By SHANNON O. WELLS
When Jackie Gillespie joined the Pitt community in October 2021 as the University’s first assistant vice chancellor of hospitality, she brought to the table more than 20 years of food, beverage and event experience from some of the Pittsburgh area’s finest hotels.
Tasked with combining four University hospitality-oriented divisions — Conference Services, Heinz Memorial Chapel, Special Events and the University Club — into a single, streamlined operation, Gillespie and her team enter the fall 2022 semester prepared and energized to serve a demand that’s returning to, if not surpassing, pre-pandemic levels.
Gillespie, former sales director at The Oaklander Hotel, took a moment from her hectic schedule to share with University Times the changes she and her team have ushered in and how they benefit the thousands — both on campus and beyond — who utilize Pitt’s network of food, beverage and event services.
University Times: What prompted the reorganization of Pitt’s Hospitality team under the Office of Business, Hospitality and Auxiliary Services within Business and Operations?
Jackie Gillespie: The University recognized a need to create a team focused on hospitality based on some really simple questions: How do we welcome guests to campus? How do we host meetings and events? Who can assist in connecting University clients with the event resources that exist around campus? What teams around campus are already involved in hospitality and events, and how do we connect them?
The idea was to create a centralized team who can answer all of these questions and that would become a “go to” resource for our clients and guests. The four divisions that became the hospitality unit already existed. We simply recognized the synergies between them and brought them together under one umbrella.
The larger Business, Hospitality and Auxiliary Services (BHAS) division of Pitt focuses on providing superior customer service to everyone, from students and parents, faculty and staff, to the (general) public and beyond, so adding in a team encompassing Conference Services, Heinz Memorial Chapel, Special Events and the University Club was the right fit.
What was the impetus for the reorganization. What are its advantages?
It’s more streamlined now and provides our guests with a more efficient, effective planning process. Combining the different hospitality departments under a single client-facing unit allows us to provide our customers with a seamless experience.
Last fall, just after the hospitality unit was forged, all four departments came together to collaboratively plan and host two memorial services on campus. The reorganization has also given us the opportunity to cross-sell available services. For example, a newly engaged bride can contact either Heinz Chapel to book their wedding ceremony, or the University Club to inquire about their rehearsal dinner and reception. The staff member they connect with can offer the services of the other department. The guest simply makes one phone call or sends one email, and our team members will handle the rest.
What kind of preparations did the reorganization require and how are things flowing so far?
The teams across all four departments are staffed, as we have focused heavily on recruitment over the past several months. Since we believe wholeheartedly in the power of in-person events, we’ve hosted gatherings to get the teams from all four departments together to network and collaborate.
We now have staff members regularly assisting at events being produced by our complementary departments, which is a big help when our teams host large-scale events. For example, Conference Services team members recently assisted the New Student Convocation event produced by the Special Events team, as well as at the Simply Styled wedding event recently hosted by Heinz Memorial Chapel. The skill set and hospitality mindset of each team member is transferrable to the other departments in our unit, so we’re able to offer exceptional service and support to each.
What do you like most about the new arrangement, and what differences might those who use Pitt’s hospitality-related facilities notice this fall?
I really like the collaboration between each department within the new hospitality division. We have team members who have diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise. I’ve been very pleased to see our staff members reach out to each other for assistance when questions arise that don’t fall into their “specialty” area. We now have more expansive resources for our guests.
Clients from the Pitt community can expect faster response times to inquiries and questions based on new staffing models in each department. With new team members also comes fresh ideas and experiences, so our team is a fabulous resource for planners looking for creative options for their events. Guests should expect a seamless approach to planning and will enjoy an enhanced “one-stop shop” experience for event planning on campus.
What is the level of demand this fall for hospitality services? How has it rebounded since the height of the pandemic?
The demand for events on campus has rebounded tremendously this year, and we’re back to what we consider pre-pandemic levels. We saw a marked increase in requests for in-person events beginning in March and April of this year, and that demand continues to grow.
Our Special Events team experienced this pent-up demand in the spring when they produced three separate in-person convocations and two commencement celebrations to honor the classes of 2020 and 2022. Heinz Memorial Chapel is (experiencing one of) our busiest wedding seasons ever. The Conference Services team has the University Club packed with events through the fall semester and is already beginning to book holiday events. Additionally, University Club memberships are on the rise after tapering off a bit during the past two years due to COVID-19, early retirements and remote work.
How does the COVID pandemic affect events at this point? Is it still a major concern that requires a lot of precautions?
We learned a lot about how to safely plan and execute events in an ever-changing environment during the pandemic. We are now experts at producing hybrid events that are meaningful … not just for in-person participants, but also accessible and impactful for attendees who may be joining virtually.
Our dedicated technicians from Pitt’s IT team have become trusted experts who can anticipate what audio/visual equipment a planner may need and execute with excellence. Our Chartwells culinary team has created event menus that can be adapted to different service styles to accommodate a range of guest needs, preferences and comfort levels. Additionally, our cleaning protocols will remain elevated, as we have effectively integrated deep cleaning and disinfecting protocols into daily standards.
Most importantly, we’ve learned to be flexible. Events can be difficult to manage and control, even under the best of circumstances. When things happen that we and our clients cannot control, we know how to adapt and roll with it, remaining agile and accommodating. Our job, at the end of the day, is to best support our campus community and clients, so whatever that needs to look like, we are committed to doing it.
What do you feel your experience and personality bring to this role? Do you have an opportunity to be hands-on with events and guests?
I have over 20 years of experience working in the hospitality industry at some of the industry’s best hotels in Pittsburgh, so what we’re trying to accomplish at Pitt is second nature to me. I’ve spent my career building a solid network of amazing professional partners that we can tap into for our campus event planners. I love the hospitality and events industry and am excited to pass along my knowledge and passion to our Hospitality team.
I’m definitely a hands-on leader … Prior to joining Pitt, I worked in the hotel industry … where every day you jumped in to do whatever was necessary to ensure guests were happy. I can’t help but bring that energy and passion to provide exceptional guest service throughout the hospitality unit. There are administrative tasks that come with my role, but I thrive when I get to be on the floor for an event or work directly with my teams on whatever event they’re planning.
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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