With an engaging personality, quick smile and hearty laugh, Michael Wilson is a people person.
So, when the University of Wisconsin-Stout alumnus talks about his career in the hospitality industry, it starts with some of the memorable people he’s served — four U.S. presidents, Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu and Coretta Scott King, the late wife of Martin Luther King Jr.
Wilson especially remembers meeting King. He was asked to manage a private family event during a Mother’s Day at a hotel in Atlanta, although he had hoped to be at home with his own family that day. Then he found out, when he walked into the room, who he would have the honor of serving.
“I broke into tears,” he said, after seeing Mrs. King, who then “sat me down and wanted to know about me.”
Wilson spoke recently at UW-Stout for the 50th anniversary of the School of Hospitality Leadership. “Every opportunity I’ve had began at Stout. I’m so proud of my Stout education. I flaunt it. We stand up to anybody in the world,” he said.
The hospitality school, ranked No. 11 in the world by CEOWorld magazine, was Wilson’s springboard to success. In his career he’s helped open the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Chicago, was director of event planning at the Chicago Marriott Oak Brook, was regional sales manager at Harrah’s Casino and Resort in Atlanta and, since 2017, has been director of conventions and meeting planning for the American Veterinary Medical Association. AVMA conventions draw 10,000 people.
“I’ve worked in housekeeping, set tables. You lead by example. You have to connect yourself to the people you’re leading — that’s what leadership is,” he said.
Wilson was part of panel discussions at the Memorial Student Center with other hospitality alumni, who gave advice to nearly 200 students preparing to embark on their careers.
Wilson went into the industry with plenty of people experience. A member of the Blue Devil Hall of Fame, he was a two-sport star, a kickoff return specialist in football and a sprinter in track and field. On campus, he was in student government and the Black Student Union; and helped start a fraternity.
He eventually played parts of two seasons with the Cleveland Browns of the NFL and one season with Toronto of the Canadian Football League.
During the football offseason early in his career, the Chicago native worked at a hotel, knowing that another moniker for the NFL is Not For Long, so he needed to be career-ready. “I went into it with a different mentality,” he said.
Industry leaders offer advice
Another panel member and veteran executive of the hotel industry, Scott Stuckey, agreed with Wilson, telling students that when they leave UW-Stout they are prepared to succeed and lead in the industry.
“You have great work ethic and outshine everybody. You’re very fortunate to go here and are setting yourself up for a great future,” Stuckey said, adding that he has recruited on campus for 25 years.
Stuckey, a 1988 UW-Stout graduate, is general manager of the 30-story, 612-room Omni Hotel in downtown Louisville, Ky., that opened in 2018. He also has been general manager at Omni hotels in Atlanta and Jacksonville, Fla. He was general manager of a Marriott near Chicago by age 34.
Justin Holley, a 1994 graduate, told students that they have to be ready to work hard to get ahead in the industry. He is a partner in the ABH hotel management company in San Antonio and chair of the San Antonio Hotel and Lodging Association.
“There’s an impression that millennials aren’t hard-working. If that impression is out there, beat it,” Holley said, adding that he started his career in housekeeping and still helps clean rooms when he can. “There’s nothing wrong with work. You have to respect the job that’s there.”
Jennifer Beck, like Wilson, was a Blue Devil athlete, an All-American swimmer. A 1986 graduate, she has had a career in club management, starting off as the tennis pro at the prestigious Medinah Country Club near Chicago. She has been general manager at Tuckaway Country Club near Milwaukee, Glen Oaks near Chicago and currently manages South Bend Country Club in South Bend, Ind.
“I was one of the first female club managers in the Chicago area. I am a true Stout success story for women in club management,” she said, receiving a round of applause.
Adam Chandler, a 2008 graduate in golf enterprise management, stresses personal contact in his job as head PGA pro at Somerby Golf Club in Byron, Minn. With advances in technology, he could spend most of his day in his office during the golf season but does just the opposite.
“I try to spend only 30 minutes a day in my office. Person-to-person service is going to give you that repeat member and customer,” he said.
Other alumni panelists included Kathy Collins, 1994, managing director of the Wisconsin Badger chapter of the Club Management Association of America; Ron Erdmann, 1995, deputy director of research in the National Travel and Tourism Office for the U.S. Department of Commerce; and David Weber, 1991, vice president of sales for Hormel.
Michael Wilson talks with a student at the 50th anniversary event.
Michael Wilson, football and track, is in the Blue Devil Hall of Fame.
Alumnus Justin Holley talks with a student after the panel discussion.
From left, Jennifer Beck, Scott Stuckey and Adam Chandler take part in a panel discussion.