As we usher in a new decade of Hoosier Hospitality, it’s important to reflect on those that got us to where we are now: a must-visit destination deemed #1 Convention City in America by USA Today, home to a #1 airport in North America, and a city teeming with high caliber restaurants, unique hotels, and cultural institutions that welcome visitors from around the world. It’s the people at each of these stops along a traveler’s itinerary that makes our city what it is and leaves a lasting impression.
The 29th Annual ROSE Awards, which stands for Recognition of Service Excellence, allows us to honor 75 of the nearly 83,000 people that make up our hospitality workforce. Eight individuals were selected to take home the award for demonstrating exceptional service. Below you’ll find their inspiring stories.
Maria is always on time, picks up extra shifts, is able to work in any department, and has a sense of urgency, friendliness, positivity, and professionalism that is unmatched. You may find her lending a helping hand in another department, but at the end of the day, she's charged with supporting the housekeeping team. There are 92 hotels worldwide in this hotel portfolio, and many credit Maria with taking this Indy-based hotel to the 14th highest ranked hotel in the world for service scores on room cleanliness. There's no doubt she does her job to perfection, but Maria's ability to create a family dynamic throughout the hotel is what keeps the team bonded. She views the hotel team as part of her family, and in fact, her own son and daughter work there. It's fair to say she's a mom of 2 by night and a mom of 92 by day. She's the first one in to work each morning to brew a pot of coffee for the team, and when it's going to be a busy day, she will stop by to pick up donuts as added fuel for her hotel family. She does this with her own money and refuses to be paid back. Maria has served as the Room Inspector for Renaissance Indianapolis North Hotel for the past 8 years and has been in the industry for 16.
Niles Richard "Dick" Matlock
For 55 years, Dick has been in his role. The years are impressive, but what's most impressive is that his service-above-self mentality has never wavered in all that time. He's a father, a husband, a grandfather, a volunteer firefighter, a Boy Scouts volunteer, and one of the most dedicated employees at IMS. It's obvious he's passionate about his career and is incredibly loyal, because for the past 55 years he's been commuting nearly an hour from his home on the far southeast side to the far west side. His nomination included several examples of Hoosier hospitality, like this one about a family of 4 visiting from France. Dick noticed the family walking behind the facility when he stopped them to notify them that the area was closed due to a special event. The family thanked him and walked away a little sad. He noticed this, got in his personal car, and asked them to get in. He gave them an extended tour of the facility! It's obvious he provides visitors with experiences they'll talk about for years. A similar story came from a family from Australia who brought their 8-year-old son to visit. Again, the facility was closed for a special event, and again, Dick pulled up, asked them to get in, and gave them a tour. He even took them to his office and gave the boy some memorabilia from his own office shelf.
In all the years of the ROSE awards, only one other worker with this profession has been a winner. And there's hardly another hospitality role in which an individual gets to spend more one-on-one time to engage with a visitor. In a 20-minute drive from the airport to downtown, a taxi driver could learn a visitor's life story, genuinely welcome them to the city, and turn a new visitor into someone excited to be here, excited to explore, and ready to book a return visit. When David moved to the U.S. from Kenya 18 years ago, he just wanted to be on American soil. He tried the concrete jungle of New York City for a year and then wove his way down to Indy, knowing his uncle had found this a great place to call home. Now after 14 years behind the wheel of a taxicab, 12 hours a day and 6 days a week, he just keeps driving and welcoming visitors from all over the world. Even though his hometown is 8,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who knows the map of Indy better. When the ROSE committee joined drivers at the monthly taxicab team meeting to announce David's nomination, the room erupted and the support was palpable. David has spent the past 4 years volunteering as a board member of the Indianapolis Worker Justice Center, elected by local drivers as their representative. He advocates on behalf of the 500-plus Indy-based drivers for equitable taxi regulation. He's spent countless hours surveying the needs of fellow drivers, drafting language for the Taxi Reform Study Commission, and meeting with an attorney to compile a commission presentation. On December 9, the City County Council passed the recommendations with a unanimous vote, making changes to modernize the industry, lower out of pocket expenses to taxi drivers, and therefore increase the wages of the people spending one-on-one time with the visitors who bring $5.4 billion of economic impact to the city. He has served as a taxi driver for the past 14 years in Indy and with AAA Hoosier Cab for the past 3.
Sara moved to Indy in 2016 to start fresh. With degrees in math and English, she had been a teacher but was looking for something different and a bit more fast paced. Her employer recalls her first few weeks at work as she was nervous about being in a new city. She began studying maps and VisitIndy.com's "best of" lists. She studied every convention coming to the city so she could understand their interests. Recently, a visitor with serious allergies stayed at the hotel and was very particular about there being no scent in her room. Although the hotel had diligently prepared for her visit, upon arrival the guest could smell a scent and requested another room. Sara stepped in and took the guest room to room to room until they found the perfect one. The visitor was a nervous traveler on an extended stay and alone in a new place, but she now had a trusted friend. The visitor always asked only for Sara when she came to the front desk, and Sara always had answers for her questions and fulfilled her requests. The thousands of visitors who walk through the hotel's doors each year benefit from her talents and her drive to make every visitor's day better. The Hampton Inn Downtown credits Sara for many of their repeat customers. She has worked there for the past 3 years
Donna is a welcoming face to the 9.4 million visitors that pass through Indianapolis International Airport in a given year. Her team members refer to her as Nancy Drew because of her innate ability to solve any customer service problem. Her nomination included a typed note on letterhead from Robert D. Green of Florida. He had traveled to Indy for a momentous weekend of watching his granddaughter cross the stage at her high school graduation. For him, it was a wonderful, family-filled weekend that had his head in the clouds. So much so, that he misplaced his backpack on the way to the airport to fly back home. He realized it was missing as he went through security, but there wasn't enough time before his flight to go back and re-trace his steps. This is where Nancy Drew comes in. By the time Robert got to his gate, he received a call from Donna saying she had found his backpack. Then by the time he landed in Florida, the backpack was on its way to his front door. Robert grew up in Indiana, and Donna's extraordinary act of service brought out his Hoosier pride. This kind of hospitality is what sets our airport apart. It continues to rank as the number one airport in North America by all authorities: Conde Nast Traveler, Airports Council International, and JD Power. The number one thing these companies' surveys look for is customer service satisfaction. Donna has worked at the airport since 2005.
Baba worked as a bus operator in the city for several years before moving to Washington D.C. After 2 years there, he found he missed Indy and moved back to reunite with IndyGo, his former employer. Although his roots are in West Africa, he happily calls Indy home. His beautiful personality is driven by faith and his belief that it's his duty to be kind to others. He smiles at everyone and takes care of his work family as well as the 750,000-plus passengers who ride monthly. In 2019 alone he put in more than 1,500 hours of overtime. His colleagues note how appreciative they are for his willingness to cover them during shifts. They also tell stories of him challenging others to games of pool, of him always having a stack of jokes ready to tell, and of his ability to lift others up with motivational speeches and promises to pray for others as they struggle. On his route he noticed a man struggling with a manual wheelchair daily. Baba located just the right chair to help him, bought it with his own money, and improved this man's life immensely. Baba has worked with IndyGo for 10 years and has been in the hospitality industry for 15.
At 84-years-young, Frances has spent the better part of her life serving Indy visitors. After 2 decades of working part-time as an usher, she was recruited to come on full-time and help coordinate events booked in the theatre. Since 2005 she's covered every event and given countless tours. She knows every inch of the theatre, treats the building as if it's the finest of china, and works to find its next biggest fan from the highest of donors to the youngest of children. She wants you to know and love this 100-year-old plus building, and it's nothing but love that she has for each and every patron that fills the 1,786 seats. With her nomination came stories of her extraordinary service. Once she noticed a bat flew into a wedding reception and onto the scene of family photos. Before anyone noticed, she accosted the bat and shooed it out the door. She goes above and beyond for every event, even when it means very long days on her feet. Like when 18,000 convention attendees were in Indy for the Saturday morning Beach Body workout on Monument Circle. Although not required to do so, she spent 22 hours over the weekend helping make the event a success. She also worked day and night during the 2012 Super Bowl to help NBC host Jimmy Fallon Live from the theatre. Jimmy Fallon was so elated with the service she provided that he personally invited her to the post-show private party. Finally, one event she didn't have to plan! Another time, during a performance at the theatre, a visitor had an unfortunate accident in the restroom and soiled her pants. The visitor was embarrassed and distraught that she was going to miss the show she had traveled to Indy specifically to see. Frances grabbed a tablecloth, make a makeshift skirt out of it, wrapped it around the woman's waist, and then quietly escorted her and her date to different seats in the back of the venue so they could still catch the show. Meanwhile, she took the soiled pants, washed and dried them before the last note rang from the stage, and got them back to the visitor so she could go on her way like nothing happened. Not only does she work full-time at Hilbert Circle Theatre, but she is also an usher at Bankers Life Fieldhouse for events, and is also a volunteer usher at Notre Dame football games. She's everywhere with her smile and constant, welcoming voice. One visitor to Bankers Life Fieldhouse said she brightens the day and makes everyone feel like the most important person inside the venue. "The way she has been orchestrating sections 225 and 226 for the last 20 years is the true definition of Hoosier Hospitality and it’s truly what makes our city special. Her love for life is contagious and I know adds to the in-game experience for all guests in her section. It is the people like her that make me proud to be a Hoosier.” When asked about retirement, Frances said, "The retirement train came, but I'm still standing on the platform. I enjoy what I do too much". She has worked at Hilbert Circle Theatre for 34 years and at Bankers Life Fieldhouse for 20.
93 years ago the corner of Indiana Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Street was alive. Sounds of jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong echoed. In 1927 the doors were opening to the grandest theatre -- The Walker -- named after Madam CJ Walker, America's first female self-made millionaire. Weaving in and out of the bustle of the Avenue was 4-year-old Tom Ridley. He was at the Walker's front door the day it opened. Fast forward to today and he's still there, at the front door. Through those years his stories have accumulated. And does he have stories! Tom came of age in the midst of Jim Crow and the civil rights movement. He speaks of this trying time, but also recounts the magical evenings where he would crowd into packed music venues and cafes on the Avenue and dance to the music of these homegrown jazz musicians who would later find national acclaim. He could probably still break out the jitterbug! He attended Crispus Attucks High School but left to enlist in the United States Army. He sailed on the Duchess of Bedford to fight during the Allied invasions of Normandy. Back then he was a proud member of Unit #3684 Quartermaster Truck Company, 5th regiment. Now, he again lives a stone's throw from his beloved theatre and that's where you'll find him. As a volunteer docent and the face of the Walker Theatre today, he stands ready to take visitors on countless tours. He'll show them the ballroom where he's danced many a time with all the pretty ladies. He'll walk these visitors up the stairs and onto the balcony -- the stairs he climbed as a 5 year old, as a teenager, as a veteran, as a husband, as a dad, and today as a 97-year-old-man. Much like Madam's story, Tom has fought adversity and remains an inspiration to his culture and his Indy community. Visitors are blessed to have experienced his ability to keep oral traditions alive while blending anecdotal and research-based discourse. From the grand opening in 1927 to this June when we celebrate the grand re-opening, Tom, the walking encyclopedia, will have another rich story for his catalog. He has worked as a docent for the past 25 years.