By H.M Cauley | Atlanta Business Chronicle
Debra Cannon has been on both sides of the hospitality table. For years, she worked the industry side as the human resources manager for The Ritz-Carlton hotels in Buckhead and downtown. In 1991, she switched to teaching at the Cecil B. Day School of Hospitality Administration at Georgia State University.
But moving to the academic environment didn’t mean giving up her connections to metro Atlanta’s hospitality scene. Instead, Cannon, who is being inducted into the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau’s Hospitality Hall of Fame, has worked diligently to keep a place on both ends of the proverbial table.
“I still love the hospitality industry; it’s a big part of my life,” said Cannon, who became director of the GSU program in 2001. “I’ve always felt that I was still in it, just in a different way. And I’ve felt that I can bring real-life experience to the students. That’s something I’m very proud of. In fact, all of our faculty have been in various segments of the industry, from the restaurant side to club management.”
Having a team that knows the demands of the industry is critical to the school’s success, said Cannon, whose own experience includes running a restaurant and working at the Hyatt in Savannah and the Regency in Atlanta before joining The Ritz-Carlton
It’s so important to be able to bring reality into the classroom while covering the academic fundamentals,” said Cannon. “We’re involved with different professional associations such as the Georgia Restaurant Association
, the ACVB and others to stay connected to the industry while preparing students for the job market of tomorrow. That’s something we do very well.”
Cannon hadn’t considered a career in higher education until a boss at the Ritz-Carlton encouraged her to get involved by teaching a class. In 1985, she became a part-time instructor at GSU.
“I found it was so energizing and exciting to work with the future leaders of the industry,” she said. “After a year, I looked into a Ph.D. program and started studying for a degree in human resources development. It all came together beautifully.”
Cannon joined GSU’s hospitality school at its midpoint. It began in 1973 as a two-year program and gained school status in 1988, before becoming a part of the college of business. Now in its 40th year, the school offers bachelor’s degrees, minors and certificate programs to more than 600 students A new master’s in global hospitality management launched this fall with 18 enrollers.
One of her top priorities, Cannon said, is still being the liaison between the classroom and the kitchen or hotel.
“I’m that linking piece, an effective conduit from academia to the hospitality world,” she said. “By being involved with local groups and companies, I can better understand what the industry’s needs are. At the same time, I’m trying to make sure our students have a seamless transition from academics to career. So our partnership with the industry is incredibly important. We invite people to come to our classes and find out what our students are all about, and they have been more than enthusiastic about doing that. And we help the students understand the industry and how it works.”
Those in the industry say forming that link with students is vitally important. Karen Bremer, executive director of the Georgia Restaurant Association
, has known Cannon since she started at GSU and has been an adviser to the hospitality school.
“She gets how to make academia and businesses work together to educate and empower people to have real-life job skills,” Bremer said. “Three of my seven employees came from her program, and GSU has been very good about working with us on getting interns. She’s very enthusiastic and supportive of the restaurant association, and she gets what our responsibilities are.”
But Cannon is also good at making personal connections beyond the business, Bremer said.
“When I was diagnosed with cancer and when my mother died, her gracious concern for people she works with came through,” she said. “She’s not just a business colleague; she is a genuine, sincere person.”
Eight years ago, cannon recruited Paul Breslin to teach. As a principal with the hotel consulting firm Horwath HTL with a long career with Sheraton, Omni and Hilton, he was a good fit for Cannon’s faculty.
“I love working with her,” said Breslin, the incoming president of the Atlanta Hospitality Alliance. “I’ve known her for 15 years and have served on the board of advisors for the GSU school and taught. To see what she does in the classroom, community and our industry is mind-boggling. I don’t know how somebody can fit all that in a day. She has mastered the ability to multitask at a different level than the rest of us.”
Along with her professional responsibilities, Cannon is an avid volunteer, he said. “She’s always the first to volunteer, whether it’s a walk-a-thon or the St. Patrick’s Day Parade,” he said. “If there’s an industry event going on, there’s a 95 percent chance you’ll see Debby Cannon there. She’s not just a presence but a leader who makes a difference.”
Much of Cannon’s energy has been spent on the ACVB. She has served on the board of advisors since 2001 and been on committees on diversity and restaurants. In 2011, she joined the executive committee. “The ACVB is a great way for the hospitality industry to work together to make Atlanta as marketable and attractive as possible,” Cannon said. “for me, being involved with ACVB has been a top priority.”
Cannon has connected her students with that priority as well. She currently has a class working with the ACVB on ways Atlanta can become more of a gateway city.
“What do we need to become better equipped to help international visitors?” she asked. “This class is working on a project about topics we need to provide better training. Does that mean training on dietary needs? Better communication and understand taboos? Signage? I think we’re at a very pivotal point right now. With the Georgia Aquarium, World of Coke, the College Football Hall of Fame, the Ferris wheel, the streetcars and the new stadium, Atlanta’s position as a top destination is going to jump even higher. A lot of things need fine-tuning, and we can work together to do that.”