LEWISTON -- While their classmates relaxed or worked seasonal jobs on summer vacation last year, Niagara University students Matthew J. Morinello and Elena C. Oxford were in Italy getting a leg up on their future careers.
The two seniors -- who hope to land permanent jobs one day in the hospitality industry -- were among 10 Niagara students who did three-month working internships at luxury hotels along Lake Como.
They learned various aspects of the hotel business while they put a little shine on their Italian language skills, which they studied the previous year.
There was little room for sightseeing or lakeside lounging in this European vacation resort area in northern Italy, near Switzerland.
It was a working trip, said Morinello, 21, and Oxford, 20.
"I got a wide range of experience working at the Villa Flori," said Morinello, a Niagara Falls native. "It's a smaller four-star property with about 45 rooms in Cernobbio on Lake Como. I did everything from working in the hotel restaurant and kitchen to manning the front desk."
Doing the little jobs taught Morinello what needs to be done in the trenches of hotel operations to make customers happy and the business successful, he said.
"I worked a month in the restaurant doing chores like helping the servers, cleaning, busing -- any task you could think of," he said. "After that, I moved to the kitchen, where I actually worked as a line-level cook . . .
"I saw the things that need to be done to run a good food service operation. That was difficult because there was no English spoken, so it became very important for me to understand the Italian language.
"I finished my stay working the front desk. That was a great experience because I had one-on-one time with guests who were checking in. That included Americans and people from other countries, like Germany and Switzerland. It was a great international experience, which I think is an important thing to have in this business."
Before he's done, Morinello said, he hopes to work in another foreign country, possibly China, to widen his experience.
Gary D. Praetzel, dean of the university's College of Hospitality and Tourism Management, said Morinello and Oxford are just two of 30 Niagara students who have done internships in Italy since the program began in 2004. Ten go each summer.
In return, he said, Niagara has 10 Italian students from the University of Insubria from the Lake Como area come here to study at its College of Hospitality for a semester each fall.
The student exchange program was set up by the two universities, the Hospitality and Tourism Association of Lake Como, the Town of Como Hoteliers Association and the Como Chamber of Commerce.
>On the right path
Morinello said the internship convinced him he's following the right career path.
"I want to get a great overview of everything so I can eventually become a general manager and run a hotel some day," he said.
Morinello's quest for knowledge in the hospitality industry did not begin in Italy. He has worked at Favorite's Pizzeria in Lewiston and currently works the front desk at the new Crowne Plaza Hotel on Third Street in Niagara Falls, formerly the Holiday Inn Select.
Oxford, who hails from Skaneateles, outside Syracuse, said she did her internship at the Villa d'Este, "one of the only five-star hotels in Italy," where she was thrown unexpectedly into sales and marketing.
That hotel also is on Lake Como in Cernobbio.
"They happened to be short-staffed, so they gave me a ton of responsibility," Oxford said. "Normally, because you are new, from outside the country, and aren't going to be there long, they give interns busy work because it's hard for them to teach you everything you may possibly need to know. But they needed me there.
"They had just one woman who had begun to do the marketing, and I had just finished a marketing course at Niagara. I know it sounds silly, but my course work related to everything she was trying to do. It was a wonderful experience because I was able to work side by side with her, like a regular staff member. I did the work and sat in on staff meetings with the hotel's general manager. I did a lot of things and helped out.
"One of my first assignments was to create an e-mail targeting different groups in the United States that would be most likely to come to the hotel. I turned out to be very useful."
Oxford also worked in reservations and with people in sales, doing contracts with tourism companies that want to use the hotel later this year.
She said Niagara University prepared her to be successful in Italy and in the future.
Morinello felt the same way.
"I felt overprepared," he said. "Niagara gives you the practical things you need to know to do the job."
Oxford said she found her study of Italian came in handy because she worked in an office with 10 people who were all speaking Italian -- and "speaking it fast."
As for previous experience, Oxford said she got involved in an internship through Niagara University with the American Hospitality Academy in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where she worked at Kingston Plantation in 2005.
She said it was tough but noted that the foreign students in that program gave her a valuable lesson in attitude.
"Sometimes I thought that internship was terrible," she said. "But the foreign students did the work every day with a smile on their faces and were happy to be there every minute. I tried hard to portray that image in Italy."
>The "Ugly American"
Both students said the thing they liked best about their Italian internships was the people they worked with.
"Every day, we would go out to breakfast with the assistant to the general manager and other people with all these huge titles. But they are just the coolest people I've ever met," Oxford said.
She said working at her hotel was like being part of a team.
"Everyone is completely involved and works well together because they know it's not always easy to be formal to guests that are so rich that they demand the most unbelieveable things. At the Villa d'Este, people are paying $1,000 to $2,000 per night per room, so they're not going to ask for an extra towel. They'll want sushi with a certain type of sauce, and you're going to have to figure out how to get it for them."
At the front desk, Oxford said she found most American guests were glad to find an American on the hotel staff.
"I don't think there's anything more comforting than that when they're so far from home. They all wanted to chat with you," she said.
Morinello also saw the flip side to that scenario.
"I ran into one of those people they call 'Ugly Americans' at the hotel restaurant," he said. "I was bringing a couple some water and asked how they were doing. The lady said, 'You speak very good English. Where did you learn?' When I told her that I was from New York, she looked at me and said, 'I didn't travel all the way to Europe to have an American waiter. Shoo!' And I'm standing in this formal restaurant wondering how to react. Is she joking or not? She looked pretty stern, so I walked away, found an Italian waiter and sent him to the table. Some people you run into are just unbelieveable."
As for Oxford's future, she said she already has a job when she graduates. As of June 2, she said, she will be a manager trainee at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. She will be in the front office managing employees who work receptions and other activities, handling the employee payroll and other paperwork.
Morinello said he has not settled on what he will be doing next year. He said he might consider graduate school or finding a job in the industry that will provide him the experience he needs to move up in the hospitality business.
Where: It's in northern Italy, about 30 miles north of Milan.
What: The third-largest lake in Italy is a popular European tourist destination.
Geology: The lake, shaped like an upside-down Y, was cut by glaciers, like New York's Finger Lakes.
Population: About 71,000 people live in 31 municipalities that hug the lake.
The Villa d'Este: In Cernobbio, near the southwest corner of the lake, it was built in 1568 by Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio. It was turned into a luxury hotel in the late 19th century.
Famous guests: Have included Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Paul McCartney, Sharon Stone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Alfred Hitchcock and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Shot here: The music video, "Cool," by Gwen Stefani, and parts of the "Star Wars" movie, "Attack of the Clones."