Gwen Vickers was one of Innisfree Hotels’ first employees. In 2017, we celebrated her retirement after 28 years with the company.
Of Gwen’s tenure, our founder and CEO Julian MacQueen remarks:
“Gwen represents a time at Innisfree that goes to our very beginnings. She has proven herself as a cornerstone of who we are and our very humble start. Gwen was there when we developed our 10 commandments, as well as for the first Genesis meeting. She has mentored and trained countless managers and always did whatever it took to get the job done. Gwen has always been the model professional, with killer instincts on what needs to happen to bring a hotel into a tightly controlled operation, where every dime is accounted for. She is loyal, tireless, uncompromising, and always ready for the next challenge. She will be missed as someone who always put Innisfree first and treated Innisfree’s money as it was her own.”
Gwen recently sat down with Lead Storyteller Ashley Kahn Salley to talk about her beginnings in the industry, fun times with Innisfree … and life on the farm.
What was your first job in hospitality?
I was a desk clerk in an RV park-marina-motel combination in South Padre Island, Texas. I learned not to make a mistake on an old-fashioned NCR4200 when my boss said he would cut off my fingers if I did it again. (Mistakes on that machine were not easy to correct.)
I learned about people, about guest satisfaction … how to maneuver people around, from docking boats to putting guests in their RV spaces.
I learned how to make sure you didn’t have any open rooms when you had an opportunity to be busy. Back then, we didn’t have a computer to do it all, so we had what we called ‘The Board’. You’d pull and put reservations to make sure they were back-to-back and identify any dead space.
How did you find your way to Innisfree?
It was a long journey. I did a lot of things between my first indoctrination to hospitality and Innisfree. I had worked at other hotel companies, and I was looking to get into Innisfree’s Manager Training Program.
So I started as a desk clerk at the Days Inn Orange Beach, where the Tides is located now. My desk clerk days didn’t last maybe two weeks before I was promoted out of that position.
Within a month of joining the company, I was called into my first Genesis session – an introduction to our fledgling culture, which was not called Genesis at the time. I was told to pack a suitcase and meet my boss and her boss in Loxley, Alabama. We went to Lake Martin for a three-day retreat. That was the first time I met Jack G and many other people in the company.
What did you think of that experience? Did you feel like you landed in the right spot?
I think it made me think, “What the hell did I get myself into?!” When you know nothing about it, you don’t know where you’re going, and you’re thrown into a situation with a bunch of strangers, it makes you wonder, “What did I just do?”
Overwhelming is a good word. Confused is another one.
It made me reevaluate what I was doing, but I stayed. 28 years I stayed.
Share some funny memories from along the way.
My first Genesis would be one of them! I wasn’t even there more than a month when that happened.
Also driving a truck for Innisfree. I had to go rent a huge box truck with air brakes and air seats and everything, and head north of Atlanta and pick up a big commercial water heater. I didn’t even have any tie-downs, so a UPS guy let me have a couple straps. Then I had to drive through Downtown Atlanta at rush hour with five minutes of training in this truck, pick up another hot water heater and take them to Montgomery. That was the first time I ever had to go through the Weigh Station. Harlan’s calling me wanting to talk. I’m telling him I’ve got to get off the phone, I’m gonna run over someone. I don’t even know what I’m doing in this truck.
One time, I got sent to Camp Verde, Arizona with no instruction other than to fly into Phoenix, rent a car, drive to Camp Verde and be on property. Easier said than done. I thought, “I’m up for this.” So I get my ticket, fly in, rent a car … it’s getting dark. I’m driving North. They don’t tell me what exit. I’m wandering around trying to find the hotel, finally find it, and it’s dark. So I get there and I check in, but I can’t get the key out of the ignition. I’m still trying to figure out how to get the key out to lock it up. I call the rental company … they’re useless. I don’t even know how I stumbled on it. I happened to turn the wheel, cranked it and backed up and the key came out. I guess the tires had to be in a certain position. This is like four hours later. It’s really late by this time.
Innisfree once owned The Redmont in Downtown Birmingham, and it was time to sell the hotel. The only way the sale would take place was if we passed the QA inspection. And that hotel needed to go! So I was among numerous people sent in to help pass the inspection. Two things I remember well: One was of major concern about torn drapes. Housekeeping had a sewing machine, but no one knew how to sew, so I said, “Give me the machine and some space and I’ll sew them as you bring them.” The second was the condition of the guest room carpet, which needed to be replaced. Of course we did not want to spend that money so we worked some Innisfree magic! I had seen a carpet rack advertised somewhere, and I went on a hunt to find them locally. I did find them, drove about 20 miles to pick them up, and after each room was completely cleaned, we would rack ourselves out the door and dare anyone to go back in! We passed the QA, and the sale went through.
Of what are you most proud?
Watching Innisfree grow through the years, and the friends and the feeling of family. I’m proud of all the people I’ve worked with.
Why have you stayed loyal to Innisfree all these years?
Julian and Kim MacQueen. Their vision and their feeling of family. That’s an easy one.
What is your hope for the future of Innisfree?
I know there’s a lot of growth, and I hope that Innisfree stays true to Julian and Kim’s vision, that feeling of family, not losing the culture and Genesis. It can be easy to lose your way.
How do you feel you have contributed to the growth of our company?
I was there through the thick and thin. No, the other way. Through the thin and the thick. I did a lot with our forms and paperwork and our foundation. I worked with other people, most of whom are not with Innisfree anymore, in naming the culture and Genesis. I’ve worked on that for 28 years. These are things we use to this day. I feel like I’ve hopefully grown numerous people in management and touched people along the way.
How does it feel to be retired?!
I get to sleep late! I like that. It still feels like I’m on vacation, and I have to go back to work. I’m enjoying spending more time on our 64-acre farm outside of Madison, Georgia with my husband and our animals. We have 6 horses, 32 goats, a bunch of chickens, 2 dogs and 6 cats. It’s a good life.
– As told to Ashley Kahn Salley
Lead Storyteller, Innisfree Hotels