“We make people smile for a living,” said Jon Taffer (right), after receiving the Distinguished Industry Leader Award at the Isenberg Hospitality & Tourism Management (HTM) Department’s 2022 Annua
Jon Taffer

“We make people smile for a living,” said Jon Taffer (right), after receiving the Distinguished Industry Leader Award at the Isenberg Hospitality & Tourism Management (HTM) Department’s 2022 Annual Awards Dinner on May 17. Taffer, host of the reality series Bar Rescue, explained that he doesn’t consider food and beverage service to be the industry’s real product: “Think about it. We provide powerful relationships, events, and memories.”

Relationships and smiles were abundant at the gathering, which was held at the Royal Sonesta Boston Hotel. Alumni and friends of the HTM Department celebrated the hospitality industry’s resilience after more than two years of disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The 2022 awardees also included Ken Toong ’04 MBA (Special Recognition Award), Matt Lambert ’92 (Stephen Elmont Award), and Keith Sacenti ’14 (Outstanding Young Alumni Award).

Click here for photos from the event.

Keith Sacenti

“Many of us faced uncertain futures back in 2020,” said Sacenti (left) in his acceptance speech. “I myself lost my job in March of 2020, and seemingly day after day many of my friends and colleagues shared the same news.” Sacenti’s response was to bring together Isenberg HTM alumni and students whose career plans had been affected by the toll the pandemic was taking on travel companies, bars, restaurants, and clubs by creating the Virtual Young Alumni Networking Series.

“We acted quickly—holding industry update panels and personal improvement classes,” says Sacenti, who is now product manager for security and compliance at Acquia. “All of this went to developing the young alumni who may not necessarily have a developed network, and who may not have friends in high places who could help them out through a hard time. A lot of the faces I’ve seen over the past hour were on these calls to help our community.”

Family Affair

One of the faces present in at the dinner was Keith Sacenti’s own father, Michael Sacenti ’82, who stepped to the dais later in the program to introduce Taffer, but who could not help but take a few minutes to express his pride in his son.

“I could easily take credit for everything he’s become, but that would be wrong,” said Michael Sacenti (a past winner of the Stephen Elmont Award). “His mom gets credit for his kindness and generosity. I’ll take his good looks and his gift of gab. Everything else is all Keith.”

Michael Sacenti explained that he had always taught his kids to prioritize giving back “time, talent, and treasure,” and tearfully commended his son on picking up the lesson. “I am biased, but Keith is just one of many, many, many students that have come through HTM and find a way to give back and make the program what it is today.

“Thanks, Keith, for making me the proudest dad in the world,” he added, as his son approached for a lengthy hug.

Special Recognition

Ken Toong

The evening’s other attendees and awardees also reflected on ways the Covid-19 pandemic had changed their appreciation of the hospitality industry.

“After this pandemic, more than ever, we need to collaborate, and we need to share best practices,” said Ken Toong (right), the executive director of the UMass Auxiliary Enterprises, which runs the top-ranked UMass Dining as well as the university’s Conference Services, Campus Center Complex, Hotel UMass, UMass Store, UMass Club Boston, and UMass Trademark and Licensing Administration. Toong, who received a Special Recognition Award, is working with the HTM department to increase opportunities for collaboration on campus.

“We need to continue to work together to make the world a better place,” he added. “My joys are to work with students, to work with the supply chain, to work with you, to work with peers. At the end of the day, we’re blessed with good people, and good community.”

The Stephen Elmont Award

Matt Lambert

Matt Lambert (second from left), winner of the Stephen Elmont Award, also cited the HTM community as an important driver of his efforts. As general manager and COO of the Country Club at Mirasol, Lambert has been an active supporter of Isenberg HTM students since he came to campus to speak with a class 15 years ago. Among the programs he has developed are a week-long externship, where students travel to Florida to study his club and others in the area, a full-time summer internship program, and a management development program that hires students to work for a year in all aspects of club management. He drew on his experience introducing young professionals to the hospitality industry to advise other leaders in the room who are struggling to meet staffing needs as they ramp business back up.

“Now’s the time when we really need to work together and change the expectations of the industry,” he said. “We need to have the courage to shake the reputation of the low pay and the crappy hours. If we don’t do this now, we will not find this next generation. So it’s really time for us to work hard and put in those changes to make our industry attractive to the next generation.”

In the evening’s final speech, Jon Taffer doubled down on the idea that educating new professionals for the hospitality industry is important work.

“I stand before you as your biggest fan,” he said. “Educating, growing those around us is our greatest responsibility. And when we do it right, we just create more smiles—don’t we? That’s the business we’re in. That’s why I’m so proud to be here. What we do is make people feel good.

“Never lose your love for creating smiles.”

See more event photos here.

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