From Bus Boy to Boss

The Stories of Robert Gleason & Vania Rojas-Earp

Robert Gleason
President and CEO, Evans Hotels, San Diego

Robert Gleason has been on a nearly four-decade journey to the top of the hospitality profession—all starting with a summer job in high school.

Back in 1983, Gleason went to work in the reservations department at Evans Hotels, a family-owned business in San Diego. He didn’t know it then, but that would be the start of a career that would see him become the company’s President and CEO—the first person outside the Evans family to hold that position in the 60-plus year history of the company.

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From high school through college, he continued to work part-time for Evans, moving from reservations to the front desk, the switchboard, and eventually into training as a management intern. Still, while he had worked his way up quickly, Gleason had his sights set on a very different path.

“Hospitality was never something I considered as a permanent assignment—I actually wanted to have a career in theater or arts management,” he said. “But I’m a curious, life-long learner, and my early assignments provided intense opportunities to learn and grow.”

So, instead of the theater, he went back to Evans when he earned his degree in 1987, now as a full-time employee in management. Rather than working at one property, he was involved in aspects of finance, transactions, and development for the company’s properties, including hospitality, commercial, and residential. As he continued to gain more experience, he also became more convinced that this was the industry for him.

“I realized there was more than enough in our industry generally, and in our company specifically, to keep me interested and engaged,” he said. “As I added more responsibilities, there were challenges aplenty and also unlimited opportunities to continue learning.”

After the economic downturn of the early 1990s, he moved into operations, becoming the company’s CFO, handling duties from contracting to compliance and managing outside counsel. The latter responsibility sparked his interest in the law, so to his already busy schedule he added the evening law school program at the University of San Diego, earning his law degree in 1998—and then added the title of General Counsel to his CFO role. In addition, Gleason formerly taught a course in Hospitality Law and Policy at the Payne School of Hospitality at San Diego State University.

During that time, he recalled his most challenging assignment was serving as Renovation Project Manager during the redevelopment of the company’s luxury property, The Lodge at Torrey Pines. He described the experience as “a grueling 18 months,” but well worth it because of the result.

Gleason said his long experience in the business has been essential to shaping his perspective on his colleagues and employees, and his approach of engaging them through a combination of personal and professional support, recognition, and growth.

“The most important lesson I’ve learned is that employees are central to everything we do,” he said. “Sometimes leaders think their job is to manage the bottom line. But it’s really to take care of employees, because employees in turn take care of our guests, and if we’re all doing our jobs properly, our guests take care of the bottom line.”

It’s also the reason he believes in “hiring for attitude and training for skill,” something that comes through when he interviews prospective hires.

“I always ask in interviews about people’s first jobs, those early experiences that aren’t on resumes,” he said. “You learn a lot about people by understanding what motivated them early in life and the lessons they learned from those experiences. Nearly everyone in this industry has worked their way up and that perspective is critical to managing with equal parts empathy and rigor.”

His success, and his drive for lifelong learning, led to his being offered the job of President and CEO in 2014. And while that comes with its own unique set of responsibilities, Gleason views it more as a continuation of what he’s been doing since that summer job 39 years ago.
“In some sense, I’ve only had one job, although I have had many different duties,” he said.
“In many ways, my career has come full circle to my theater days. As with directing, I have the chance to lead a team responsible for creating an experience that leads to lasting memories.”

Vania Rojas-Earp
General Manager, Ocean Park Inn, San Diego

Growing up in the small Mexican town of Escuinapa near Mazatlan, Vania Rojas-Earp found a taste for travel and for meeting and interacting with people. She didn’t know then that it would lead to a career in hospitality, one that started with a job as a hostess in Mexico and led to her becoming a general manager in San Diego.

Rojas-Earp was one of five children with a father, a mechanic, who was determined to send them to college. But there wasn’t money for her to go to a private university, or a school far from home. So instead, she enrolled at the University of Sinaloa and entered its then-new school of tourism. After five years, she earned a degree in Tourism Administration, working as a restaurant hostess and then a country club receptionist along the way.

After graduation, she moved to the resort town of Cabo San Lucas, where she did a short stint in timeshares, but soon left for a very different kind of tourism job: working for a sport fishing operator.

“I have a lot of wonderful stories about that,” she said, but discovered that it was not a long-term career for her.

“I went out on the boat with a couple who had rented it for an eight-hour fishing trip,” she remembers. “I was sick from minute one, for the whole eight hours. I decided not to go out again.”

Fortunately, she was asked by an acquaintance to move to San Diego for an office job. While that “wasn’t for me,” she said, it did finally connect Rojas-Earp with the hotel business. She began working in a small hotel in the city, as a receptionist at first and, shortly after that, a manager. That was when she got her real hospitality education.

“The owners would often leave, sometimes for months, so I did everything,” she said. “I had to do inventory, I had to do scheduling, I had to make sure cash was where it needed to be. I was in charge of purchasing, night audit, and even hiring.”

The property also catered to a range of different guests, some of whom were not the easiest to manage—an experience that prepared her for almost anything that could happen.
“When you work in a small property and you get to see all the departments, and work in the location I did, it toughens you up,” she said.

While working at that property, she met the man who would become her husband. He had visited the hotel and struck up a conversation, and from then on “kept visiting and brought me food.” It also turned out that he was from a hotel background with a lot of hotel local connections.

From those connections, she learned about a downtown San Diego hotel that needed a front office supervisor, and put her name in. Two weeks later, she got a call and was asked instead to apply for an assistant GM role at the Ocean Park Inn.

“The next day, they called me and said, ‘We’d like to have you here,’” she recalled. It was a game changing call; within a year, the existing GM decided to retire, and a year later she became the GM.

Rojas-Earp pointed out that in the entire time she has worked in hotels, nobody asked her about her education. While her degree set her on the path to her job today, what counted more was to put in the hours, learn the ropes, and prove herself.

So, when she looks to hire, she prefers to bring in people who have no previous experience with hotels. In particular, for a smaller property, it’s important for staff to understand the financial realities of the hotel.

But the most important thing she has found is that with opportunity comes loyalty.
“We didn’t lose many people to COVID, and those people that stayed worked hard,” she said. “Three of our housekeepers did the work of six. We hired students as temporary help for the summer, and now some are working the front desk.”

Even when her employees have to move on to move up, she’s still proud and happy for them.
“I had a great employee, started as a house man and then worked the front desk and became a supervisor,” she said. “We didn’t have any place else for him to go, so he moved on to the Marriott Marquis downtown, and he’s doing great.”

What Rojas-Earp learned along the way is the importance of working with people who want to be part of the business, want to learn and want to grow within the industry.
“Working in hotels is a noble career and you can grow if you work hard,” she said. “I’ve been there, and once you hear my story, you’ll know it wasn’t the degree, but more the experience I had. That’s the part I sell to other employees, who didn’t have the luck or luxury of going to college.”

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