Justin Taillon was eating a banana in the TRC Hotel, an eco-lodge near the Amazon River in Peru when a large macaw flew in, settled for a moment on his shoulder, grabbed the banana and flew away again. “I was surprised by how much it hurt,” says Taillon, a new professor in the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. “Macaws have very powerful claws, and I was actually bleeding from where he had grabbed me.”
Of course, it was easy for the macaw to get into the dining room because the space was open on all sides to the jungle that surrounded the hotel. The hotel design is a little different from most; each of the guest rooms has a floor, ceiling and just three walls. The fourth is left open to the jungle outside. “You can hear the jaguars and wild parrots and monkeys out there,” says Taillon, “but really the biggest worry is some of the tiny bugs that can carry diseases.” The hotel only has electricity for about an hour each day.
The place where Taillon had his banana stolen was one of four hotels hand built by the Ese’eja people, a small indigenous tribe with only about 575 members in the town of Infierno. The community decided to create these hotels as a way of supporting themselves and introducing visitors to their tribal traditions; profits are shared by all.
“The average income has gone from about $600 a year to more than $4,000 a year,” says Taillon. “Now they can have TVs, Pepsi and Cheetos. Many celebrities – including Oprah – have stayed at the hotels.” Taillon’s contribution as a consultant was to help them improve their management processes.
His stint in Amazonian Peru was just one of the projects he has worked on, demonstrating his belief that “it’s really important in hospitality to have lots of real-world experience.” He worked full-time for the Hilton hotel chain while working on his undergraduate degree at the University of Houston’s College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, and was already a hotel manager by the time he graduated.
After graduation, he decided that he wanted to get a master’s degree – and wanted to study internationally. Born in the United States to Canadian parents, Taillon picked the University of Guelph because of its stellar reputation in the hospitality industry. “At the time I enrolled, I was thinking I would work in consulting or a corporate office, but when I started doing my thesis, I realized that I loved research.”
After finishing his MBA in 2007, he returned to Texas, where his parents live, and completed a PhD at Texas A&M University. There he became involved in several research and consulting projects through the university’s extension program, which invites outside organizations to apply for assistance from professors and graduate students. That’s how he ended up with the Ese’eja, helping to sort out food budgets and planning.
Another project in the town of Calvert, Texas, showed him how prejudices can persist in some communities. The late Andrew “Rube” Foster, a former resident of Calvert, had been nominated to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the town was given a plaque to mark the occasion. The question Taillon was brought in to answer: where to put up the plaque?
He explains: “The town was segregated along racial lines. Foster had been one of the founders of baseball’s Negro League, and the black residents wanted to have the plaque in the park on their side of town, to inspire other black children. The white residents wanted it in the baseball park where Foster actually played, on their side of town.” In the end, after several town meetings, they were able to reach a compromise and put the plaque on Main Street – right down the middle.
Taillon’s actual PhD dissertation was based on a certification program he developed for fishing guides in the town of Rockport-Fulton, Texas. “This town is on a bay that is a famous fishing area,” he says. “Roosevelt and other presidents have come here to fish.” There are about 600 guides in the town, but when tourists eager to head out on the water asked which ones they should hire, the hotel staff wouldn’t know who was good and who wasn’t.
Taillon’s program not only helped the fishing guides do a better, safer and more reliable job of taking tourists out to fish, it taught them how to manage their work as a business. “Now the hotels can confidently recommend the guides who have the certification, because those guides know how to treat people well, how to conduct the trips safely, and how to share interesting information about the area’s culture and history.”
Having had the experience of completing his master’s here, Taillon is delighted to be back at Guelph and is already planning new research projects. “I’m interested in the implementation of sustainable technologies,” he says. “The Canadian government provides huge subsidies for organizations to do this, but I’m interested in seeing what can be done in places such as some South American countries where those subsidies don’t exist.”
He also plans to study the concept of branding for communities. “I’m interested in what gives communities their identities, what makes a person feel that they belong there, and how communities sometimes develop these brands as advertising.”
While Taillon’s parents remain in Houston, he has other relatives in southern Ontario who have helped him make the transition to Canada. When not fighting off hungry macaws or conducting research, he likes to play tennis (He won the Texas state championship in 1999) and other sports.