The School of Hospitality Business Honors Industry and Alumni Leaders during National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago

The School of Hospitality Business Alumni Association hosted its Annual Gathering of Leaders on Monday, May 18, at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers during the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago.

Hospitality leaders with awardsThe event honored the following hospitality leaders:

Emerging Alumni Leaders

  • Erik Liedholm (BA ’93), Owner/Distiller, Wildwood Spirits Co. & Partner, John Howie Restaurant Group
  • Blair Wills (BA ’02), President/Chief Operating Officer, StepStone Hospitality

Honorary Alumnus of the Year

  • Ron Vlasic, CHA, Regional Vice President of Hotels, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants

Alumnus of the Year

  • Billy Downs (BA ’88), Special Events Director, Team World Vision

School Director Dr. Michael McCall welcomed the honorees and guests, and thanked the generous sponsors of Annual Gathering of Leaders. He then introduced Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Dean of the Broad College of Business at MSU, who offered his congratulations.

Erik Liedholm grew up in East Lansing, and his Wildwood Spirits Company is named for the street he lived on. The spirits were first created at MSU, where his father Carl is a popular Economics professor. Wildwood Spirits’ vodka, Stark Vatten, and gin, Kur, have received international acclaim, including the Best in Show at the 2014 World Wine and Spirits Competition in New York. Erik has an Advanced Level Sommelier (Level III) degree from the Court of Master Sommeliers, and last fall won the Somm Slam competition at the International Chefs Congress in New York. He is an accomplished chef, the youngest member ever inducted into the Chicago chapter of the Les Amis d’Escoffier.

As partner and company wine director for John Howie Restaurant Group in Seattle, Erik and his wine lists have won numerous awards, including Best New Wine List in America by Food and Wine Magazine; Best Wine List in Seattle by; and Best of Award of Excellence by Wine Spectator magazine.

And recently, Erik became the Pacific Northwest’s first certified coffee sommelier, completing the Nespresso Coffee Sommelier certification program in Switzerland. An expert in wine, distilled spirits, and coffee, it is no wonder Erik is an engaging and popular guest speaker in The School’s classes when he returns to East Lansing! He also serves on the Alumni Association’s Executive Board of Directors.

Blair Wills also has longstanding MSU ties, with an entire family who are Spartan graduates, including his father, Bob, who graduated from The School in 1970. Blair took an early interest in the finance and real estate investment management side of the hospitality industry, and worked closely with Drs. Ray Schmidgall and A.J. Singh as an undergraduate. He joined a young company, Hotel Asset Value Enhancement (hotelAVE) as one of its first associates, and was promoted to vice president, responsible for the asset management of a portfolio of properties which included Marriott, Hyatt, independent, and other luxury branded hotels.

In 2010, Blair joined StepStone Hospitality, a sister management company to hotelAVE, as president and COO. The company specializes in management for full-service and select-service hotel and restaurant operations. He serves on The School’s Alumni Association Appointed Board of Directors and The School’s Real Estate Investment Management Advisory Council. Blair returns to campus frequently to guest lecture in Dr. Singh’s Hotel Investments and Asset Management “short course” for students in the Real Estate Investment Management Specialization. He is an active participant in The School’s Spartan Sponsors Mentor Program, and has assisted students in the annual Hospitality Asset Managers Association student case study competition.

Ron Vlasic, the regional vice president for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, is based in Chicago at Hotel Allegro. He has long been a Spartan, advocating for School students seeking internships and employment with his company, and providing School students with scholarships through the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association (IH&LA) Education Foundation.

Widely known as an expert in the boutique hotel segment, Ron gives operational support to 18 of Kimpton’s properties and acts as the liaison to the various hotel ownership groups and the company’s home office. He is also effective in gaining political support from local, state and national legislators in favor of tourism for the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois. Ron has cultivated a number of unique programs and partnerships, including working with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s office as advisor on the Retro-Fit Chicago program focused on making hotels and high rise buildings in Chicago energy efficient.

In addition, Ron serves on numerous boards and foundations, and is the 2015 Chairman-elect for the IH&LA Education Foundation. In 2013, Ron was chairman of the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA) and a board member for the National Restaurant Association (NRA). His commitment to education and professionalism in the hospitality industry has been evident throughout his more than 25-year career.

Billy Downs (BA ’88) has energized hundreds of School students in recent years, serving as “Coach” and mentor to the passionate foodies and students interested in the restaurant business. He has gone the extra mile again and again to offer advice, encouragement, and enrichment opportunities to the students, and he and his wife, Amy, have established an endowment in The School to support them.

Billy’s enthusiasm is contagious, and it helped him as a young entrepreneur to establish bd’s Mongolian Barbeque in 1992. He led the restaurant company to phenomenal success and along the way earned numerous awards, including the NRA’s Humanitarian of the Year and the Presidential Friendship Medal, which was presented by the President of Mongolia.

After selling the company in 2008, Billy has been passionate about a number of business and charitable projects, and he became the Special Events director for Team World Vision, helping to bring clean water and sanitation to villages in Zambia and elsewhere. The same selflessness and energy he brings to Team World Vision, he has brought to The School’s Alumni Association, for which he served as president in 2012-2013. He was inducted last fall in the Alumni Association Hall of Fame Class of Alumni Leaders, and earlier in May was the speaker at The School’s Newest Alumni Celebration where his oldest daughter, Amanda (BA ’15) was celebrating her graduation from The School.

President of The School’s Alumni Association Chuck Day (BA ’91) said after the event, “Our honorees make us all very proud. Each of them is successful, professionally, and each ‘gives back’ again and again. They are inspiring.”

Chuck also noted the gracious hospitality on display by the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers staff and its General Manager Mark Lauer, a good friend to The School over many years.

Annual Gathering of Leaders was preceded by a day-long meeting of The School’s Alumni Association Executive and Appointed Boards of Directors, as well as an afternoon networking event for young alumni living and working in Chicago, alumni in town for the National Restaurant Association Show, and students in The School. A reception followed the award ceremony, allowing for continued relationship building.