- The Washington Times - Monday, June 29, 2009

When Paco Saldana came to the United States in 1995 from Mexico in search of opportunity, he could barely speak English. Today, he’s a spokesman for the travel industry.

The articulate Mr. Saldana’s language skills and his firm grasp on the travel industry as the director of guest services at the Ritz-Carleton on Amelia Island, Fla., helped make him the $5,000 winner of the U.S. Travel Association’s Faces of Travel Contest.

Roger Dow, president and chief executive officer of the District-headquartered U.S. Travel Association, said the association created the contest to pick an individual to represent the millions of Americans working in the industry.

“[We wanted] a spokesperson who could really speak from the heart,” Mr. Dow said. “We could really let people know who was getting harmed when people say a meeting is a junket when it isn’t.”

Contest winner Mr. Saldana began working at the hotel 13 years ago as a busboy, and he worked his way up: first as a waiter, and then as a house manager before landing his current position. He said he went into the travel industry because of his passion for customer service, and also because it is one of the few industries where a hardworking employee can move up within the company.

Hotel General Manager Kate Monahan said Mr. Saldana tried to gain experience in all departments, not just in his assigned job.

“We have a program in our hotels called Lateral Service when employees can break away from their home department and get experience in another department,” Mrs. Monahan said. “Paco was always the first to sign up and to pick up shifts in other departments so he could be the first to step in and help in other departments now.”

Mr. Saldana said his biggest struggle was not to get discouraged by obstacles a language barrier can create, particularly in the service industry. He said he remembers a particular time earlier in his career when he could not figure out what one customer wanted.

“When I was not doing well with my English, there was this lady asking me for something and I didn’t know what she was asking about,” he said. “I brought her an ashtray because I thought that was what she wanted, but she wanted Cream of Wheat, and she was very upset with me.”

As a server, Mr. Saldana said he recorded the menu on a tape recorder to listen to on the way to work. He eventually memorized it — only for the menu to change a few weeks later.

However, Mr. Saldana said his greatest struggle with the language barrier was much more personal: the obstacles it created in forming meaningful relationships.

“When you don’t speak the language, people don’t feel you can be a smart person, that you might have a sense of humor, that you might have great feelings — that can be more frustrating than recording a menu on a tape or bringing an ashtray to someone who wanted something different,” Mr. Saldana said.

Like most of the other obstacles he faced, Mr. Saldana overcame this. In September 2002, he married an American-born woman who worked as a hostess in the restaurant, and they now have three children together.

Mr. Saldana credits much of his success with maintaining a positive attitude throughout his challenges.

“If you’re a positive person, it takes you everywhere,” he said. “You can be a very skilled person, but … people want to work with a positive person willing to learn.”

Keeping a positive attitude has become more difficult for travel workers lately, when the discouragement of corporate travel has been hurting the industry.

“Our hotel used to be 700-some employees, but it went down to a little over 500 now,” Mr. Saldana said. “That is the fear that everybody has. I don’t know if coming up … I’ll even have a job.”

Still, Mr. Saldana advises everyone in a similar situation to stay hopeful.

“With dedication, you can really accomplish a lot,” he said. “Everyone has huge wings. You can fly as high as you want to.”

Mike Milligan, a judge who helped select the six finalists for the public to vote on, said Mr. Saldana’s understanding of the importance of the travel industry and the problems associated with its struggles helped make him such an appealing candidate.

“He also spoke very well of not only the plight … travel companies may have due to … the canceled meetings, but he also spoke very well of how that impacts not just himself, his family, but his co-workers and … the entire community,” Mr. Milligan said.

Mr. Milligan also felt that Mr. Saldana had a story to which many people in the industry could relate.

“I think he is going to be a compelling character,” Mr. Milligan said. “He’s not a ‘Joe the Plumber,’ he’s a real person with a real story.”

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