The Grand Canyon University Hotel wasn’t always an oasis of Antelope pride and upscale suites.
The 155-room hotel was built in the 1960s as a Knights Inn. The hotel’s varied history also includes stints as a Days Inn, a Comfort Inn and a Quality Inn.
“I can tell you there was not a lot of ‘quality’ left in the building,” jokes Brett Cortright, the hotel’s general manager and founder of GCU’s hospitality management program.
Cortright, with a push from Diamondbacks founder and former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, formed the Hospitality Management program at GCU last year. The university purchased the hotel in 2014 and renovated it “from beyond the bottom to above the top,” according to Cortright. They replaced the fixtures, furniture, carpet, bathtubs, sinks and decoration in all the rooms and built a resort-style pool. They recently finished renovations to the lobby and opened Canyon 49, a three-meal restaurant and bar.
“The hotel was really purchased for two reasons,” says Cortright. “The main reason was to serve as a kind of learning laboratory for the hospitality management students. It was also purchased as part of our overall goal to basically clean up and revitalize this whole area that our university is surrounded by.”
Half of the hotel and restaurant’s staff is comprised of students from the university. Hospitality management students are required to have 600 hours of industry experience before they graduate. Cortright, who earned an international business degree from ASU, says they come from varying levels of expertise and backgrounds. If a student has had several years of experience or demonstrates exceptional performance, they become a “hospitality administrator.” Cortright describes this position as his “right and left arm in running the hotel.” The first hospitality administrator he ever hired was just offered an assistant general manager position at a Hilton property, a farewell that Cortright says was bittersweet.
“She’s still a senior, she hasn’t even graduated yet,” says Cortright. “Of course I hated to see her go, but that’s why I’m here.”
By “here” Cortright means the hospitality industry, which he refers to as a “memory making business.”
“The best part about the way we set up this program is it gives students a very realistic look at what this career is like and some people are just born for this business,” he elaborates. “They take extreme satisfaction in making people happy.”
Cortright says he has made thousands of memories in his 15-year hospitality career, but the most rewarding part is instilling wisdom and experience in his students.
“I feel like, not only am I making memories every day at the hotel, but I’m making the memory makers,” he says. “I impress upon my students every day that if they don’t enjoy enhancing other people’s lives and making once-in-a-lifetime memories for people, then they’re in the wrong business.”
Cortright says the goal of Grand Canyon University is to “raise up the west side of Phoenix and enhance the lives of everyone involved.” He believes the hotel is instrumental in perpetuating the mission of the university. In fact, the Phoenix Police Department recently commended him for pushing crime out of the area at an alarming rate. When asked what his secret is, Cortright says safety has always been one of the hotel’s biggest priorities.
“We put a large gate around the whole place, we put security officers at every entrance and we make sure that everyone who comes in and out of here is here for the right reasons,” he explains. “If that means that we have a hotel room sit empty, well we’re just fine with that, and maybe that’s not an option for every hotel in the Valley, but it’s the only option for a hotel that’s near a university.”
Cortright says his education at ASU was a solid foundation in teaching him about how to run a business, but it was his time at the Ritz Carlton that gave him the tools he needed to effectively train and educate his students. Cortright says it’s something that is hard to translate in a classroom.
“They invest in their staff and their managers in training…learning how to treat people, from our employees to our guests,” he says. “There’s really no reason to treat our employees any differently than we treat our guests and The Ritz-Carlton has a motto that says ‘We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen’ and that phrase right there really stuck with me.”
In August, the hotel opened its restaurant, Canyon 49, named after the year GCU was established. With a menu that includes coffee, cocktails, sandwiches, burgers and pizza, Cortright says he wanted to create a versatile menu that would allow patrons to “eat there three or four times a week and still be experiencing something new each time.”
Canyon 49 features a patio with a gaming area that includes a beanbag toss and ping pong and hosts happy hour from 4 to 6 p.m. Cortright says the mood shifts into a “late-night coffee bar” featuring live music from GCU students.
“What we’ve tried to create is an environment that somebody would be able to have a lunch in 30 minutes or stay for three hours,” he says.
Cortright says the hotel’s next project is to add some banquet or ballroom space, or even a full-blown conference center, but the main focus will always be education and lasting memories.
“You develop strong, professional relationships with these people, you get so much joy out of making other people happy that it’s almost unfair to get paid to do it,” he says.