Archived Stories
Alumna follows hospitality career to Hong Kong
Norma Tomkinson is a 1972 graduate of Ball State University (B.S. in social sciences) who has established a global career with Marriott International and is working in Hong Kong. She recently took a few minutes to answer some questions about her career and her Ball State education.... While at Ball State, did you ever expect to ultimately work abroad for an international firm? My career with Marriott International was definitely not something that I envisioned while I was at Ball State. While Iíve always loved travel and experiencing new destinations, I didnít realize at the time that it could be part of my career. My intention was to work in a living history museum, so I studied history, political science, and geography. Additionally, I took the courses needed to become a teacher so that I could share my love of history with others. Were there courses, people, or experiences while at Ball State that in retrospect influenced your career path toward your current work? My minor in geography has definitely come in handy. In the international community, Americans have an unfortunate reputation for being geographically challenged, and I try to show that we arenít all like that. One of the other aspects of my education that has served me well has been the research process learned in writing all of the papers that went along with my studies. The process of asking questions, finding answers, sifting through and organizing the information in a logical and persuasive context is something that I use constantly in the business world. Additionally, the ability to communicate is extremely valuable in any business and in particular in the hospitality business. Where else besides Hong Kong have you been posted with Marriott or other employers? I have been posted in Hong Kong for the last six years. Prior to that, I worked for Marriott in California (Silicon Valley and Los Angeles), Baltimore, Greensboro (North Carolina), Miami, and Chicago. I started my career in the hospitality business at the Marriott in Fort Wayne (Indiana), my hometown. Marriott has not only given me the opportunity to live in all of these great destinations, but it has also given me the opportunity to advance my career while staying with the same great company. If a current Ball State student was considering a career in your field, what courses or experiences would you recommend including while still a student? There are many disciplines in the hospitality industry, and some of them do require specialized studies---for example, finance, accounting, architecture, engineering, and culinary. However, I have spent most of my career in sales and marketing. While some of my colleagues have business or marketing degrees, a number of us do not. My current area of responsibility is in revenue management, and studies in finance, business, and statistics are becoming the standard in this discipline. The hospitality industry is all about serving people, whether they are our guests, associates, or owners. I would recommend that any student interested in a career in the hospitality industry read Bill Marriottís book Spirit to Serve. Many universities offer majors in hotel and tourism management studies, and many people come into the business from these schools. Most hotels have opportunities for summer and part-time employment. Iíd advise students to apply for a job and try the business may be just the career you are looking for. There are many general managers who started out as lifeguards or bellmen. My first position was as a clerk at the front desk, which is an excellent place to start because in addition to the guest contact, you have the opportunity to interact with the rest of the hotel. Describe the impact of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) on your business and how your firm responded. SARS was something that no one was expecting. Nor did anyone have the experience of going through something like this before. Marriott anticipated that there was a good possibility that we would be going to war in Iraq and advised all of the hotels in our region to have a contingency plan prepared and ready to implement should war commence. However, in Asia the impact of SARS was far greater than the impact of the war. Destinations like Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam, Guangzhou, and Beijing were particularly hard-hit. While business is returning to these destinations and people are traveling again, the economic impact will be felt for quite some time. In what ways did your own life change during the SARS episode? Living in Hong Kong, it was unusual to see deserted stores, shopping malls, and restaurants which are normally crowded and bustling with activity. Wearing a mask also took some getting used to as I found them hot and uncomfortable. Many people stopped using Hong Kongís excellent public transportation system. Hong Kong people are great travelers, and it was most unusual to see everyone staying home, or if they did travel, returning with tales of being unwelcome for fear that they might be SARS carriers. While SARS was indeed serious, I found this a great example of the power of the media to influence peopleís thinking and behavior. As one local journalist put it, ďIt is much easier to catch paranoia than SARS.Ē If you have met Ball State alumni in your work or travels, how has that happened? I donít frequently meet Ball State alumni, although I do frequently meet people from Indiana or with relatives in Indiana. It usually starts with the question, ďWhere are you from originally?Ē Your title as sales transformation project director is unusual. What precisely does that entail? I accepted a new position as regional director of revenue management for Asia-Pacific and Australia in February. I work with our hotels on their pricing and revenue strategies, training for our revenue managers, and implementation of new initiatives. Our region extends from India to Hawaii and from South Korea to Australia. It covers a lot of geography and diverse cultures and destinations. My team consists of an area director of revenue management and an administrative assistant, so we are constantly on the go. My previous position as sales transformation project director was one of the most interesting jobs Iíve had. I worked with the hotels in our region on the deployment and organization of their sales teams and worked with our area directors of marketing on property sales reviews and market sales assessments. While I was based in Hong Kong and had a colleague based in London, I was also part of a small team of people based at our corporate office in Washington. What questions have we forgotten to ask that you would like to answer? Iím single and have one dog, Spencer. My hobbies include reading, travel, and collecting antiques. Here are my recommendations for some must-see destinations in Asia: Beijing, Xian, and Guilin in China; Hanoi and Hoi An in Vietnam; Angkor Wat in Cambodia; Yangon, Mandalay, and Bagan in Myanmar. Australia is great, and Bali or Phuket are wonderful places to escape and relax. And of course, I canít leave Hong Kong off the list! If you like Dim Sum, Hong Kong has the best. Hong Kong is also a wonderful mix of East and West. I also like Bangkok, where you can experience the unique Thai culture and delicious cuisine. Iíve just returned from two weeks on business in Hawaii. The only thing better than that would be two weeks vacation in Hawaii.