MGAC Impacts: Erica Killam on the Soul of Hospitality, the Power of Pastry, and Giving Old Hotels New Life
The Impact Blog is a spotlight series that highlights and celebrates the diverse employees that make MGAC tick. Beyond their day-to-day schedules, we want to know how they have a greater impact on their colleagues, their company, and the communities in which they live and work. We want to know what makes them get out of bed in the morning, what led them to their current role, and what they hope their lasting impact will be.
Today, we get to know Erica Killam, Senior Project Manager at MGAC.
MGAC: Hi Erica! It’s great to have you join us on the Impact Blog. Tell us what you do here.
Erica Killam (EK): I’m a senior project manager in the hospitality team, based out of our DC office. I’m focused mostly on large-scale renovations for full-service, four- or five-star hotels.
MGAC: And how long have you been with the firm?
EK: I celebrated three years in December.
MGAC: Congratulations! What were you doing before you joined us?
EK: I was working for a hospitality group in Bethesda, MD, as their assistant vice president of capital assets. Which is a fancy way to say I managed every maintenance and renovation project for their portfolio of (at the time) 21 hotels.
MGAC: And how were you introduced to MGAC?
EK: I met MGAC when we interviewed the firm to do some project management for us. So I actually interviewed them first, and was really impressed. At the time, I’d been looking to move on to a new company, and a few weeks after that meeting, I saw a job posting at MGAC. Then, they interviewed me. And as they say, the rest was history.
MGAC: The power of a good first impression! What drew you to this line of work?
EK: I am hospitality, born and bred. My entire career has been in it, in one way or another. My undergrad degree is from the Cornell Hotel School in Hotel Management, and coming out of school, I went into operations. I was a restaurant manager, a hotel manager, a pastry cook—you name it, I did it. I ended up on the opening team for a new ground-up hotel, and shared office space with the general contractor and architect. I thought to myself, “This is where it’s at. I want to develop hotels!” A couple of years later, I got a master’s degree in interior design at Pratt Institute, which opened the door to project management.
MGAC: What a journey. So you’ve seen both sides of the industry—that must be a great benefit to you and your clients.
EK: Absolutely. When we renovate hotels, it’s obviously very disruptive. More often than not, we’re renovating the property as it remains open, so there are guests and employees and all sorts of people who have to be involved. So since I’ve been that person—that manager—I understand their position, and can speak to their concerns a little better. That’s a big help for a lot of my clients, and for me, it’s a great culmination of everything I’ve done in the past.
MGAC: So very true. What impact do you hope to make through your work?
EK: The soul of hospitality is that we’re doing this for guests. They’re traveling to us, and we’re hosting them in our “home.” Being from the world of operations, that’s still my perspective. I’m renovating hotels so someone can stay there, get married there, celebrate something special there. Hotels are often an important piece of their communities, so when you’re renovating, you’re stepping into that.
MGAC: Knowing you’ve spent your career in the hospitality space, we’re curious what you wanted to be when you were a kid?
EK: Well, my very young self wanted to be a cowgirl!
MGAC: No kidding! What do you think she’d think of where you ended up?
EK: I’m personally very happy with where I am, though I’m sure my childhood self would be like, “What?” I didn’t even know this job existed, but that’s just how careers go. You find your skills, and it all evolves from there.
MGAC: What’s keeping you busy these days?
EK: My big project right now is a renovation of the Hilton Crystal City here in Arlington, VA, for Starwood Capital Group. We’re about a year and a half in, with likely a year and a half to go. There are a lot of interesting things at play, since it’s an older building. That always makes it fun.
MGAC: What do you like about working on old buildings?
EK: They’re educational. I always say: old buildings, new surprises. Ground-up projects are interesting because you’re starting from scratch, but renos are even more interesting to me, because you’re not. Hotels change hands often, so they’re not always the greatest record-keepers. You really have to put on your thinking cap, get the right resources in place, and find the right consultants, because you’re often rebuilding the system altogether. It can start to feel like an archeological dig.
MGAC: That’s a great way to see it! How often do you work on renovations, as opposed to new builds?
EK: Renovations are common—both for us, and hotels in general. These older properties tend to change hands when the projects are bigger than just maintenance. When the previous owner couldn’t, or didn’t want to, renovate. So they put the property up for sale. At that point, you’ll have a new owner with a multi-million-dollar restoration project and the financial backing to take it on. And that’s when they call in the experts.
MGAC: Makes sense. That’s no small feat!
EK: That’s what’s so nice about working for a firm like MGAC. There are a lot of resources we’ve worked with at one point or another. Have I personally ever built a heat exchange system from scratch? No. But I can go around the office and immediately get some great names.
MGAC: What challenges have you been faced with so far?
EK: Beyond renovations being full of surprises, we’re still dealing with fallout from the pandemic. For example, I recently had to try to get enough caulk for an entire building. I quickly learned the caulk industry supply chain has been completely messed up, and it definitely impacted the project. And that’s just one example. In the middle of the pandemic, I couldn’t get any mattresses for a renovation in Lexington, KY. Turns out, there’s a chemical in mattresses that was also going into personal protective equipment, so mattress companies couldn’t get it.
MGAC: Who would have thought!
EK: Never in all my years have I been faced with issues like this. The challenges are often things you never saw coming. But it’s been educational—we’ve learned so much about how all this interconnects, and we’ve come out smarter and wiser about our jobs. In the future, we’ll be even quicker on our feet when problems arise.
MGAC: That’s a great perspective. What at MGAC has made an impact on you?
EK: The resources of my colleagues. Here in the DC office alone, we have several floors of people who I can ask questions and run problems by. That’s made me that much better at my job. Even though I only work on hotels, at the end of the day, they’re still buildings. So whether or not a colleague has worked on a hotel, they still may have run across the same problem. That’s been a blessing for me. It’s a major reason I came to MGAC, and the reason I’m still here.
MGAC: On that note, what have you found most rewarding about your job?
EK: I mentioned I used to work as a pastry cook, and in hotel operations, you do the same thing day in and day out. For example, restaurant managers open, serve, close the restaurant, and do the same thing the next day. There are positives to that, but in project management, no day is like the day before, and no day will be like tomorrow. I’ve found that very rewarding. It really keeps you engaged, learning, and moving forward.
MGAC: So true!
EK: I also appreciate that I don’t have to make 500 macaroons today! Though I’m still a huge baker, and I’m always bringing baked goods into the office.
MGAC: Amazing! We’ve talked quite a bit about your uniquely insider perspective on hospitality projects and the power of teamwork at MGAC. Taking all that into account, what do you want your lasting impact to be?
EK: Keeping people engaged in this industry, both through college mentorship and my interactions at MGAC. I do quite a bit of mentoring for students going into the Cornell undergrad program that I went through. At work, it’s a lot of training and passing along knowledge to the next generation. Like many industries, construction and hospitality are both facing retirement issues, with many senior staff aging out, and are not always the best at pulling younger generations in. So I take this to heart on multiple levels.
MGAC: That’s excellent. What gives you energy?
EK: That constant change I mentioned earlier. Always asking myself, “Ok, how do I solve today’s problem?” (Also, a Diet Coke and a cookie never hurt!)
MGAC: What is your secret to winding down at the end of a long day?
EK: I’m also a huge reader, and I love my Kindle. You can take a library with you everywhere you go. Given how much traveling we do, that’s always nice.
MGAC: Absolutely. Is there a particular book that has made a significant impact on your life?
EK: I’ve had one in my library for a long time, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee. It’s about 700 pages, but I’ve read sections of it throughout my career. Harold McGee is kind of the original Alton Brown—it’s the nerdiest food book I’ve ever read, but I love it. During the pandemic, I set out to read the book from cover to cover, and I’m still going! It’s wonderfully geeky and fantastic.
MGAC: We’ll check that out! What’s your secret to starting the morning off on the right foot?
EK: I go to the gym almost every morning. That’s always fun in hotels, getting to experience all the gyms—the good, bad, and ugly!
MGAC: What’s the first thing you do at work every day?
EK: Check my email.
MGAC: The last thing?
EK: Submit my timesheet to accounting.
MGAC: What’s the most interesting thing we might find in your desk or work bag?
EK: My miniature tape measure—I take it with me everywhere. I get made fun of for it all the time, but whenever someone asks, “Does anyone have a tape measure?” I can always be like, “Why, yes, I do.”
MGAC: Always be prepared! What’s your go-to weekday lunch?
EK: Homemade soup, particularly in January. See: previous professions, I pack my lunch almost every day. This week, I’m making an Italian chicken soup with parmesan rinds.
MGAC: Yum. What’s the most used app on your phone?
EK: Probably Outlook, though that’s a boring answer. No Candy Crush for me. The Kindle app is a close second, though.
MGAC: Describe your job in five words or less.
EK: Make hotels better.
MGAC: Where do you see yourself in five years?
EK: This role has been the perfect culmination of a lot of my previous career steps, so I imagine I will be here at MGAC, renovating a hotel!
MGAC: What’s something your colleagues don’t know about you?
EK: That I did barrel racing when I was younger. When I said earlier that my little girl self wanted to be a cowgirl, that’s because when I was growing up in Colorado, I was big into horses. So I really was on the cowgirl track for a little while.