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Front & Center: Jackie Neves booked the right hotel job

Jackie Neves, executive vice president and COO of Hospitality Associates, poses for portrait on Thursday, March 3, 2016, at her office in Spokane Valley, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Jackie Neves, executive vice president and COO of Hospitality Associates, poses for portrait on Thursday, March 3, 2016, at her office in Spokane Valley, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Jackie Neves recalls that when she was promoted to general manager of a Spokane Valley hotel more than three decades ago, she became one of only three women in the region holding such a position.

And they all worked for the same company: Hospitality Associates.

Neves says company owner Terry Wynia “really promoted women, because he thought we were a good fit for this industry.”

Wynia’s father, Jess, bought his first hotel in 1959.

Wynia started Hospitality Associates in 1978, and since then has developed and managed more than 75 hotels throughout the West and Alaska.

Since taking a desk-clerk position almost 34 years ago, Neves has risen through the ranks to become Hospitality Associates’ executive vice president and chief operating officer.

The company recently broke ground on a six-story, 109-room Hampton Inn that will command a panoramic view of Spokane from its perch on Eighth Avenue just north of Sacred Heart Medical Center. Construction is expected to take 18 months.

During a recently interview, Neves discussed how the hospitality industry has evolved, what annoys guests, and how to get the best room rates.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Neves: In the Spokane Valley.

S-R: What were your interests?

Neves: My family spent a lot of time at our place on Lake Pend Oreille, boating in the summer and skiing in winter.

S-R: What was your first job?

Neves: I started working at Arby’s when I was 16.

S-R: Did you have any idea what career you might pursue?

Neves: Not really. For a while I thought I would teach. But after graduating from University High, I decided the hospitality industry might be fun. So I enrolled in Spokane Community College’s hotel and restaurant management program, and got a job as a part-time clerk at Hospitality Associates’ second hotel, on Sullivan Road.

S-R: Do you recall the first time you managed employees?

Neves: When I was 21 and was promoted to general manager.

S-R: That seems a bit young. How did you get the job?

Neves: I loved what I did, and I think that showed. I had worked all the different shifts, and Terry was really big on promoting from within. So when our general manager moved on to Hospitality Associates’ third hotel, I stepped into her position.

S-R: How many people worked for you?

Neves: Between 15 and 25, depending on the season.

S-R: Some of them must have been older. Was that intimidating?

Neves: No. I felt like I was working with friends and family members. We all got along well, and we were a good team, so I didn’t have people not respecting my decisions.

S-R: Did the community college program teach you what you needed to know to manage a hotel?

Neves: It covered the basics, but there was still a lot of on-the-job learning, because every day is different. You never know what to expect.

S-R: Did skills learned at Arby’s transfer to this career?

Neves: Working the counter taught me about customer service.

S-R: Do you have a business philosophy?

Neves: Terry always emphasizes the importance of doing what’s right, whether in dealing with co-workers or guests.

S-R: What other advice has proved useful?

Neves: Only delegate down as far as people are capable.

S-R: Looking back, can you recall any particularly good or bad memories?

Neves: Both. Mostly I’ve loved my job. But there were days when employees wouldn’t show up and I’d cover shifts, or housekeepers would miss a room and I’d have to go clean it myself. That’s when I’d think, “Why did I get into a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week business?”

S-R: When was the last time you cleaned a room?

Neves: I help clean rooms all the time when we open a new hotel, but it’s been a while since I cleaned one after a guest.

S-R: How has the industry evolved since you joined it in the early ’80s?

Neves: The biggest change has been bookings. Everyone used to call an 800 number and reservations were recorded by hand. Now they’re all done online. Another big change is the way we manage rates. They used to be set by season. Now rates can change daily – even a couple of times a day – depending on demand.

S-R: How much do your rooms rent for?

Neves: Anywhere from $70 to $250.

S-R: What’s the secret to getting the best rate?

Neves: Usually you’ll get the best rate by booking directly through a hotel’s own website. If you find a lower rate somewhere else, they’ll usually match it.

S-R: What else?

Neves: If you book early, you’ll likely get the best rate. As a date approaches, rates tend to climb. But on the day of, if a hotel has a lot of inventory, the rate might drop.

S-R: Has it gotten easier or harder to find good employees?

Neves: Harder. It’s really tough to fill entry-level positions. Not many people are willing to start out cleaning rooms.

S-R: What do you pay entry-level employees?

Neves: Usually 50 cents to $2 above minimum wage. Housekeepers also earn tips.

S-R: How might raising the minimum wage affect your industry?

Neves: We understand that people need a fair wage to live on. But a higher minimum wage wouldn’t necessarily get us better employees. And we’d probably have to cut back on our workforce, because it’s so costly to train people at a higher minimum wage.

S-R: How much did the recession affect your business?

Neves: A lot. We cater to business travelers, and during the recession businesses cut way back on employee travel expenses.

S-R: Will lower gasoline prices help your business?

Neves: Yes, because our hotels are typically in suburbs, so lower gas prices will make people more willing to drive farther for accommodations. We’re hoping for a good tourist season this summer.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Neves: The people I work with –traveling to different hotels and talking to employees, management and customers.

S-R: What do guests complain about most?

Neves: Noise. Nighttime traffic … train whistles.

S-R: Have customers’ expectations changed in recent years?

Neves: Yes. The most important amenity today is a fast wireless Internet connection.

S-R: How do you market your business?

Neves: We don’t do much marketing. We rely on word of mouth.

S-R: What’s your favorite customer reaction?

Neves: When guests arrive for some special family occasion, like a wedding or funeral, and tell us our employees went above and beyond to make their stay special.

S-R: What qualities do you look for in employees?

Neves: Someone who has the right personality. We can teach skills, but we can’t teach people to be nice if they’re not.

S-R: What’s the career outlook for the hospitality industry?

Neves: I think it’s bright for people willing to take an entry-level job and work their way up. Most hotels promote from within, so there’s a lot of potential for advancement if you’re a people person who’s willing to work flexible hours.

S-R: Do you recommend enrolling in a college hospitality program?

Neves: That can help, but it’s not necessary. We have a lot of managers who started on the front desk and don’t have a formal education. I wish I had gone through WSU’s hospitality management program, but I can’t say it has hurt my career.

S-R: Is there anything about you that might surprise people who think they know you?

Neves: They might be surprised by how much I like camping – sitting by a campfire under the pine trees. They probably think I’m a city girl who works in an office and always prefers to stay in hotels when she travels. But I love the outdoors.

This interview has been condensed. If you’d like to suggest a business or community leader to profile, contact Michael Guilfoil at mguilfoil@comcast.net.

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