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10 May 2016

Alumni interview: Jan Willem Verweij, a Chicago success story

When Jan Willem Verweij met a Peninsula hotel recruiter during a Career Days event at Les Roches, he did not suspect that this encounter would change the course of his life. He liked the recruiter and he was interested in the Peninsula, but as a college senior from the Netherlands he had never even visited America, much less imagined moving there to start his career as a management trainee at a 5-star hotel in Chicago.

Nine years later, Jan is the director of front office at the Peninsula Chicago, where he has risen through the ranks as the front desk manager, interim spa manager and assistant director of housekeeping, among other roles.

"I would never have dreamed in a million years this could happen,” Jan says today. “I didn’t plan to stay in one place for 9 years but the opportunities kept coming, I was able to grow, and it never became dull".

Though Jan had worked in London before coming to Les Roches to advance his education, his first impression of Chicago was that it was “huge.” His first apartment was on a busy street that would have been considered a highway in the town where he grew up. “It took me a while to get used to the skyscrapers downtown,” he admits. But it didn’t take long for him to see another side to the Windy City: the friendly, Midwestern side that makes this sprawling metropolis feel like a small town. “I was struck by how nice and inviting people were in Chicago,” he says. “I was able to quickly make a lot of friends who I remain close to to this day.”

In fact, one of the first friends he made in Chicago introduced him the woman who eventually became his wife. “We met in 2011 and married just last year,” Jan says. “Funnily enough, we met through a friend I met one week after I came to the U.S.” So he is doubly glad to have met the Peninsula recruiter that day: had he chosen another path or another country, he might never have met his wife while thriving in a challenging job.

As a Chicagoan for nearly a decade, Jan feels it is an ideal atmosphere for students hoping to succeed in the hospitality industry.

If you want to study in a city where hospitality is strong, you can’t beat Chicago,” he says. “You will definitely not be bored. You will see what you need to learn every day in Chicago’s hotels and restaurants: the concepts and innovations that drive business.

Innovation has played a major role in Jan’s career, and he credits Les Roches with encouraging him to trust his instincts and ideas. “I believe Les Roches allows you to be a thinker,” he observes. “Academically and in life they promote new ideas, and this enabled me to use my creativity to succeed. In my experience, Les Roches graduates are creative thinkers with can-do, hard work attitudes. And that’s the reason I like to hire Les Roches graduates myself.”

Since his arrival in Chicago in 2007, Jan has watched the city evolve in response to the changing economy. “When I got here, Chicago was competing with New York as a luxury destination,” he recalls. “During the recession, it reinvented itself as a destination for business and conventions – like Orlando and Vegas. But now, after losing a few five-star hotels, I am seeing the luxury business start to bounce back.” Citing new luxury hotels from Trump Tower and the Langham as well as a major renovation at the Peninsula Chicago, he says,

"Even as a competitor I am happy to see new hotels coming to Chicago. It shows that there is a demand for 5-star hospitality in the city again."

In addition to the new hotels, several major events have chosen Chicago as their host city. For the second year in a row, the NFL Draft will draw thousands of fans to Grant Park with a three-day spectacle in April. In May, Chicago will present the prestigious James Beard Awards (known as the Oscars of the food world) for the first time. And in June, Chicago will be the first freshwater venue to host the famous America’s Cup boat race, sponsored by Louis Vuitton.

It’s an exciting time to be in Chicago, and students will get to witness a city where the hospitality opportunities are very diverse,” he says. “So many unique, creative ideas can flourish here, from new technology to fresh hotel concepts. Students will see the full spectrum and it will inspire them with new ideas.”