For the past two summers, Helen Gavin has managed White Wolf Lodge in the high country of Yosemite National Park. The lodge is located along the beautiful Tioga Pass Road at an altitude of 8,000 feet. The longtime Collins College faculty member finds that the experience blends two of her fondest things in life – the great outdoors and a love for hospitality. Her teaching expertise is enriched by this practical experience
Interview By Lisa McPheron
Please describe what you do as manager of White Wolf Lodge?
I am responsible for the operations of the 28-room property with 24 tent cabins and four hard-sided cabins with baths, a bathhouse and restaurant with kitchen. The lodge also has a small general store. I oversee a staff of 18 people: two assistant managers; 10 camp helpers; three cooks, and three front office staff. It is basically, the planning, organizing, staffing, directing, controlling and evaluating of the human, financial and physical resources of a seasonal operation. Although I have two very good assistant managers, I find I am constantly busy with a number of issues that crop up; from the generator not working to an adequate supply of food. Forecasting what you will need is critical because almost everything we need to run the lodge is delivered to Yosemite Valley and then trucked up from the valley, 30 miles away.
What are some of the distinctive qualities of the property?
The lodge is located on the edge of a beautiful meadow, in the middle of a Lodgepole Pine forest. The wildflowers can be amazing. The accommodations are rustic, canvas-sided cabins with wood-burning stoves and candles for light. For many of our guests, it is their first time in the wilderness, sleeping in a tent. There is no electricity except for the bath house and the main lodge area. The electricity is powered by a diesel generator that is turned on at 6 a.m. and turned off at 11 p.m. We have a small restaurant, and the cooks do an amazing job of turning out great meals. The guests can have breakfast and dinner in the restaurant and purchase a box lunch for afternoon hikes. Due to the location of the lodge, the company also provides free meals for the employees.
What are some of the unique needs of your guests and how do you try to meet those needs?
We focus on – the experience. Most of the guests are looking forward to a night in the wilderness. In this case, you can drive your car right to your tent. The accommodations include beds with linens and blankets. Most of the guests enjoy the experience, but some may need a bit of help to fully enjoy themselves. This help can include informing guests where to hike, building a fire in a wood-burning stove, a reminder to put their food into a bear box, and learning to walk around in the dark of night, with only the moon and stars above and your flashlight. The most fun is to watch the children climbing on all the granite rock. It is as if they are experiencing the outdoors for the first time.
What are ways you keep your staff motivated when everyone else around them is on summer vacation?
I am lucky in the fact that my staff have specifically chosen White Wolf to work due to its location as well as their own personal interests. Many of the staff are rock climbers and hikers, who thoroughly enjoy the environment here in Yosemite. The challenge to motivation is being able to schedule them based on their own plans as well as our operating needs.
Does your staff live on the premises during the season and if so, what management challenges does that create?
Yes, we all live together, 24/7. Our housing units are the same type of tents the guests use. We live just across the single-lane road from our guests. At times, the staff would like to personalize their living area, but that is not allowed. We must maintain the housing area in a clean and attractive condition. The biggest challenge is the noise factor. We have quiet hours from 10 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. As it happens everywhere, when people get off work, many times they want to let off some steam. However, when that time is 11 p.m., in the middle of the wilderness, sounds carry far and loud. We also eat all our meals together, so discussions at meal time can be quite lively. It can be a challenge for those employees, who might not be used to living and working in a communal type of setting.
How does this management experience influence how you teach at the college?
It is always a challenge to be able to identify with, associate with, and understand the learning processes of our students. How does one reach a student and make the information important to their lives? You need to understand their perspective – just like understanding a guest’s perspective. The greatest influence on me is the staff, the energy, their point of view, and directing them to accomplishing our goal of creating those memorable experiences. One of Cal Poly Pomona’s core values is “learn by doing.” I think that is the most important part of this experience. As we all know, there are theories, ideas, and the “proper” way of doing things. The challenge for me, as well as for our students, is how to take those theories and ideas and implement them in the workplace.
After spending two summers running the lodge, would you recommend it to your students?
Yes. I believe that almost any one of our students could be an assistant manager at White Wolf Lodge, if they were willing to live in a tent for a summer in a wilderness setting. This would give the student the management experience, in a unique setting, and a good understanding of the responsibilities of a management position.
This story originally appeared in the 2012 fall issue of Collins magazine.