Every day we hear how the big players in the travel industry help change how we travel. These are the top airline, booking site, hotel and destination marketing executives.

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As the saying goes, behind any great CEO is an even greater team of people focused on making the brand shine. These include speech writers for airline CEOs, investors helping to get travel startups off the ground, and hotel designers. These people are pillars of a brand and they often don’t make the headlines, but the stories they have and educational advice they can impart should never be overlooked.

The Travel Alumni Spotlight is the latest installment of our State of Travel Education series, focused on showing how universities are preparing the industry’s future talent to be thought leaders and innovators.

This spotlight highlights individual stories to offer lessons for how different people reached their current positions and how their education impacted their careers. It will also show the many directions professionals entered the industry to evidence how success can be achieved along multiple paths.

Professionals from the digital, aviation, hospitality, and tourism sectors of travel will appear in this spotlight. Here are this week’s three stories.

John Morton: Former CEO Speechwriter for American Airlines
School: Georgetown University, University of Virginia
Degrees: BA Government, MBA 

“If I hadn’t stumbled into a job at the campus pub at Georgetown, then worked my way up to manager, it would never have occurred to me to pursue a career in business. The Darden MBA was the credential I needed to get an interview with American Airlines, which was the first step toward a lot of great opportunities.”

“Most people who write well don’t gravitate to business. That’s my polite way of saying that most people in business don’t write particularly well. And yet, there is a lot of writing to be done. So if you are a person who does write well, you have an opportunity to stand out and add value. My advice is simply to work on being a better writer, and like anything else, the way to get better at something is to do it over and over.”

“In 1995, I was an analyst at American Airlines, working mostly on spreadsheets, writing occasionally, when I got the job writing for then-CEO Bob Crandall. I had no writing background at all. After Bob retired, I left American to start my own speechwriting practice. I picked up a bunch of non-airline clients over the years, but I also kept writing for American’s CEOs until the end of 2013 when the US Airways guys took over. That seemed like the perfect time to write Fire The Pretty Girl, Awkward Adventures in Business, a book about my own weird journey that just so happens to include twenty incredibly eventful years at the world’s largest airline.”

“I can say that at American, there was always a fair amount of turnover. A lot of smart, ambitious people cycled into corporate communications and then left the company because a) the opportunities to move up once you got there were pretty limited and b) American’s high profile challenges made it a great proving ground for communicators and thus a hunting ground for companies looking to poach talent. The point being, airline communications departments will always be on the lookout for good writers.”

David Garrett: Owner of Garrett Hotel Consultants
School: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, University of Paris, Sorbonne
Degree: Business Administration

“I don’t think I would be where I am without my education. At UNC I learned entrepreneurialism, and I learned how to conceive of an idea and turn it into a viable business. I conceptualize luxury boutique hotels, and an example of my work is The Point, a Rockefeller family estate in the Adirondacks that we turned into a luxury boutique hotel. All of my properties focus on the very high-end customer, and I love creating works of art that are hotels. I was always drawn to the smaller business where someone had an idea and made it work. My schooling taught me to ask these kinds of questions, my whole career was built on trying to have more knowledge than the next guy would have.”

“Most schools train you a lot with numbers. I can tell you that in the end, its not about numbers. To the customer, it’s about the experience, not about the numbers. I think hotel schools are very good, but they train for the Hyatt or Hilton brands. They don’t necessarily train for the smaller hotels. I’ve had an excellent relationship with Paul Smith College, and they always provided me with very bright interns. They learned more from me than they’d ever learn at a big hotel.”

“The real student who wants to be in the business side of hospitality needs to understand commodities. Whereas if they’re really interested in the hospitality side and serving the guest, you have to look at a boutique hotel that’s not just renting a space. Customers are looking for something different, and that’s why you see all these boutique hotels popping up all over the place.”

“These big hotels, they’re the ones who play the monopoly games, and the smaller hotels are the ones who are usually entrepreneurs, and everyone’s changing their name to boutique hotels. The big boys are recognizing that that means something to the customer. We’re trying to build a culture, and if you can do that, you’ll have a great hotel.”

George Arabian: Investor at Steelhead Ventures
School: University of Colorado, Boulder, San Francisco State University
Degrees: BA History and Sociology, MBA

“College helped form my world view. I had never really traveled, but it allowed me to fulfill a passion for travel and gave me an appreciation of cultures. For me, it’s about my fascination with people, there was a link where I wanted to learn more about people, and that transferred to moving over to sales and management which is also all about people, so sociology and history definitely laid the foundation. I typically invest in angel and seed rounds primarily for travel startups.”

“Consider carefully alternatives to a post-graduate program. The only way that you’re going to learn is by doing it. Accelerator programs are critical, whether they’re connected to universities or separate. I don’t think the rigor of business is necessarily the right thing for an undergrad program, you should study what you’re passionate about for undergrad.”

“Someone once told me that the startup has nine lives, and I’ve found that it’s so true. I’m not suggesting that money is a big motivation, but it can’t be the only one. You have to ask yourself, ‘was I born to do this.’ Or ‘Am I really prepared to solve the problem that my startup is trying to solve.'”

“Because I previously lived through driving revenue as a VP of sales, this allowed me to understand what to do and what not to do when you’re a startup, and that foundational operational experience prepared me to be a smarter investor. Moving to a manager position was really transformational for me.”

“As investors, we’re looking for someone’s ability to focus on a specific problem that is a game changer. Are you a people magnet? This is how investors will look at that person because you need to attract the top talent, that’s something I would say is hard to learn in school. A lot of startups talk about the market opportunity, but you need to understand the competitive context of what you’re trying to do, and what we want to hear as investors is that you focus on execution. I also think it’s important to build a team with complementary skills, and not a team where everyone has the same skills.”

Photo Credit: A college commencement ceremony. COD Newsroom / Flickr