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Be Our Guest! Working in the Hospitality Industry

by Empish J. Thomas, Lithonia, Georgia

The hospitality industry is a field where you can meet new and interesting people on a regular basis, where having a strong work ethic is a plus, and where you can make a nice income. These are some of the reasons George Robins, of Nappanee, Ontario, decided to follow this career path.

Born with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) and congenital cataracts, he nevertheless found ways to work early and often. "I always worked from the time I was eleven. I started with a couple of paper routes, cutting lawns in the summer and shoveling snow in the winter," he recalled. "During high school I worked part-time in a grocery store and on local farms. Upon graduation of high school in a commercial course, I began working for Stedman's Five and Dime department stores in several towns in southern Ontario."

During his childhood, Robins had enough vision to attend school and work part-time. It was not until his twenties that his vision began to decrease. "When I became registered blind, I was given the opportunity to work for Cater Plan, a division of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) in Toronto. I worked in cafeterias for several months and was transferred to Stelco Steel in Hamilton, Ontario. Here the blind employees worked in tuck shops, places similar to American vending stands, which were adjacent to the food service take-out outlets located in buildings around the property," said Robins. "After that, Cater Plan offered me the opportunity to attend Centennial College in Scarborough, Ontario, with a job during the summer and a full-time job upon completion. The course was hotel and restaurant administration, which laid the groundwork for my future."

After finishing his coursework, Robins continued with Cater Plan and moved up to management. There he ran a 24-hour coffee shop with a staff of five other visually impaired people under his supervision. During this time, Robins' vision continued to decrease, but he still had enough sight to do the bookkeeping and other administrative tasks. "I used a fluorescent desk lamp, magnifiers, calculators with bright numbers, tape recorders and dark markers for ledger entries and ordering," he said. Later on, he would have a sighted staff person handle this while he used a tape recorder to take care of the purchasing.

After several years working with Cater Plan, Robins figuratively saw the writing on the wall and began thinking his way toward another area of hospitality. "CNIB was phasing out their Cater Plan division, so in 1989 as they were winding down the business, my wife Sylvia and I decided to quit our jobs and make a big change," he said. "We knew for several years that my job was being phased out and Sylvia thought a change out of the city would be good."

They decided to search for the right business to purchase, and they found what they were looking for. "The Napanee Motel was the perfect fit, and the price was right," Robins said. "To make the down payment, we sold two of our three houses. The motel was in a small town with everything within walking distance or a short cab ride, as neither of us drove."

In July 1989, Robins and his wife opened for business. The following year, to draw more of the local people, they set up a 14-foot French fry trailer and put it in front of the motel. This trailer was equipped with sinks, a deep fryer, potato chipper, refrigerator freezer and two service windows. In Canada, these trailers are very popular and can be seen frequently in mall parking lots, parks and busy corners. "I ran it from lunch until evening," he said. "By doing this we got to meet more of the local people, as the motel business dealt with mostly out-of-towners."

The motel had eight rooms and was open for business seven days a week. It was hard work for Robins and his wife, who did the majority of the work themselves.

They had a daily routine where they cleaned out the rooms together, which made things go more smoothly. When the guests were gone, Robins would take a laundry basket and go from room to room gathering towels and bedding. Since each room had the same number of these items, Robins would just do a simple calculation to be sure nothing was missing. Next he would gather all the trash cans for emptying and glassware for cleaning. His wife would do the laundry and, once it was done, they would both go back to the room and lay out the fresh towels and bedding for the next guests. "She would check for any messes and missing items before we replaced the towels and made the beds," he said.

"When the rooms were made up, I would do the office work while Sylvia went through each room with the cleaning materials and vacuum." The office work included keeping the books, reservations, check-ins/check-outs, ordering supplies, dealing with invoices and so forth.

"To assist with my work in the office, I used a computer with JAWS and a talking calculator. A scanner connected to the computer made paperwork possible," said Robins.

When the Robins' were not working at their motel, they volunteered in the community. One such opportunity was an annual summer yard sale, for which they would give free use of their motel parking lot. In addition, Robins served on the Kingston CNIB Board of Directors and also spent six years directing the Napanee District Chamber of Commerce.

After 18 years, the Robins' sold the motel and retired. But they continued volunteering at a local radio station. They had a two-hour on-air slot every Sunday evening, playing rock-and-roll hits from the 50s and 60s. On this request and dedication show, Robins was known as "Rockin' Robins," while his wife and her sister were the "Tweeties." The show ended on a sad note after seven years, when Sylvia died in an auto accident.

Today Robins still volunteers as a career mentor with the American Foundation for the Blind's CareerConnect website, and enjoys the multiple gardens at the home he shared with his wife.

When asked whether he would recommend pursuing a career in the hospitality industry, he said, "The hospitality industry can be very rewarding and there are many jobs to be had. The amount of comfort and enjoyment you get from your job may depend to some degree on the amount of vision you have, be it in a small motel or a large hotel. For example, if you have to do a lot of walking and navigating from place to place like a bellhop does, you might prefer a different position. Most small and medium-size motels are usually family-owned and operated while large hotels are operated by a corporation."

He also added that it is important to be aware of accommodations and current technology for the blind. "If the hospitality industry is your interest, having the accommodations you need and being compatible with your working partners are two critical keys for promoting success."

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