Nov. 11, 2007 — "Sharing a smile is a wonderful thing," said Tommy Star, the official mascot of the islands' tourism and hospitality industry, and the 450 or so celebrants gathered Saturday night at his annual awards gala heartily agreed.
The ballroom at Marriott's Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort was transformed into a Caribbean take on Hollywood, the stage lit with brilliant colors and two enormous screens on either side of the stage providing a running pastiche of the nominees set against local settings.
The sixth annual production by the U.S. Virgin Islands Hotel and Tourism Association shines the spotlight on the stars of the hospitality industry, those who are outstanding in providing the smiles and the service that welcome folks to the V.I.
Though there was a record number of the island's best and brightest competing for the Lalique Tommy Star award this year, all hats were off to Nick Pourzal, who was presented with the association's 2007 Tommy Star Award of Excellence.
Pourzal has been an active voice in the tourism industry since taking over the reins at the Reef three decades ago. He and fellow veteran hotelier Richard Doumeng have between them served as president of the former St. Thomas-St. John Hotel Association, now the USVI Hotel and Tourism Association, for most of the last quarter century.
Pourzal has been both an outspoken critic and an open ally of top V.I. government officials over the years and has taken the lead on numerous occasions in lobbying the government actions on behalf of the hospitality industry.
When Pourzal took over the Reef in 1975 as managing director and president of Caribbean Operations for American Motor Inns, the possibility of closing the hotel was on the table. Instead, Pourzal's innovative management style, commitment to excellence and unlimited enthusiasm turned the hotel around. He oversaw a $52 million renovation of the Reef in 1997 necessitated not only by the hotel's age but also by damage from Hurricanes Marilyn and Bertha.
Doumeng, hotel association board chairman, presented his old friend with the award, noting, "Nick continues his admirable legacy of dedicated service to the overall tourism industry. Thank you, Nick."
Pourzal had some words of advice for the territory. "Tourism is an attitude," he said. "It's a love for the islands, and showing it. We need to do better; the Virgin Islands needs to have a tourism curriculum in the schools from grade one. I would like to see every major hotel in the Virgin Islands managed by a Virgin Islander."
Athneil "Addy" Ottley, master of ceremonies, along with hotel association members presented the Tommy Star awards to the handsomely attired and excited nominees in Oscar fashion, keeping the audience on its toes. Tables were packed with colleagues, friends and family of each of the 24 nominees. As each nominee paraded to the stage, clapping and cheers arose from his or her table.
Luana Wheatley, association director of marketing, was thrilled with the crowd. "We had 385 last year, and this year we're up to 450," she said. And all of those 450 were busily enjoying a gourmet dinner with wine.
Becoming a nominee is by no means a piece of cake. Before reaching the finals, entrants get interviewed by two sets of judges who rate them on several qualities, including: ability to initiate contact with customers; positive attitude and quality of work; and an understanding of the importance of tourism.
In a second set of interviews, finalists must complete a role-playing session and provide an overview of their career choices. The nominees ranged from moms and dads, to youngsters in their 20s, including Haitians, Crucians, St. Thomians and one Californian.
And the 2007 winners of the Tommy Star awards:
–Activities and Attractions Associate: John Sam Halvorson, Dive Experience
— Airline Associate: Cheryl Cornelius, American Airlines/ American Eagle
— Hospitality Support Service: Sherrolyn Stapleton, VIVA! Villas
— Public Service Associate: Kisa Harris, Department of Tourism
— Restaurant Associate: Eva Maldonado, Grand Cru Restaurant
— Taxi Operator: Joseph Ames, Joseph Taxi & Tours
— Hotel Supervisor: Toya Frazier Ellis
— Hotel Associate: Patrick Hermon, The Ritz-Carlton
— Retail Associate: Vernon Araujo, Diamonds International.
And afterwards, everybody danced to the music of the Ah We Band of St. John, who kept the evening's tempo upbeat.
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