Nearly 17 million people visit D.C. each year. And when they arrive, they interact with tens of thousands of employees in the hospitality industry.
Matthew Cousineau teaches French at Hospitality High School of Washington, D.C. He listens as 10th-grader Nadiri Seals pretends to be a concierge by looking at a map and giving a tourist directions.
When students have to take regular high school courses, they view everything through the lens of hospitality. During summer internships, students learn how their class subjects connect with the real world. And that, says Cousineau, makes it easy for him to explain why, say, seemingly small differences in language are important.
"When you talk to your teacher in English, you shouldn't say things like, 'What's up?' You should say, you know, 'Oh, good morning, how are you?' In French, it's even more strict in terms of how you address people. So you would never ever greet a guest and say, 'comment vas-tu?' They would be insulted. You would have to say, 'comment allez-vous?' And use that formal register., Cousineau says.
The high school began to help train D.C. students for jobs in the hospitality industry, one of the largest economic generators in our area. In 2009, visitors spent approximately $5 billion. Area hotels pay one-fifth of Hospitality Highs budget. Students graduate knowing how to take an inventory of a kitchen, how to write a business plan and how to juggle reservations. But before all that, they have to learn what are known as, soft skills, including communication, social graces and friendliness.
"Our kids come in not necessarily knowing how to shake a hand, how to sit properly in a chair. A lot of times they want to keep their shirts untucked or their pants loose," says Tiffany Godbout, the school's executive director.
But the focus on soft skills has paid off. Robert Stevenson says, he's learned how to present himself better.
"Like, when you came in, we all stood up. That's great hospitality," Stevenson says.
His classmate, Oxiomi Omwuvuche agrees.
"I'll always give you eye contact, introduce myself properly and speak clearly and smile," she says.
The teenagers have grown comfortable interacting with people they might otherwise find intimidating. Manuel Xeledon says he used to be painfully shy.
"Now, I'm becoming a more social person. It opened me up, and I'm considering other people's feelings," he says.
Tiffany Godbout says students sometimes don't realize why attendance is so important until they start applying for summer jobs.
"As part of their application process, we include their school attendance records. And they say, 'Why are you showing them that?' Well, because that's what happens in the real world. In the real world, they'll call your previous employer and find out how your attendance was. And then we tell our partners in the industry to ask them about their attendance," she says.
And it works. One student was late 47 days in his first year. The next year after his internship, that number dropped to five. Elliott Ferguson heads Destination D.C., a nonprofit that works to attract approximately 17 million visitors to the city each year.
He says every 250 visitors or one plane full creates one tourism job in D.C. so every positive interaction makes a difference.
"Even if it's business traveler, you know, that experience can, you know, their perception of the city has been changed because of that and they go back and they want to bring their families," he says.
Godbout walks the hallways of Hospitality High reminding students to tuck in their shirts and stand straight.
"And those little things that you don't think about are the things that make a difference in real-life settings," she says.
It's taking the mystery out of business world.