world, that would be my aspiration.’ But I knew to get there, it was a long march up from dishwasher to busboy to waiter to ultimately general manager, which I ultimately achieved in my late-30s.”
Despite his early start in hospitality, he went to college and majored in French. While he hoped to teach French as a career, the nearly $70,000 in debt and $4,400 starting salary as an assistant teaching professor at a private school outside of Boston made him rethink his plans. His father suggested he going into banking and found a job in the sector.
He ended up at the Bank of New England for five years and closed several hotel loans as a construction lender, but “I always had hotels in my head after spending those summers working in hotels and looking up to folks like Bernard,” he said.
After attending Harvard Business School, Ballotti applied for a job in corporate at ITT Sheraton and began at its development group. From there he worked in hotels across Europe (where he was able to use his knowledge of French) and climbed up the ladder to his current position.
“It’s just an incredible industry, and I can’t imagine ever having done anything differently,” he said.