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The highlight of my hospitaility career

A Waldorf Story by Mark McGehee

The year was 1984. I had been working the past four years as a Sales Manager at the New York Hilton. In recognition of those efforts, I was fortunate enough to receive a promotion to Assistant Director of Sales at the historic Waldorf Astoria. Although only 28 years old and somewhat naïve in grasping the importance of my new responsibilities, I was extremely eager to get started. Little did I know that this significant opportunity would end up being a true launching pad for my hospitality career.

I can remember that first day, walking down Park Avenue and through the front doors of the Waldorf. The same doors that so many famous guests had passed through, politicians, business leaders, movie stars, philanthropists, musicians, international diplomats, and so many more. As I made my way up the impressive front stairs and toward the lobby it immediately hit me! I am now working at a hotel with deep history and prominence, not only in New York City, but the world. What an honor!

In my position as Assistant Director of Sales I was responsible for my own sales goals along with managing four other salespeople. In addition to training and mentoring my team, I focused our efforts on attracting corporate and association meetings along with individual business travel. As I began to organize the team, I quickly realized that many exciting new experiences would soon follow.

Around the time of my arrival, Hilton Hotels Corporation had made the decision to undergo a massive renovation of the hotel. The master plan included a complete renovation of all guest rooms, ballrooms, restaurants, lobby, and public spaces. The overall design centered on returning the hotel to its original grandeur and traditional elegance, ensuring its standing of prominence as the “Greatest of Them All”. My job was to enthusiastically market and sell the hotel to new and existing customers. While the hotel sometimes looked like a construction site, the exhilaration of introducing this new polished gem was truly rewarding.

Watching the renovation was fascinating. Each day there was a new discovery of art and intricate craftsmanship, dating back to when the hotel was built in 1930. Much to everyone’s surprise, there would be beautiful marble pillars, wall fixtures and murals revealed after years of being covered; each more impressive than the last. The unveiling of the beautiful circular mosaic in the Park Avenue lobby was truly impressive. Hidden for years from public view was a masterpiece of carefully laid tiles that was polished and restored. This would become a true focal point of the lobby. These amazing discoveries made for excellent talking points with customers.

One memorable event was the day I was giving a hotel tour to one of our key customers. As we made our way through all the dust and debris, he spotted a deep cast iron bathtub that was being removed from one of the rooms. He made an offhand comment that he would “love to have this tub at his own home”. The hotel tour continued without another word about the tub. After he had left and returned to his home in Virginia, I got the idea to somehow surprise him with this tub. So, I contacted the hotel chief engineer and had him arrange for the tub to be re-glazed and the faucets polished. We then put the tub in a wooden crate and shipped it to my client’s house unannounced. Not surprisingly, he was shocked, yet extremely proud. This gesture had a huge impact and solidified his loyalty for years to follow.

As I reflect to those years, I am enthused that today’s renovation efforts will be equally, if not more, impressive. Having recently viewed the plans, I was pleased to see that many of the “landmarks” of the original hotel will remain as they were always intended. I look forward to the grand opening with great anticipation.

My years at the Waldorf included countless other experiences including of course the many professionals that I had the pleasure of working alongside. From the senior executives to the line employees, they all displayed a deep sense of pride and attention to detail for each guest. These many individuals taught me the true meaning of being a hospitality professional and would ultimately prove instrumental in laying the foundation for my lifelong hotel career.

Although many years have passed, the Waldorf Astoria will always hold special meaning. Not only was I fortunate enough have worked at such a historic hotel, but my family has their own special memories as well. My grandparents lived at the Waldorf for a time in 1947, with my grandfather constantly using the hotel to entertain customers. My aunt and uncle held their engagement party at the hotel on May 30, 1947. My father was a member of the Marco Polo Club, located off the rear lobby, and would constantly entertain international customers through the 1960s to mid-1980s. He was also frequently seen dining at the Bull & Bear. Sabrina, my wife of 36 years, worked at the Waldorf as part of the Hilton National Sales team. My eldest son and his wife recently participated in a Waldorf auction and won the bidding on a few art pieces that currently hang proudly in their living room. And my younger son recently arranged a tour of the new residences and future hotel, which of course was truly impressive. All great memories.

Lastly, I was extremely honored to have received the attached letter from Baron Hilton, acknowledging efforts put forth during a citywide hotel strike that also occurred during my time at the Waldorf. A challenging period for sure. I was equally as honored to have been inducted as a Waldorf Distinguish Alumni. I look forward to the grand re-opening of the hotel and the opportunity to attend the annual banquet, as I am sure it will be spectacular; living up to the grandeur and elegance the name Waldorf Astoria so richly deserves.